As you enter the Marmite factory gate, a big sign points truckers to departments such as Effluent Pickup, Acid Discharge and Yeast Deck, not the most appetizing introduction to a factory making food products.
Then again, there is nothing immediately appealing about Marmite. Made from recycled yeast collected from breweries, the dark brown, viscous spread looks like a sweet chocolate concoction. But it elicits emotional reactions as strong and salty as its taste. Fans call it savoury; detractors call it disgusting.
"You either love it or you hate it," said Oliver Bradley, Marmite's product manager at Unilever, the multinational consumer products firm that acquired the brand last year. "Because it has such a strong taste, it tends to be instantly polarizing."
This is a special year for Marmite. A century ago, a group of British businessmen decided to market a meaty-tasting yeast extract, using a process invented by a German chemist to turn waste brewer's yeast into a palatable product. They chose Burton, a grimy industrial town that remains the centre of Britain's brewing industry, as the location of their first factory.
With the heavy odour of malted barley pervading the town, Burton remains a capital of beer. At the beer museum, volunteer guide Ian Hingley fondly recalls growing up near the old Marmite factory. When a neighbour complained about his ball playing, he and his friends found the ideal way to strike back.
"We'd go into the Marmite yard, where the yeast was sitting in open trolleys, like pig swill," he said. "We'd get a handful, make it into little balls and toss it at her window. If you could get the balls well spread out, it would block all the light from her windows."
The centennial is a big deal for Marmite. A commemorative series of Marmite jars is rolling off the assembly lines, an advertising campaign is about to be launched, and Prince Philip is expected to make a plant tour this year as part of the Queen's Jubilee celebrations.
"Marmite is one of the 100 top food brands in the United Kingdom," Mr. Bradley said, noting that it far outsells peanut butter. "We sell 40 million jars a year, and we've got 90-per-cent volume share of the yeast extract market."
In a country not known for its contributions to the world's cuisine, Marmite has made a singular impression. The squat glass jars picturing a petite marmite, (French for stewpot) on the label roll off the assembly line 24 hours a day and are exported to 38 countries. It has spawned the Australian knockoff Vegemite, which Marmite lovers claim is a crude imitation, adulterated with caramel as a sweetener.
Marmite has fed British soldiers in both world wars and was recently sent to troops in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It's high in vitamins and folic acid and can be preserved indefinitely without refrigeration.
Company officials acknowledge that British expatriates are the major consumers of the product abroad, but the biggest export market is Sri Lanka, where it's shipped in 40-kilogram barrels and used to flavour rice.
In Britain, Marmite sometimes becomes a beverage when it is added to hot water and used as a flavour enhancer in gravies and soups, but its primary use is as a spread on bread or crackers.
"I like a Marmite sandwich with cheddar or Marmite with eggs on toast or with beans on toast," said plant manager Mark Wearing, who said he's the only Marmite aficionado in his family. "No way could I could get the wife to eat it." He bemoans his stepchildren won't touch the stuff, having been brought up by an anti-Marmite mother.
"If you're not brought up with it by the age of 3, it's unlikely you'll switch to it later," Mr. Wearing said.
Mr. Bradley concedes that a taste for Marmite is best acquired in infancy. "It's a good weaning food because it's an interesting savoury taste for infants and it's full of Vitamin B."
Marmite is popular among university students, Mr. Bradley said. "A little goes a long way. All you need in your room is a toaster, a kettle and a bottle of Marmite. And it's apparently very good on hangovers."
Marmite sales have benefited in recent years from an advertising campaign based on the theme "Marmite -- you either love it or hate it." One award-winning TV commercial shows an attractive blond woman inviting a date back to her apartment.
As she seduces him, the woman darts into the kitchen for a bit of Marmite on a bagel. She returns to her date and kisses him. He puckers his lips, screams and runs off. As the commercial ends, he can be heard in the background being sick.
Using a similar theme, Unilever is celebrating the centenary with a new campaign: "100 Years of Love and Hate." It is trying to boost sales with a limited-edition run of Marmite-flavoured potato chips. It's hoped they'll be more successful than previous efforts at product extensions, including Marmite-flavoured pizza, pretzels, soup cubes and cheese, all of which were flops.
Factory officials proudly point out that Prince Charles and Prince Philip lap up the spread and that Buckingham Palace awarded Marmite a coveted royal warrant.
But Mr. Bradley said he's in no rush to plaster the warrant on Marmite jars. "People really love Marmite. We don't need any third-party endorsements," he said. -*** A quick guide to Marmite -*Marmite is a dark-brown spread made from recycled brewery yeast, salt and vegetable extract. It is high in Vitamin B, riboflavin and niacin. -*The first extracts were developed in 1902, and the product was established enough by 1941 to be fed to British troops fighting in the First World War. According to its makers, Marmite was used to fight outbreaks of beriberi, and as a dietary supplement for prisoners of war. -*Manufactured in Burton-on-Trent, Marmite is popular across the United Kingdom, and has spawned imitators both at home and abroad. Best known, probable, is Vegemite, an Australian product that differs mainly in the addition of caramel.