Thursday, August 20, 2009

Love it, hate it - just don't you dare spread Marmite's dark secret

Marmite may be proverbially loved and loathed in equal measure, but there is one village in Derbyshire where the locals definitely can't stand it.

Who can blame them when they have been forced to put up with a rather nasty stink hanging over them - a smell which has been traced back to the dumping (albeit perfectly legal) of liquid waste from Britain's main Marmite factory.

'The smell was unbelievable,' says Jeff Tully, 43, who led the campaign to stop the dumping on farmland outside the village of Sawley. 'You'd go outside and it would knock you over.'
Jar of Marmite.

While those opposed to the 'Sawley Stink' have been successful in getting Marmite to agree to stop the dumping, and the smell has now dissipated, one pressing question remains: what on earth is Marmite putting into its spread to cause such a stench?

Some villagers likened it to rotten eggs, while Jeff Tully describes it more as 'a combination of sewage and sick'.

To find out the truth, the Mail decided to hold its nose and venture to the Marmite factory in Burton-on-Trent. For fans of the salty spread, this is sacred ground. It was just down the road in 1902 that Marmite first went into production in a disused malt house, and ever since 1954 (when the firm moved here - bringing Bovril, too) most of the Marmite bought and consumed in the world has come from this site.

When you first arrive at the gates, however, it's a bit disappointing. From the outside, the factory looks more like a storage depot than the home of a classic global brand - but the strong smell of hops and beer fills the air.

'We make Marmite from the surplus yeast from brewing,' says 34-year-old factory manager Martin Beckford, who, like some savoury Willy Wonka, drives a taxi cab painted in yellow and red and emblazoned with the Marmite logo.

Indeed, beer is the reason Marmite set up shop in Burton-on-Trent. With the area's beer-making heritage, there were numerous breweries where Marmite could buy waste. The company still gets a significant amount of yeast from the nearby Coors and Marston's breweries.

Not that Marmite is in any way alcoholic. With the spread becoming increasingly popular with Muslims, Martin is very keen to point out that any alcohol in the yeast evaporates off during the Marmite-making process.
Martin Beckford

While there may be something vaguely puritanical in this insistence, it is in keeping with the slightly religious awe with which Marmite workers talk about their product. Even entering the factory feels like submitting to a religious ritual.

This is confirmed by the presence of a bio-chemist and analytical manager called St John Skelton. He's in charge of 'keeping the Marmite flavour right'. Tall and decked out in a lab coat, the 57-year-old is part high priest, part mad scientist - and utterly devoted to Marmite.

Having worked in the labs since he graduated 34 years ago, he's the man who ensures the Marmite we spread on six million slices of toast each year tastes the same. He says: 'We do our best to maintain the flavour, but we cannot be exact, as yeast is a living organism.'

To guarantee each pot contains a product within a range of acceptable flavours, he leads a team of 30 'tasters' who are trained to pick up any deviation. 'Some of our tasters don't even like Marmite,' he smiles, 'but they can recognise what is and what isn't Marmite.'

Tastings are carried out in a kitchen, where a spatula of Marmite is added to a beaker along with hot water. The staff smell, swig and then ponder the aftertaste. Spitting is not encouraged.

Marmite was created in 1902, 16 years after a German chemist called Justus Liebig discovered that the yeast waste from brewing could form the basis of a protein-rich food. The spread was the brainchild of Frederick Wissler, a Swiss, George Huth, a German, and Alexander Vale, an Englishman.

Apart from technological advances, little has changed to the principle behind the Marmite Food Company. Taking its name from the French word 'marmite' (pronounced 'mar-meet'), the name of a cooking pot similar to the one pictured on the label, the product became a staple diet of soldiers in both world wars, and one of the most popular brands in Britain after 1945.
Marmite factory

Pregnant women swore by it because of its rich folic acid content, and its Vitamin B content and numerous health benefits were widely advertised.

Like HP Sauce, Marmite is one of those brands that remind us of a strong Britain of yesteryear. Boss Martin Beckford says: 'We employ 80 people at the factory. Much of the process has been computerised, so we operate 24 hours a day, and only shut on Christmas Day.' Operating one computer is Graham Brown, 57, a Marmite veteran of 34 years' service. Most employees have an average of 15 years' standing.

The yeast slurry arrives in tankers. It takes 50,000 tonnes of yeast a year to make 6,000 tonnes of finished Marmite. Hoses are connected to the tanker and, like petrol, it is pumped into vats. Next, it is stirred and slightly heated and it begins to break down until it becomes a bitter-tasting protein soup.

The yeast is pumped through hot centrifuges at 70C, which causes the cell walls in the yeast to separate from the liquid, which is siphoned off to form the basis of Marmite. The separated waste is then pumped off into vats, and it is this material that caused such a stink in the village of Sawley.

Martin approaches a bucket of the sludge. Brown and smelling slightly of hops, it's hard to see or smell what all the fuss was about, until you realise that it might not smell so pleasant once it is left out in the sun for a few days.

'The problem was the contractor was spreading it on top of the land instead of burying it,' says Martin. 'When it's buried, it's good for the farmland.'

That mystery solved, we are introduced to the most secret and mysterious step in the production process.

It is in a large room at the top of the factory where what is referred to by the workers as 'the secret ingredient' is added to the mix. For lovers of Marmite, this is the holy of holies, the inner sanctum where a base protein product is transformed into Marmite. So what is this secret ingredient?

'If I told you, I would have to kill you,' says operator Phil Harvey. Although he's smiling, I'm not sure he's joking.

'The secret ingredient is a mixture of things,' says St John. 'There are dire consequences for revealing it.'

Thirty million bottles of Marmite are filled here every year, and 27 of them are bought every minute. About 15 per cent of the pots are exported to former colonies such as Hong Kong, with half of all exports going to Sri Lanka, where it is used as a seasoning for porridge.

The company was bought by Bovril in 1924 and underwent a sale to new owners every decade from 1970 - with the latest buyer in 2000 being global corporation Unilever. Unilever has introduced an array of products including crisps and the squeezy bottle.

But Marmite is such an established and - yes - beloved part of British life that it is bigger than any of its owners. One of the Queen's most senior advisers compared the British monarchy's enduring quality with Marmite. That high praise, though, probably won't be shared by the residents of Sawley.

1 comment:

Stu said...

How do Marmite's tasters account for the obvious degradation in quality since Unilever took over?