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My visit of the largest sugar factory in Switzerland. Walk in as a beet and exit as a thousand sugar cubes - a life-changing experience.
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Let's follow this guy into the factory itself.

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A conveyor belt grabs the beets in the giant silo ...

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... and pours them into a giant shredder.

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... where they are transformed into thin strips called cossettes in the trade.

Time to kiss the beets bye-bye. The factory is spotlessly clean and everything flows into pipes from now. But right before we enter the factory's main buildings, let's have a look at the most intriguing ingredient used to manufacture sugar.

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Tons of stones are used to make sugar. No shit. A huge parking lot receives limestone straight from the quarry. A bulldozer brings it to a large conveyor belt.

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The belt moves the stones to a huge elevator that rises on a tall tower. I climbed the tower to see the stones be dumped automatically into a gigantic furnace where they are burnt with coke to produce lime. I was quite surprised to see this total vertical integration, from the stone to the sugar cube. The lime will be mixed with water to purify the beetroot juice. The resulting product is sugar, the same thing as the one from sugarcane.

Hervé This, the french food scientist, once told me When I hear people say they don't want to eat agar-agar or some other food additives becasue "it is not natural", I ask them: Have you ever seen how they make sugar? They mix beetroot with lime, how natural does that sound? Everything is natural at the end of the day.

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Let me explain what will happen. The beetroots strips are soaked in hot water where the sugar will dissolve (Rohsaft). Limestone and Coke are baked and mixed with water to obtain lime water (Kalkmilch). This is mixed with the beet water (1. Karbonatation) and CO2 from the lime oven is bubbled through. Most impuritied dissolved in the beetroot juice will then precipitate as the limestone falls down (Ricokalk). The clear juice now contains mostly sugar and water (Dünnsaft). Its water is boiled off until a concentrated juice is obtained (Dicksaft). This will be placed in a rotating juice extractor that will separate the white sugar (Weisszucker) from the uncrystallisable treacle (Melasse).

Note: I apologize for the pictures quality but the factory was way bigger than I thought and my morning was spent running around an Heathrow-sized factory with a huge bags of equipment on my back. I did not get a chance to open my bag of light and conversely the photos suffered.

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Beet juice undergoes carbonatation in these tanks. By mixing with calcium hydroxide (milk of lime), the majority of impurities precipitate and fall down at the bottom of the tank. Carbon dioxide is bubbled through and the lime returns to stone as chalk (calcium carbonate).

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A glimpse into the system - the sugar syrup being boiled to concentrate it.

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This giant cauldron moves constantly to store the crystallized sugar and molasses before it can be sent to the next stage - centrifuge juice extractor.

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Hot water coming from the crystallization machines is cooled down in this tower before being sent back to square one to clean new beetroots.

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These giant rotating centrifugal juice extractors separate the heavier molasses from the sugar.

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A floor below, we see showers of sugar falling from below the drums of the juice extractors.

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Most of the sugar will be stored in dry silos, to be conditioned in consumer-sized bags in an underground printing and packing unit.

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The same sugar bags I use in my kitchen come out by the dozen with the trilingual labelling we use in Switzerland.

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Sugar cubes move out under the watchful eye of an operative ...

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... and are wrapped two-by-two for sale to coffeshops.

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And what did I get for all my efforts? My weight in sugar.

I thank Mr Rudolf Fankhauser for his kind and instructive visit of his factory


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We just call them beets or sugar beets. When I was a child we went bean picking and several of the fields next to the beans were packed with these useful beets growing away!
  • FX's answer→ Diane, do you know if sugar beets are ever used for human consumption like vegetables?

  • #3
  • Comment by dush
Amazing road from being a beet to a sugar cube. Thanks for the illustrated report, it was truly educative
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Dush, glad you liked it!

  • #5
  • Comment by WanderingTaoist
I don't think your photos have suffered, FX, they are quite great. I especially like those with out-of-focus bands on sides of the photo, they appear like they were taken on a scale model, not real factory :) Really nice effect. Was that due to a long telephoto lens with low aperture or was some other thingmajig used?

Nice report, I always wondered what happens to heaps of beets I see on trucks this time of year.
  • FX's answer→ Taoist, this is a tilt-shift lens that shifts the plane of focus. Often you don't realize such a lens has been used in still life pictures, but the classic "visible" use is to make fake scale models. A popular photographer named Vincent Laforet makes great pictures with such lenses, but they are a bitch to master out there in the field!

The best of this didactic article: your smile.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, unfortunately there was not much light and we did not realize that the shutter was like 1/30 for the FX cameo. As a result, I look much softer than I am!

  • #9
  • Comment by hazri
Hi Francois,
Thanks a lot for this informative article. Finally I know where the sugar we consume everyday comes from. Keep up the good work and cheers from Egypt.
  • FX's answer→ Hazri, I think the sugar you get in Egypt might come from sugarcane, because those sugarbeets require an enormous amount of water and the sugar is not really exported (as far I know). Thanks for visiting!

  • #11
  • Comment by Pietro Basile
The pulp left over after the sugar extraction used to be fed to cows. I remember this from my granma's farm but don't know if this is the case anymore. It was smelly and disgusting with this stench saturating the air for days...
And I've never heard of  sugar beets used for
human consumption.
Best regards
  • FX's answer→ Pietro I think they sell the pulp to another company for the same use here. The smell is sickly sweet, for sure, but hey, it's all for a good cause!

Oh my what a cute little sugar cubes. I've never see sugar cubes wrapped in such a pretty colorful papers. I rarely see sugar cubes, it always in powdered/crystallized form. Thank you for your excellent post FX, i can't wait to read your next posts!
  • FX's answer→ Allea they turn out sugar in every shape and form possible. The white cubes go for the coffeshop industry. It's only in Amsterdam that you can buy brown sugar at coffee shops.

  • #15
  • Comment by celso
"The foam floating on the lagoon would make excellent îles flottantes on Hell's dessert menu."
Hi, FX, I love not only your photographs and recipes but also your great sense of humour (I also laughed a lot on your comments about the "scottish diet"). These three things altogether make fxcuisine one of the greatest sites in the whole internet.
  • FX's answer→ Celso, I hope to make a video version some day not too far off. Glad you like FXcuisine!

Incredible work. And worth more than your own weight in sugar! I admire your energy and activity. Keep up the good work. Best regards from Mid-Coast Maine. JG
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Johnny, it was indeed a fun morning!

  • #19
  • Comment by Barbara
Francois, thank you for your wonderful efforts in seeing all these places. Your pictures were fine. I had no idea how sugar beet was turned into sugar. Thank you for sending me these weekly links even if I haven't responded. You have a great site and I told my Swedish friend about it and gave her a link. she loved it too.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Barbara, glad you found this interesting! Next time I'll try to turn the beet into sugar right into my kitchen, that's one step further yet.

  • #21
  • Comment by Alvi
Agar-Agar! never thought this word come across your page. I used to eat that stuff since I grew up in Indonesia. And people eat that a lot in Indonesia. Many sweet desserts are made with agar-agar over there. I dont know whether is healthy or not but my Mom said that it is good for your digestion as it is contains a lot of fiber. Anyway, again you surprised me.. :)
I'd like to know what is your personal opinion about Indonesian food. I mean, you wrote many articles about Italian, French, Swiss, Turkish and Indian cuisine but hardly notice any touch on Asian cuisine such as Chinese, Thai, Malay or Indonesia or something which has to do with Coconut! I wish one day I can be in the same kitche with you, to catch you in action. All the post are seems so delicious. I tried some of them already and everything turned out succesfull! Thanks, FX

Greetings from China,
  • FX's answer→ Alvi, thanks for visiting! Agar agar is nothing but algeas, I think that actuall it is healthier than gelatin that comes from calves' feet and bones. I don't publish much about East Asian cuisine because I don't speak the language, don't travel very much in this part of the world and because our local restaurants from East Asia make mostly fast food. Nothing beyond that, I'd love to put some really wicked Chinese or Indonesian recipes on my site if I could!

  • #23
  • Comment by Paul Tippett
Another fascinating article, you are tireless.  I love the website and look forward to the alerts.  Merci mille fois, François.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Paul, this really was an exhilarating morning and the production manager was very helpful.

  • #25
  • Comment by jmz
Thanks for a really cheerful and informative article!  Way cool!!  [now back to shorting the market...it's ugly here.] Regards!  jmz
  • FX's answer→ JMZ I didn't know they still let people short the market, these days there seem to be nobody buying anything. If you feel depressed, eat some Swiss Sugar!

  • #27
  • Comment by ronald kent
Thanks for the interesting Tour. In the chemistry section, it is LIMESTONE not sand stone which is roasted to give lime and carbon dioxide and subsequently  lime water.

ron kent,
a faithful reader

  • FX's answer→ Ronald, thanks, I have corrected it! Now you might be able to help me further, how could I easily produce Carbon Dioxide in the kitchen? Ideally mix a few common chemicals in a plastic bottle and have a little hose to let me bubble the gas through some liquid. How could I do that?

Francois, how on earth do you always get access to such places, and with personalized tours?!
  • FX's answer→ Sarah, I just call them up and explain that I would like to take pictures and write an article about the factory. Very rarely I get a negative answer, most people are happy and flattered. And then they want pictures! I've been doing this since school though, I wish there was Internet and Digital cameras like those we have today.

Fascinating and informative.  Thank you for the tour.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks, glad you found it interesting!

  • #33
  • Comment by Sean
Ahh...I love watching food being pumped out from these gigantic mechanical devices. Makes be very happy :) Thanks for the post!
  • FX's answer→ Sean I'm glad you share my fascination for food plants!

  • #35
  • Comment by Joanie
What fun!  It is a true pleasure to "travel" with you.  You can be my tour guide any day.  where to next?
  • FX's answer→ Joanie, one more word and I'll have you carry my huge tripod bag around a food plant!

  • #37
  • Comment by Nicole
Great article.  In Savoie people grow sugar beets (known as rave) to feed to cattle and pigs. I don't believe they are considered edible but supposedly they were eaten during the war.  What an interesting visit and great photos,  some of the ones with shallow depth of field did look a lot like photos of a model instead of being of the "real deal.   
  • FX's answer→ Nicole, thanks for visiting! Yes I did the "fake model" look on purpose, it gives a more dramatic look to otherwise mundane scenes, and there was no shortage of ladders and footbridges to shoot from.

  • #39
  • Comment by Shiladitya
Thanks for yet another superb presentation ! I have had a chance to visit a cane sugar plant in operation  when i was a kid, but never had any idea what goes all on inside a beet sugar plant. Thanks to you, now I do!

Regarding your CO2-in-the-kitchen query:
The simplest way would be to add some baking (or washing )soda  to an acid like vinegar or lemon juice in a bottle and  then collecting the bubbling gas via a rubber tube fitted at its mouth (or a stopper with a glass tube running down it).
This is what happens inside most fire extinguishers as well.
  • FX's answer→ Thanks for the tip! This factory is really high tech because they keep the staff for the 9 months a year when there is no production, so they have ample time to go cuckoo-clock on the plant.

  • #41
  • Comment by bec
Oh Well done! - your photography is always fantastic - but I loved the different perspective and 'tilt shift lens' trick.  Oh - and an excellent post once again - having grown up in North Queensland (Australia) - [Sugar Cane country] - I tend to forget that there are actually other sources out there - this post was both interesting and informative.  It was also an eye-opener seeing the difference between a sugar cane mill and the 'beet mill' ... I'm interested to know if there is much difference in the taste between beet sugar and cane sugar?
  • FX's answer→ Bec, if you compare white sugar, then there is no difference between beet and cane sugars. But if we compare brown sugar, where some of the molasses have been left, then sugarcane is better, it has that rich flavor! A reader mentioned roasting sugarcane in hot embers, have you ever tried that?

  • #43
  • Comment by irene gray
interesting as always - but a word of correction

zuckerruebe = sugarbeet

rote beete = beetroot - these would make some pretty colourful sugarcubes  :-)
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Irene!

It amazes me that something so delicious can start its life as a non-desript brown lump hauled by a dump truck to a factory that (based on appearances) could be mining and processing coal.

It's nice to read about a natural sugar - especially since here in the US, those who make high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) have launched an ad campaign that "compares' it to sugar.  They defend it by saying, "In moderation, it's just as harmless as sugar," or some such propaganda.  I guess the trick is to ATTEMPT consuming HFCS in moderation - it's in nearly everything from soup to soda.

Give me real sugar or brown sugar anyday.  I frequently substitute some portion of white sugar for brown sugar because of the richness it lends to just about any dish in which I include it.

The holidays are coming and no doubt those who bake (like me) are gearing up for another flour-sugar fest!

Thanks for another great blog entry.

<3 Chiffy
  • FX's answer→ Chiffonade, I think here in Europe the statement "as harmless as sugar" would not work overly well as a publicity statement!

Hi FX!
It started with Couleur3, the radio station from Lausanne, they currently broadcast "Chronophage" where Philippe Ligron (a teacher from the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne, he calls himself "historien de la bouffe", historian of grub) tells about food from prehistoric time up to today and all it's aspects - you may get it as podcasts (son du jour). One day the topic was about Gâteau de Savoie and I looked for a recipe in written for it on the internet. So I came to your site. Congratulation! Hats off!!
About sugar beet: my father told me, when he was a boy they used to eat it. Well, not as meal prepared in the citchen, more like a prank of the gang, stealing the sugar beets directly in the field and roasting them on a fire, having no knife peeling it by teeth. What a difference in awareness of life to only stealing a sugar cube from grandma's larder.
For the serious citchen there exist some variations of sugar beet: turnip (? - Bodenkolrabi in german) with yellow pulp (not orange like carrots), and the waaay more fine white form of it (Weisse Rüben). Here at Stuttgart they know only the Bodenkolrabi but round and at Bâle you get now and for several weeks the others. They are close to the Teltower Rübchen, Mairüben, or Petrowski. May be it is called "Navets" in french. I prepare both kinds the same way: making with some butter and sugar (from Aarberg of cause ) a caramel, transparent a small diced onion in it, add the choped vegetable and steam it until done, add little salt before serve. Delicate! Goes well with veal or fine pork.
Now, what will be your next project using all the sugar you've got from Aarberg? Testing navets steamed in caramel-onion-mixture or "Kleine gâteaux de Vully" made with crunched sugar dices??

  • FX's answer→ Mike, thanks for the background information on the many cousins on the sugarbeet! I have many plans to use my weight in sugar brought back from Aarberg.

  • #49
  • Comment by Paul S.

I loved the effect you gave a few of those photos to make them look like tiny models!  Very effective at showing the scale of the factory!
Another awesome post, as always!

  • FX's answer→ Thanks a lot Paul, glad you liked them!

  • #51
  • Comment by wazwallaby
Wonderful article, as ever, and web site. In Indonesia I have been offered raw sugarcane stalks to suck and chew on as a refreshment, and also had a ground, spicy fishmeat wrapped around a sugarcane stalk and cooked and eaten a la satay stick.  Hot, spicy, savoury then sweet, sweeter, sweetest. Hmmm, excuse me, must go to the kitchen! Keep up you fascinating articles!
  • FX's answer→ Wazwallaby, the fish paste sugarcane skewers sound absolutely delicious, do you know where in Indonesia I could see a village version cooked from scratch?

  • #53
  • Comment by kurzhaar
Hallo FX,

Have been enjoying your super blog for a few months but this is my first post.

Re: CO2 in the kitchen--easiest is to simply purchase a cylinder of food-grade CO2 (here in the US it is used among other things to carbonate beer kegs).  CO2 is also used by some welders.  I have seen quite small cylinders (about the size of a home fire extinguisher).  Otherwise, you could generate it by mixing baking soda (not baking powder) with an acid like vinegar, but that would be far less efficient.

If you have the chance, you ought to investigate Vietnamese and Thai cuisine.  Such an extraordinary array of flavours and extensive use of herbs!  The Thais grill ground shrimp wrapped around a sugarcane "skewer" and serve this with fresh cilantro, mint, lettuces, etc., wrapped in a rice paper wrapper and served with a dipping sauce.  The sugarcane plays up the natural sweetness of the shrimp.  Delicious!

Also loved your post on Eataly, I was there a couple of months ago and am still stunned.  :)

  • FX's answer→ Kurzhaar, thanks for your kind words! The CO2 cylinder is definitely the simplest and most efficient way and I won't need to turn my kitchen into a meth lab to achieve the CO2! Unfortunately I've never visited Thailand but believe you when you say their cooking is entirely worthy of consideration. My way of going about food is to read a lot and I don't read Thai- there lies the rub.

  • #55
  • Comment by Agustin Jauregui
Very interesting article with great photos.
I recently discovered your blog doing a search for chestnut pie recipes and I am really surprised of the quality of the job you have done.
Un saludo desde Bilbao y ya te  contaré que tal me queda la tarta  de castañas!!
  • FX's answer→ Agustin, mucha suerte con la tarta de castañas y gracias por tu visita!

  • #57
  • Comment by Renko
This was unexpected. I usually go to this site for recipes to try out. I did not expect to read about a fantasticaly efficient factory. What an enlightening read! I never would have thought such things as limestone is used in sugar production.
  • FX's answer→ Renko, thanks for your visit!

  • #59
  • Comment by DWat
What a great article!  I love to do stuff like that, go on those tours.  Around here (California), they are usually close to home and school children get to see it all. It was really sweet of you to share. :-) DWat
  • FX's answer→ DWat, I am not sure that locating this factory opposite a school would work so great, but everything is close in Switzerland, so they must have some classes visit it, for sure.

  • #61
  • Comment by Helena
Thanks for sharing yet another arm-chair travelling adventure. Factory / manufacturing tours are so fun from a distance when you don't have to walk them yourself. ;) But honestly, your curiosity regarding so many things is so fun to read! :)

Regarding agar-agar vs. gelatin, there is another alternative. Pectin, from fruits like crab apples, could be used as a substitute in many sweet / tart recipes. For example, jams made with pectin does not require something extra to hold it together.

Regarding the chemistry section, can you clarify something? What is coke? The first thing that came to mind is Coca-Cola, which I have a feeling isn't what you mean.

Regarding carbon dioxide, I know the people who make homemade root beer or cola use that stuff. So you can try a search on that. There are a few from scratch homemade recipes. Or the easiest way, get a soda machine. It incorporates carbon dioxide / bubbles into your soda water. (Think you can find the little handheld home versions on Ebay. Or try your local restaurant / bar surplus stores. Or places going out of business. They might carry the countertop version.) Just hook up the tube for the water into something else and the machine will mix up the CO2 with whatever you have in mind.

The home lab kitchen is a slippery slope though. Once you start, you just might end up experimenting with liquid nitrogen ice-cream. (There are a few chefs around the world playing with that stuff.) Or there is that fad with adding extra oxygen or precious metals into drinks et cetera.
  • FX's answer→ Helena, glad you liked my article! Coke, in the sense used in this article, is the carbonaceous residue left after burning coal.

    As for the CO2 I'll just use a little capsule from my whipped cream dispenser.

And what did I get for all my efforts? My weight in sugar. - You are too funny! I get to escape and explore when I come here. Thank you.
  • FX's answer→ Cynthia, thanks, actually I wish they really gave me my weight in sugar!

  • #65
  • Comment by Xavier
You definitely taught me something today ! I would never have guessed that sugar making implied so much physics and chemistry. But whom do they sell all their melasse to ?
  • FX's answer→ Xavier, I recommend you visit if you have a chance!

Wow. Thank you for the fabulous article on the sugar factory. I didn't realize the process was so involved. That is very cool that you were able to tour one and learn so much!! :) I love the picture of you with your weight and sugar too by the way...
  • FX's answer→ Juliet, glad you liked it! The last picture was shot in minimum light, handheld and slow shutter speed, definitely not my best, but hey, I can prove I wasn't holding the camera on this one!

  • #69
  • Comment by Geoff Ball
Great photographs and detail, very informative.

Growing up here in Winnipeg Canada, the Sugarbeet factory was very close by. It was an old brick building, build around 1910 with 4 huge concrete silos . You knew when it was making sugar by the smell, it's unlike anything else.

However in the 90's the Canadian government stopped the subsidizing sugarbeet production and the factory closed. (It's still much cheaper to buy sugar from sugarcane).

The USA still has tariffs and subsidizes sugarbeet production and when we go south to Grand Forks North Dakota we can still smell the makings of sugar.

I haven't heard of anyone eating sugarbeets. I did wonder what limestone had to do with sugarbeets.

Thanks for sharing :)
  • FX's answer→ Thanks Geoff, glad you could learn about the limestone and sugar story!

  • #71
  • Comment by Magdolna
I hate sugar, it feels caustic; put some in your mouth and taste the chemicals on the crystals. I don't know what it is, some residual from the processing? An additve? Or a remnant of a cleaning product used for the vats in the factory? Whatever it is, I feel it.
I drink my hot chocolates pure, only hot water and non-Dutched cacao.Sugar would ruin it. So, I never need any white sugar in my house,I use maple syrup or honey for an occasional waffle or crepe, oatmeal cereal for breakfast and brown sugar for Chinese sweet and sour recipes. (Confessions of a recovered sugar-addict.)
  • FX's answer→ Mag, there are no chemicals in sugar. You should be glad not to like sugar, but perhaps if in the past you used to eat too much of it, you managed to kick that habit by convincing yourself that it tastes like turpentine. But it doesn't!

  • #73
  • Comment by Mona
Thank you so much!!! great work chef.  The photos are excelent. So what about the brown organic sugar?
I sent you a private email, which bounced back to my email, I want to ask about coffee shops in europe
Please write when you can :)
  • FX's answer→ Thank you Mona, organic brown sugar is not done from sugarbeets, as far as I know, but from sugarcanes.

Hi, Great post and wonderful photos. Everything seems sooo big!!
I follow your blog but I have never left a comment :-)
I have a Blog (in Italian) about the Science of Cooking, and I am about to write an article on sugar. If it is possible I would like to use some of your photos (obviously properly citing the source and putting a link to this article)
Let me know if you agree.

Cheers  Dario
  • FX's answer→ Ciao Dario, certo, puoi utilizzare le mie foto per il tuo articolo, però solo mettere un link verso FXcuisine.com

  • #77
  • Comment by Noam
I really enjoyed the commentary in this post. Great work!
-Hollywood, Florida
  • #78
  • Comment by reza
Iam reza from IRAN and when i saw your texts and your explain i interested about that ,I am  a Eng sugar technology ,infact factories in iran are different they are not modern as swiss ,therefore i interest to visit a sugar factory in swiss ,do you think this is possible and  if it is possible could you help me ?
thank you
  • #79
  • Comment by GS
Indeed , a work worth appreciating. Really quite informative. Fx, I intend to open up a similar factory in Switzerland, can you plz guide us as to how I can go about it.

Once again well done.

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