(STILL) THINLY SPREAD
Missing Marmite: The Soda Ash Edition
During previous lockdown levels, when alcohol was banned, the essential Marmite ingredient – brewer’s yeast, a by-product of beer manufacturing – was unavailable, causing a shortage of the spread. Sourcing enough to meet the demand remains a challenge, exacerbated by the shortage of another raw material: soda ash.
Facebook algorithms are parasitic. Like something once, tag a friend, take a screenshot, or click on one ad or link – accidentally or on purpose – and your timeline will be flooded with similar posts ad nauseam. Sometimes the bots just guess; I had a week where all I saw were pages and posts for The Witcher and Henry Cavill (not entirely bad I have to admit) despite having shown no previous interest. The following week it was Supernatural and the Winchester brothers. Also not the end of the world.
Because we’re back on the Marmite shortage and I’ve been flinging the topic around with gay abandon, just today I was treated to a sponsored ad from Spur with a recipe for Marmite and cheese scones, and that’s just savage when there isn’t any Marmite to be had. Meanwhile, friends in the UK are sharing things like Marmite body wash (and men’s deodorant; I have so many questions, mainly “WHY?”) and Marmite and cheese hot cross buns. Is nothing sacred any more? You can even buy crunchy Marmite peanut butter now, punted as appealing to both Marmite and peanut butter fans.
To recap, South Africa experienced a devastating shortage of Marmite during lockdown. Alcohol ban, no beer being made, no brewer’s yeast, no Marmite. Towards the end of 2021, it reappeared on supermarket shelves… briefly. Alongside the Marmite is Bovril, same same but different; it contains beef extract, and should be avoided by vegetarians, and vegans who don’t know mayonnaise is made with eggs, and figs have wasp corpses in them.
When it comes to settling for Bovril in times of no Marmite, opinions are divided.
“Bovril is definitely not an acceptable substitute for me. It lacks that feisty Marmite kick,” said Kit Heathcock, fellow journalist and TGIFood contributor, who is out of Marmite.
“I made the pleasurable mistake of finishing my jar on Nigella’s marmite spaghetti recipe. Discovered how delicious it was and now can’t find another jar anywhere in Malmesbury or Melkbos. I got that jar back in July in Melkbos Pick n Pay, the last two small jars on the shelf.
“I had a heart stopping moment in Malmesbury Spar when I spotted from afar the distinctive yellow tops right next to Bovril’s red ones. Then plunged into disappointment when I discovered it was Marmite cheese spread… I mean, what are they thinking?”
Liny Kruger, who rocks country life in McGregor, said she saw four big jars at Savers Lane in her village about two months ago, and bought one. Then she made the grave mistake of telling her friends and now she has none. If only she had known…
“The world is very polarised,” said Kruger. “I thought it would be good, now that I can’t find Marmite, to eat Bovril, so I could understand the ‘other side’ better. It’s very us or them, camp Marmite or camp Bovril, one or the other. But it’s a struggle, it’s such a thin spread. For me, Bovril is ‘the other’.”
The Cape Town Eats group members (one of the better places on Facebook) shared their Marmite experiences. Terry Lee bought the last jar in Woolies in Sea Point about two months ago, while Pamela Mary Cooper in the Kommetjie/Fish Hoek area laments: “Can’t find it anywhere! Getting desperate!” Marzanne Kruger, Oranjezicht, said: “Been looking for it for months. Need it desperately.”
Miranda Bloch stocked up pre-Covid so had enough to tide her over. She bought her last jar at Spar in Sea Point in November 2021 and has seen nothing since.
“I still can’t find it either,” said Elmarie Stodart. “Am travelling to the UK in a few weeks time and am considering taking a small suitcase with to fill with Marmite and make it my side hustle when I return!” I’m not sure where customs stands on this issue but if it’s not illegal, it could be an excellent business opportunity.
Then, between all the sadness, a ray of sunshine breaks through. “I found some at Obz Spar last month. That was a happy day!” said Kari Cousins.
In my previous story about the Marmite shortage, Sphe Vundla, Brand Director: SAB Corporate, explained how reduced production at its breweries had resulted in a shortage of wet yeast. Brewer’s yeast is one of the main ingredients for Marmite, said Vundla. “SAB has been supplying yeast to Pioneer Foods for a number of years. We currently supply yeast from our Alrode and Chamdor breweries, and we see this relationship as one that expresses our efforts at economic recovery through the lives and livelihoods impacted in the value chain.”
The truly excellent news now is that SAB will continue to supply yeast to Pioneer Foods. “At this stage we do not anticipate a shortage of yeast,” said Vundla.
This week, it has been confirmed that there are no supply issues on the breweries’ side. “We are currently supplying yeast from our Alrode facility and have also recently started supplying from Prospecton as well,” they said.
So yes, as everyone suspected, this is not where the problem lies, although it has had a knock-on effect in playing catchup. “In terms of the availability of Marmite, as you correctly mention, there is very limited stock of Marmite on shelf currently,” said our source Mandy Murphy, GM Foods at PepsiCo SSA (which owns Pioneer Foods, manufacturers of Marmite).
“Due to lockdown over the last two years, our two key suppliers of yeast in South Africa, the AB-Inbev and Heineken Breweries, were not permitted to operate. As yeast is a live product, we are unable to stockpile it and hence the production unit had to stop functioning during each of those times. In addition to the yeast challenge, we experienced a national shortage of one of the other raw materials (soda ash), which is key to producing these products. These challenges have further impacted our recovery timing. The intermittent water supply issues with the City of Johannesburg where they cut supply to the area within which our factory operates also played a role.”
I did my own research and learned that soda ash is the trade name for sodium carbonate (Na2CO3) and it is made from two atoms of sodium, one atom of carbon and three atoms of oxygen. Furthermore, the internet advises: “Simply heat baking soda or sodium bicarbonate in a 200℉ oven for about an hour. Carbon dioxide and water will be given off, leaving dry sodium carbonate. This is the soda ash.” Hmmm, I don’t know. It all seems a bit RV-in-the-desert Breaking Bad.
“Despite the end of the alcohol ban, procuring a consistent yeast supply at the right quality (containing a high amount of solids) remains challenging – and this is unfortunately expected to persist this year,” continued Murphy. “We are working with our Global Procurement team to unlock new sources of supply and are optimistic we will find a sustainable solution in the medium term, but until then we unfortunately remain constrained.
“Until full production capacity can be reached again, stock might not always be available in a store near our consumers.”
The good – no, excellent – news is that based on the current yeast supply, the aim is to begin distributing product in the latter part of March 2022, said Murphy. “It will, however, take some time to filter through the distribution system. We will work with our retail partners to try reach the best distribution levels, as soon as possible.”
As for why you can still get Bovril, that’s because during the initial lockdowns, the production of Bovril was prioritised as it uses significantly less yeast (and a different quality profile of yeast) to make.
Hang in there, Marmite people. Your time will come. DM/TGIFood
Follow Bianca Coleman on Instagram @biancaleecoleman
The writer supports Ladles Of Love, which in six years, has grown from serving 70 meals at its first soup kitchen, to one of the most prolific food charity organisations in South Africa.
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