Two methods of producing butter, and two for sugar too

18.04, Tuesday 5 May 2020

Trying to learn why the particular brand we buy is so tasty, I learnt that there are two methods of making butter:

The one I knew about is churning cream. I remember doing this as a kid: we’d collect the cream from the top of milk bottles (incidentally, why does milk and cream no longer separate?) and when we had enough, whip it to make butter.

It turns out this is called sweet cream butter.

The other method is cultured cream butter where the cream is allowed to ferment, like yoghurt, and the sugars turn to lactic acid (a sour taste) and diacetyl (the butter-y taste). It’s then whipped to make butter.

One advantage of cultured butter is that it’s now preserved, so it doesn’t need to be salted like sweet cream butter.

Cultured butter, a.k.a. European butter, is the method used by the brand I like. (Salted) sweet cream butter only became the main butter in the UK due to imports after the Second World War.

Who knew! Everyone apart from me probably. I thought butter was butter.

Sugar. Refined sugar can be made

  • from sugar cane
  • or sugar beet.

I grew up in the UK with two sugar companies: Tate & Lyle, which is I now know is cane sugar. And British Sugar, which it turns out is beet. Globally cane sugar is dominant, but in Europe beet sugar has 80% of the market as beet can be grown domestically.

Cane sugar is of course intrinsically connected to colonialism and slavery, and credit to the Tate galleries for including this in their history:

[It is] not possible to separate the Tate galleries from the history of colonial slavery from which in part they derive their existence.

I mean, it’s not reparations for Empire, it’s a web page. Maybe in the future there will be a Tate Museum of Colonialism to at least begin to recognise and explore the history (and present) on which the UK and, in particular, London is built.

Beet sugar. Years old, a management consultancy friend told me a story that is apparently legendary in, uh, management consultancy circles. The sugar market is insanely regulated: the quantity and prices of sugar beet to be purchased by British Sugar is set by regulation; the price and quantity of sugar sold is similarly fixed. Therefore profit is entirely dependent on operational efficiency.

So management consultants come in to do a bit of time-and-motion here, shave off a few seconds there, etc.



one heroic besuited management consultant realised a by-product of running the refinery was hot air, and this was currently being vented. What if, instead, it could be used to run greenhouses?

And that’s how British Sugar became the largest producer of speciality salad tomatoes in the UK [pdf]. (Here’s a more readable article.)

Anyway, I’m totally into this topic of commodities that have two methods of production, which are completely distinct but - to the consumer, like me - totally interchangeable.

I mean, I’ve only got two so far and I don’t know of any others, but I’m keeping my eyes open.

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