Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in our August-September 2021 newspaper edition, published on August 6.
It’s hard to take in the staggering volume of sugar that comes out of Domino Sugar’s refinery on Key Highway East. We typically experience sugar in small quantities: a four-pound bag at the store, a teaspoon packet at a restaurant. But in the Domino warehouse, rows of one-ton sacks of granulated sugar, each the size of a squat refrigerator, stand on pallets.
The refinery’s average output could fill my two-story South Baltimore rowhouse with granulated sugar in less than four hours. It could turn all of the homes on my street into a solid block of sugar in just nine days.
Six million pounds a day. Almost one-third of all Domino sugar produced. This from a building that is nearly a century old and, from the outside, looks its age. The two other Domino refineries – one in Yonkers, N.Y., and one in Chalmette, La., downstream from New Orleans on the Mississippi River – are even older than Baltimore’s.
While many industrial buildings of its generation have been abandoned or long since torn down, South Baltimore’s Domino Sugar refinery soldiers on, even overcoming a major fire this year that destroyed its raw sugar storage shed. Inside, technology upgrades, automation, and a highly skilled workforce keep the plant humming, producing cane sugar products in much the same way it did when the refinery opened in 1922.
“The fundamental way that we refine sugar has not changed,” says Coricka White, the new refinery manager promoted to that position in May. “Some of the tools our operators use may be a little bit different, but the fundamental process is the same.” A D.C. native, Coricka began her sugar-making career in Baltimore in 2003.
When the refinery first opened, it had 1,500 employees and produced up to 2.2 million pounds a day. Now owned by American Sugar Refining, Inc., a subsidiary of the ASR Group, the Baltimore refinery produces nearly triple what it did a century ago with one-third the workforce. About a dozen of Domino’s 510 employees live on the peninsula.
Granulated sugar is the refinery’s main output, but its dozens of sugar production lines also make superfine granulated, confectioners, light and dark brown, liquid, pharmaceutical grade, and several types of molasses. Most of this sweetness – about 70% – goes to bakers and other food producers. Consumers can find Baltimore products in stores on the peninsula, up to the Northeast states, south to the Carolinas, and west as far as Chicago. If you’ve bought a four-pound plastic tub of Domino granulated sugar, you have a product that is only made on Key Highway.
The monolithic architecture of the refinery, with its aged-brick façade and row upon row of windows, conceals a complex series of industrial processes at work inside. The structure exudes a calm and order that, Coricka says, is rarely part of her day-to-day managing of the refinery.
“There are a lot of moving parts here. When something happens on one end of the refinery, it impacts all the other parts,” Coricka says. “We have to be very resilient and very nimble to respond. It’s stunning sometimes what we’ve been able to pull off to keep everything in balance.”
Sugar moves through the refinery from the east side (nearest to Under Armour) to the west through distinct processing steps housed in different sections of the building. The first step is in plain view for all to see: raw sugar being unloaded from ships by clamshell buckets suspended from two gantry cranes.
About 42 ships of different sizes dock at the refinery a year, each carrying, on average, 70 million pounds of raw cane sugar. They usually arrive and depart very early in the morning and can spend a week or more to unload their cargo.
The raw sugar comes from Florida and tropical and subtropical countries in this hemisphere and Africa. Raw sugar unloaded in Baltimore has been through its first processing step at a mill where the sugar cane is grown. The harvested sugar cane is crushed to remove the plant material and extract the juice, which is then boiled to a syrup that thickens and crystallizes. After the crystals are spun in a centrifuge to remove liquid, they are ready for shipping.
From the refinery’s dock, the tan-colored raw sugar travels by conveyor belt into the Weigh House and on to the Raw Sugar Shed where it awaits processing. (With the loss of the large storage shed in the recent fire, raw sugar is now kept in the original three-story shed that stretches along much of the water side of the refinery.)
The raw sugar crystals begin a roughly two-day journey through the refinery with a warm, syrupy bath that loosens their outer layer of molasses, which is stripped away in a centrifuge and a shower of hot water. The washed crystals are then melted and the resulting liquid sugar filtered to remove impurities.
Bulk shipments of liquid sugar leave the refinery at this stage. The remaining liquid sugar continues on into the Pan House in the center of the refinery where it is transformed into crystals once again. Here, inside 10 massive vats or “pans,” each two stories tall, the liquid sugar is boiled and seeded with crystals. While workers tend to the pans in the heat, one employee inside an air-conditioned control room monitors the whole process on a bank of computer screens.
The sugar is again spun to remove liquid and then its on to the Granulator, a long rotating horizontal drum where the new crystals are tumbled through hot air to dry.
The last stop before packaging is the Bin Tower, the 12-story white structure attached to the refinery’s western end. Inside the tower’s top floors is a white-covered alpine-like scene of loud machinery where a series of vibrating oblong boxes called “screeners” sort the crystals by size and send them downward through a maze of criss-crossing pipes to two dozen storage bins below.
Automated packaging lines spread out over several floors of the refinery. With few humans in sight, the machines take rolls of printed packaging, shapes them into bags and packets, and fills them with different types of sugar. I watched as a machine built a box around a stack of over 500 four-pound bags of sugar and moved it toward the warehouse. Most of the refinery’s sugar leaves in trucks, with more than 1,000 railcars a year pitching in.
The whole sugar-making process came to a sudden halt on the afternoon of April 20 this year when a three-alarm fire destroyed the raw sugar shed and ruined much of the sugar. Production restarted just two days later using sugar already inside the refinery, said Peter O’Malley, ASR Group vice president for corporate relations. About a week later the refinery resumed full production with new raw sugar arriving at the dock.
Three barges of raw sugar were salvaged from the burned shed and eventually processed through the refinery. “By virtue of our processes and the number of filtration steps, we’re very confident this refined sugar is free of anything harmful,” says Coricka. Plans are underway to rebuild the sugar shed, according to Coricka.
Will South Baltimore still be a Domino sweet spot a century from now? “Absolutely,” Coricka exclaims. “Our organization is making the investments we need to ensure we’ll be here for generations to come.” – Steve Cole