Behind the scenes at the Marmite factory in Burton-on-Trent

Standing in line...

Standing in line... - Credit: Archant

Famous the world over, Marmite is produced at nearby Burton upon Trent. Life-long fan Sally Mosley takes a factory tour

Wendy Walker, production line operative

Wendy Walker, production line operative - Credit: Archant

Marmite has been tickling the world’s taste buds since 1902 in a love, hate relationship spanning several generations.

I was raised on toasted soldiers sparingly spread with this no fat, no sugar, vitamin-B rich, salty brown ‘gloop’ and still savour it today, as do my children and grandchildren. Synonymous with Burton-on-Trent, homeland of good beer, Marmite is the growing-up spread you never grow out of!

Monks were the first Burton brewers under the guidance of Wulfric Spot, Earl of Mercia and founder of Burton Abbey. The site was chosen for the quality of local water containing minerals washed down from Derbyshire and Staffordshire hills. But it was a German scientist, Justus Von Liebig, who in around 1900 recognised the value of yeast as a waste product from breweries, and so the Marmite Food Extract Company was established, starting life in disused malt houses in Cross Street, Burton.

Ready and waiting to be filled

Ready and waiting to be filled - Credit: Archant

The iconic glass jar was introduced in the 1920s with its simmering ‘marmite’ stew pot logo that remains on labels today. On occasion there have been special editions, which include a jar to mark the 100th anniversary and a limited run of Champagne Marmite with heart shaped labels for Valentine’s Day in 2008. On 3rd July 2002 HRH the Duke of Edinburgh visited the factory to commemorate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee and for the Diamond Jubilee there was a special edition Ma’amite label.

Marmite was a vital component in both World Wars. It was given to troops overseas to keep them healthy and combat deficiency diseases such as beri beri. During the Second World War Marmite was sent to prisoners as a supplement to aid their meagre diets.

In the late 1980s the My Mate Marmite marketing campaign was created but by the 1990s this had turned to the famous love it or hate it catchphrase that we know so well. In fact, the term marmite is now recognised in dictionaries as being a conflict of taste or strong emotion.

A reject leaves the line-up

A reject leaves the line-up - Credit: Archant

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At the turn of the new millennia and after a few changes of ownership along the way, Marmite became the product of Unilever Best Foods UK, manufactured at the Burton Plant, by now sited on Wellington Road.

So how exactly is Marmite made? I feel rather smug and extremely privileged to have been allowed a rare tour of the factory, guided by quality specialist St John Skelton (Mr Marmite), who has worked at the Burton plant for 41 years. We were joined by his My Mate Marmite colleague Dave Smart.

Safety standards at the factory are stringent and it has an exemplary record for no contamination of any kind, so I had to don snood, ear plugs, safety glasses, safety footwear, paper overcoat and high visibility jacket, take off all jewellery and discard my bag and belongings.

Centrifuge machines

Centrifuge machines - Credit: Archant

First, the yeast by-product is collected from breweries across the country and transported to Burton in 26-ton tankers. As Coors is sited just next door and Marston’s and Bass are only down the road, some yeast doesn’t have far to travel. In a yard smelling strongly of beer and with a rhythmic sound reminiscent of an old-fashioned dairy farm, the tankers are ‘milked’ of their 12% solids solution. This is pumped into autolyser vessels or coppers in a kitchen that resembles a vast chemistry set of pipes, pumps and an assortment of large drum containers beside a barrage of centrifuge machines.

Water and salt are added and the suspension is heated using a defined temperature programme. The raised temperature causes the yeast to digest itself. It breaks down creating a protein-rich soup. The elevated temperature also serves to prevent bacterial growth while the material is watery. This area smelt a bit like a bakery.

A sieve takes out the remains of any hops, leaving a citrus smelling slurry that is sold off as a soil conditioner for use in agriculture. Any fluid effluent is converted to flammable gas that heats the factory’s boilers. No waste materials produced on the site go to landfill. Unilever has a sustainable living plan, intended for completion by 2020, in which the Burton plant is included.

Sam Shelton operating a touch sensitive display/control screen

Sam Shelton operating a touch sensitive display/control screen - Credit: Archant

After being cooked for several hours the soup is turned into paste through tall evaporation towers that drive off water so that 6% solid becomes 50% and the mixture is stable again.

After filtering again by being forced at high pressure through dense cloths in a plate frame press, a second evaporation process achieves 75% solid status. Now it can officially be described as a paste.

Ironically, all this used to be achieved in giant baths by an army of workers, but modern processing methods mean that there is no human touch from start to finish. This automated and enclosed form of manufacture is much safer and efficient but has drastically reduced the workforce at Burton to just 59 employees, although Unilever have a total workforce worldwide of 171,000.

Now totally stable, the paste is packed into one-ton vats which can be stored for months at a time. This is vital to get around the fluctuating availability from breweries and demand for the finished product.

Blending now begins. This is imperative to retain a consistent Marmite flavour and involves an assortment of 12 one-ton containers whose ingredients are mixed together before the addition of a secret ingredient. Try as I might, I couldn’t persuade St John to reveal the contents of the sealed grey box! From this point on the mixture is officially recognised as Marmite.

Rather interestingly, the Burton factory is home to both Marmite and Bovril with an 80/20 split, producing 6,000 tons a year. For a few yards the walkway before me was a thin line between sealed vats, Bovril one side and Marmite the other. I swayed between the two, just as I do at home when I open my kitchen cupboard and have to decide which of the two jars of natural flavour enhancing goodness to use.

With the right taste, the finished Marmite is warmed to 40 degrees C to enable the brown sticky paste to be just runny enough to get pumped to the production line next door for the final process.

This part of the factory floor is dominated by a 90-metre long production line in U-shape formation, overseen by Richard James, hero of the packaging department who makes sure everything runs smoothly. With arms folded and a happy smile he proudly showed off his 250 jars a minute, 25 million jars a year, computerised, automated and incredibly interesting equipment. Thankfully it was operating like clockwork; evidently a worried face is not a good sign!

Running on a three-shift basis, the production line operates from 6am Monday to 10pm Friday. Steve Jones the Shift Leader was busy working with operatives and engineers on the day’s schedule. Where years ago many men and women were employed to fill jars with jugs of liquor, the modern day workforce has to be made up of skilled computer engineers.

This sole production line is programmed to fill 125g, 250g and 500g glass bottles or 200g and 400g plastic bottles of either Marmite or Bovril with colour co-ordination to distinguish between size and product.

To protect against cross-contamination between vegetarian Marmite and beef or chicken Bovril, deep cleansing of all equipment is carried out to obliterate any trace of meat, with regular audits and inspection.

Hundreds of naked empty brown jars made of pharmaceutical quality glass from the Gerresheimer works in Germany were jiggling and dancing about at the start before lining up to await inspection by SIM scanners (Sidewall Inspection Machines). These check for any minute flaws, foreign objects or tiny glass shards. Sample reject jars are regularly sent down the line to ensure the system is working accurately and there are even more checks further on. There is a distinctive sound when a reject jar is shot out of line to sit all alone on the sidelines.

Twenty eight filler heads on a carousel individually weigh each jar through an ‘in flight’ calculation and every filler head has a mind of its own, capable of being within one gramme of perfection! The standard of manufacture at Burton is way above legal requirements.

The top is put on faster than a man could manually twist it and the sealed jars then do a Marmite line-dance down to the labelling machine. On the way they waltz around a multi-storey unit that can stack up jars for a few minutes buffer time should anything go wrong.

Labels are attached and a laser puts a best before date on which is traceable to within a minute of production.

Now the jars pick a partner and head forward in groups of six like an old fashioned Ceilidh to be put in plastic trays, each tray meticulously designed for size and slipperiness so that it runs efficiently to the final process of shrink wrapping and stacking on pallets. These are then transported to the Unilever warehouse at Cannock to await distribution.

Before leaving I asked the team if they eat Marmite themselves? Richard evidently is prepared to consume large quantities spread on toast which he attacks like a gannet! Steve said, ‘I can’t stand the stuff’ – he is a staunch bastion of the hate camp but as the Burton plant is an equal opportunities site his opinion is respected! St John likes to drink Marmite paste solution and regularly does so at work as part of the formal comparative tasting tests.

As for ideas on how to eat Marmite – Jane Wade, who provides IT support, is fond of Marmite and banana sandwiches on granary bread, while quality specialist Marianne King puts it on an omelette and sprinkles it with veggie ham and stir-fried vegetables.

An interesting fact – its high salt content (essential for flavour) and low water content (for texture) aid preservation and mean that bacteria doesn’t grow on it. So there’s no need to keep it in the fridge, especially if it’s in a plastic container when it becomes harder to squeeze.

There is a rumour that eating lots of Marmite wards off midges. Sadly this has yet to be proved but it might not be a bad idea to dose up on ‘soldiers’ if you’re heading for Scotland this summer!

It is normal to consume Marmite, but a few unusual uses have been noted at the factory over the years. One employee who ran out of conventional adhesive half-way through putting up a poster decided his best option was to use a blob of Marmite paste. This is not recommended, however, the poster does still remain in place.

Whether you believe that Marmite is ambrosia of the Gods or a nauseating brown sludge, there is no disputing that this phenomenon on our doorstep has been spreading goodness around the world for more than a century. Long may it continue!