After the impurities settle, the clear juice is transferred to the first of a series of metal vats where the juice’s water content is continuously boiled off. The juice goes through eight vats, with the juice transferred to the next vat after about 50% of the water has boiled off. The juice gets darker and thicker as it’s boiled, turning from a watery dark green juice to a thick dark brown syrup as it cooks. The fires beneath the vats are fueled by dried crushed sugarcane.
After several hours, the syrup is almost ready. Mike tests the syrup to check if the sugar will crystallize properly. He does this by dipping a stick into the hot syrup and letting it drip into a coconut shell bowl filled with water, cooling the syrup instantly. If the syrup solidifies into crackly tendrils, then it’s ready. If the syrup becomes gummy, it needs a few more hours of cooking. Mike is one of only two people on the farm who can give the order to cool the syrup. This is because this stage is so crucial to the production process. If the syrup is cooled too soon, the potentially high-quality sugar turns into a chunky, gummy mess.
When it’s ready to cool, the syrup is transferred to a cooling trough. The syrup is continuously stirred to make sure it cools evenly.
The muscuvado sugar is then put into sacks. If sugar prices are good, the sugar can be sold for P2,500-P3,000 per sack, depending on the quality of the sugar. The mill operates 24 hours a day during harvest time, with each team of workers taking 8-hour shifts. Each team is composed of four to five people, producing about eight sacks of muscovado per shift. At present, the sugar the hacienda produces is not considered “food-grade” because it still has some impurities in it that the largely manual processing was not able to remove. Because of this, Mike still relies on middle men to process the sugar further to make it saleable. He hopes to invest in a more mechanized production process in the next few years.