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Abandoned sugar refinery possibly destined to become a heritage site

Outdated factory empty since 1987

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

ZEVENBERGEN, the Netherlands - The abandoned sugar refinery in this northwestern Brabant community is but one of a number of industrial heritage sites awaiting a decision about its future designation. Closed in 1987, some of the buildings and characteristic chimneys still stand, remnants of an industrial era overtaken by technological change and larger-scale economic realities.

The refinery was one of many that dotted the landscape of the western Brabant region, where farmers grow sugar beets in rich soil. The refineries, all housed inside large and now outdated factory halls, were so well-known, that the communities’ names for many are synonymous with sugar production: Puttershoek, Steenbergen and especially Dinteloord, which became a brand name which still is in use.

As with many other factories built in the middle of the 19th century, this sugar refinery of Zevenbergen (started up in 1915) was an agglomeration of huge halls, where every piece of large equipment was given a place inside four brick walls. Ventilation virtually was non-existent and lights often artificial only. Workers as well were exposed to the smell of beets and of the various refining processes. Surrounding the factory was the ever-present odor as well, and the white, cloudy smoke emitting from a couple of tall brick chimneys.

The town at one time was home to three sugar refineries. The first one ever built in the Netherlands was the Azelma plant, which went into production in 1858.

While the factory halls of the Zevenbergen refinery have received some new tenants after equipment and workers were moved to one of the other factories of the huge Sugar Union, the towering chimneys stood idle until ten years ago. Their prominence made them attractive to telecom firms, which soon installed a dozen or more dish antennas to enhance coverage for cell phone users. As such, the tall landmarks serve a modern purpose again.

Beet harvest campaigns

Sugar beets (beta vulgaris) are harvested in the late Fall in a frenzied ‘campaign’ that creates long line-ups of farm trucks near the factory and plays havoc on some rural roads that get slick with the heavy clay and other dirt from truck tires. Other traffic usually tries to avoid the highways and bi-ways in the vicinity of fields which are being harvested, and where trucks are loading, frequently in inclement weather.

The beet campaign and the production cycle of the sugar refineries, lasts only three months and usually is finished by mid-December. By then, some 6 million tons of beets have been shipped to the refineries, of which Cosun in Dinteloord is the largest in Europe. With a sugar content of up to 20 percent in the beets, Dinteloord alone turns out about 3,000 tons of refined sugar a day. Total annual sugar production in the Netherlands is close to one million tons. Cosun, formerly known as Sugar Union, takes care of two-thirds of it, with CSM (Central Sugar Company) supplying the remainder.


In the refineries, beets are washed and cut into strips, not unlike french fries. The strips are soaked in hot water to remove the sugar-containing juice. The juice then is purified, filtered, concentrated and dried in a series of steps. The juice then gets boiled until the syrup thickens and crystallizes.

Spinning the crystals in a centrifuge separates it from the remaining syrup substance, which is purified and sold as syrup or molasses. The crystallized sugar then is dried and stored in silo’s to be packaged throughout the year. Farmers buy the pulp for animal feed.

Beets as a source of sweeteners replaced honey and cane sugar. When in the late 18th century, the retail price of imported sugar cane and cane sugar became prohibitive, alternatives were sought to make sweeteners. It had been known that beets contained sugar crystals, but it was not until the second half of the 18th century that an extracting process was developed. When through selection and experimentation improved sugar beet varieties became available, refining beet sugar became a possible industrial endeavour. The first refinery was built in Silezia (present-day Poland) by German chemist Franz Achard, who had been responsible for improving the quality of beets. Achard was a student of Andreas Margraff, who successfully had isolated sugar from beet during his experiments.

A political event of significant proportions gave rise to the search for such an alternative. In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Napoleon rose to power and embroiled Europe in wars and economic upheaval. Among his policies were such measures as trade boycotts and embargos. Retaliatory English blockades by and large had halted the import of sugar cane from colonies in the Tropics. Emperor Napoleon then designated areas where sugar beets were to be grown, stimulating the industry. After his defeat, cane-producing tropical areas became accessible again, causing the collapse of the sugar beet industry.


It took another political event to make the sugar beet attractive once more. The abolition of slavery, especially in the United States, had caused the price of cane sugar to skyrocket again. Sugar beets now account for most of the world’s sugar production, which amounts to about 136 million tons a year. To combat earlier over-production, the European Union has allocated the Netherlands an annual production quota of one million tons of sugar. The quota system was adopted in 1968 and guarantees supply and consumer prices, and levels wholesale prices for growers and refineries.

Zevenbergen, then on the southern bank of the Meuse estuary, can trace its history back to the 12th century. The community grew around a castle and soon became a port town to be reckoned with at the southern border of the County of Holland. Its fortifications were demolished in the early part of the 15th century, when Zevenbergen after a siege was captured by the troops of Duke Philip of Burgundy. Sixty-five years later, the town and the surrounding area reverted to the Lord of nearby Bergen op Zoom. After changing ownership a number of times, Zevenbergen became the property of the House of Orange, a situation that ended in 1795 when the Oranges fled before the invading French revolutionary troops.

Regional function

The Brabant town has served as a regional center since the 14th century when it rose to prominence as a warehouse of salt and peat bricks (then used as fuel). Zevenbergen’s railway station is among the oldest in the country. On account of the sugar industry, the town’s railway freight connection was important to the rest of the country. To enhance Zevenbergen’s core, which serves as a magnet for the region, the harbour was filled in in 1970.

The Reformed church of Zevenbergen, built around 1400, is a national monument. The local heritage museum, named after Willem van Strijen, one of the first Lords of Zevenbergen, has a permanent exhibit on the town and its citizens, as they were a century ago. In the immediate vicinity of Zevenbergen are a number of well-kept windmills, of which the ‘Fleur’ dates from 1841.

In May 1940, the German Luftwaffe bombed Zevenbergen, taking the lives of thirty-nine people. Heavy fighting in the area in 1944 caused even more destruction and death. A large part of the town’s centre was destroyed and 117 people died.