Monin goes through a staggering ten 23-tonne truckloads of sugar beet every week, and that's only at their French Bourges production plant, one of six such plants around the world. (In the U.S. and Asia all Monin's syrups are based on cane sugar).
The first part of the process of making Monin's huge range of sugar syrups is to turn the powdered sugar into liquid sugar and this is done using a computer-controlled 'Dissolving Installation' which processes 10 tonnes per hour. The syrup is then held at 50°C and continuously stirred in the holding tanks to prevent crystallisation until needed for production.
Using this sugar solution base, Monin then adds various flavours to make their vast range of syrups. The blending of these flavours with the hot sugar syrup is a sophisticated computer-controlled operation and the apparatus and controller in charge of operations are the nerve centre of Monin's plant.
The recipe for any particular flavour is generated by the computer with lot numbers for each and every ingredient recorded for reasons of traceability. Indeed, the ingredients and person responsible for overseeing every aspect of the manufacture of a batch of syrup are recorded in the lot number lasered onto the side of every bottle.
The syrups are passed through a flash pasteuriser heat exchange which heats the syrups to above 60°C (the temperature at which moulds and yeasts are killed) to sterilise the syrups.
When designing a new recipe the first challenge is to define the flavour they are looking to recreate. For example, if making a rhubarb-flavoured syrup, are you matching the flavour of tinned rhubarb, fresh rhubarb, cooked rhubarb or rhubarb pie? Should the finished rhubarb syrup be green or pink? When creating flavours, Monin always starts with a natural flavouring, often this is the fresh fruit, vegetables or spices themselves. However, typically the natural product is simply not flavoursome enough on its own and the flavour will need to be enhanced using what are referred to by some as "nature-identical" flavourings.
Unlike many of its competitors, Monin never uses artificial flavours. The difference between "nature-identical" flavourings and "artificial" or "synthetic" flavourings is complex but simply put; nature-identical flavourings are made using flavour molecules that exist naturally but are not sourced from the original product that's flavour is to be replicated. They are obtained by synthesis or isolated through chemical processes. Artificial flavourings come from substances not identified in a natural product fit for human consumption. They are typically produced by fractional distillation and chemical manipulation of naturally sourced chemicals such as crude oil or coal tar.
For example, the flavour of natural vanilla is mimicked by vanillin, which is found in chicory and other plants, whilst ethyl is a totally artificial vanilla flavouring. The vanillin molecule occurs organically in nature while the ethyl is a man-made molecule - so would not be considered for use by Monin. Interestingly, Monin continued to make their vanilla syrup using natural Madagascan vanilla even when the price rocketed, always preferring the natural flavour to even the nature-identical (though the natural product may have the desired flavour profile). Also, in some cases many natural ingredients, while providing the necessary flavour, do not have the required stability to give the shelf life required in the finished product.
The air in Monin's bottling halls is carefully controlled to ensure its purity using what's known as a Laminair flow. The air pressure is maintained at a slightly higher level than the surrounding atmosphere so when a door is opened, air from outside is not able to enter the room. Every possible precaution is taken to exclude bacteria and mould contamination of the syrups.
After every batch has passed through part of the production process, the computer-controlled CIP unit (cleaning in place) thoroughly cleans all the tanks and pipelines using highly pressurised hot water and caustic soda. This coupled with methodical testing, eliminates any chance of cross-contamination between products - even removing trace elements of nut proteins which could be dangerous to health in products not labelled as containing nuts.
Ever more flavours & experimentation
Not content with some 130 different flavours of sugar syrup, Georges Monin appears to be on a never-ending quest to create new flavours and products. New products and recipes are developed in state-of-the-art studios in Bourges with lab facilities, an in-house commercial bar, a coffee station and a fully equipped kitchen. They employ two full-time bartenders to create recipes and experiment with their products in Bourges. Monin also boasts similar facilities and bartenders at their U.S. production facility and at their 13 studios around the world.
While at Bourges I sampled my way through some of the bewildering range of Monin syrups – a virtual bartender's flavour palate. Some of the more esoteric flavours such as Monin Bubble Gum, Monin Chocolate Cookie and Monin Gingerbread present interesting cocktail opportunities, while the Monin Caribbean is a very convincing non-alcoholic Mai Tai mix. It is also interesting to use combinations of bitters to mimic the flavours of products like Pimm's. I was also surprised to learn that not all sugar syrups are sweet – try the Monin Bitters.