Each person in the UK, on average, eats more biscuits than any other country in Europe. We eat over 11kg each of the tasty morsels every year, including a combined effort of over 71 million packets of McVitie’s chocolate digestives alone. The biscuit manufacturing industry is worth some £5 billion here in the UK, attracting millions of pounds worth of investment from international brands every year. The Burton Biscuit Company, creator of well known brands such as Maryland Cookie, has recently announced a £5 million investment into a production site in Blackpool, for example.
The biscuit industry is projected to grow, despite falling volume, due to a small hike in unit prices. This hike has come as a reaction to steadily falling demand, caused by a change in the public’s attitude towards healthy eating. Biscuit manufacturers face a new challenge in targeting what is traditionally a high sugar, high fat product to a health conscious market. Interestingly, biscuit manufacturers have actually benefited from the recent economic downturn. Whilst biscuits are traditionally luxury, non essential items, it is though that in times of recession or slow growth, people are willing to spend on inexpensive treats as a remedy for cutting back on more expensive luxuries.
But what about the actual manufacturing process? How do biscuit producers source and combine all those ingredients to form those classics we all know and love?
The first stage of the process is to source and gather the necessary ingredients. Companies operate different delivery models; some stockpile enough ingredients for several days or weeks production on site whilst others operate just in time policies. The former requires relatively expensive storage facilities to keep produce fresh, whilst offering companies peace of mind on the supply of their ingredients. Just in time, however, means fresh produce is delivered every day and there is no need for onsite ingredient storage. The downside is, however, that if the delivery of just one ingredient is late or missing a whole day’s production might be brought to a halt.
The next stage is to mix the biscuit’s ingredients. The flower, fat, sugar and other ingredients are fed into huge mixing vats where they are turned over by large rotating blades. The ingredients are kept at specific temperatures throughout the mixing process to ensure they remain fresh and ready for moulding. The result is uniformly mixed dough, ready for shaping and moulding.
Once mixed, the dough is passed by conveyor belt under huge rollers that press and flatten it to a uniform cross section. From here, they are passed under industrial cutters, which cut the dough into shape. Any excess is removed and fed back into the line for recycle whilst the dough shapes are fed into the ovens for baking. Any misshapes are also removed and the dough fed back into the start of the moulding stage.
The ovens are continually heated by ribbon burners to a constant temperature, allowing the biscuits to pass through on the conveyor belt and be cooked uniformly. On leaving the oven, biscuits are quality checked for consistent colour, size and shape. Whilst some companies, such as Cadbury’s for example, bag up the miss-shapes for discount sale, most discard any products that do not pass quality control.
The next stage is to allow the biscuits to cool before packaging. This simple step involves the biscuits being left out on a rack to dry naturally. Natural cooling is preferred over forced cooling (in a refrigerator for example) as it maintains the biscuit’s texture. The biscuits pass through another stage of quality control before being carried by conveyor to the factory’s packaging area.
Finally, the finished biscuits are packaged. Large machines insert them into premade boxes, batch them up to be wrapped them in foil packaging or individually wrap them depending on the brand. Each batch has a sample selected from it for one final stage of quality control before they are shipped out to the shops.
As you can see, the process is of an industrial scale. The largest biscuit manufacturers in Britain can churn out some 2,000 biscuits a minute. That’s over a billion biscuits every year!