Europe’s largest manufacturer and exporter of ice isn’t in the glacial north. It’s in the Yorkshire countryside. How did this happen — and why are people buying frozen water at all?

Inside the warehouse, men whiz around on pallet jacks. They wear thick gloves and helmets lined with the kinds of ear-flapped hats you’d expect to see on Alaskan lumberjacks, their coats zipped up to their chins.

We could be in a factory in Siberia. Except that, while it may be -21C (-5.8F) in here, it’s a balmy 10C or so (50F) outside. We are surrounded by green hills and farmland. Three ponies nuzzle at the property fence.

Welcome to Yorkshire, England, home to Europe’s king of ice.

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Don’t let the ponies fool you. The Ice Co, based in the town of South Kirkby (population: 11,000), isn’t a pokey operation. It’s Europe’s largest packaged ice company, capable of producing up to 500 tons of ice a day. That’s enough to make nearly 4,000 life-sized ice sculptures — or to safely keep the entire city of Venice, Italy in cold drinks for an evening. The Ice Co is also the largest exporter of manufactured ice in Europe, selling to more than 10 countries, including France, Denmark, Sweden and even as far away as Hong Kong and Australia.

In a 21st-Century world of conveniences, few of us think about ice. Even if we use it frequently — whether to cool drinks, soothe hurt toes or toss into smoothies — its production seems self-evident: put water in a tray. Stick it in the freezer. Remove. Repeat.

 

But this self-serve version of cooling a drink is a recent development. For decades, ice was a valuable, sellable product that couldn’t be manufactured at home. And for a small but growing population in Europe, say those in the industry, ice is becoming an everyday luxury once again — this time, in its produced, packaged form.

The first countries to produce ice in Europe — as far back as the Middle Ages — were Spain, France and Italy, said Maryse Prior, secretary and board member of the European Packaged Ice Association.

“They used to have guys going to break the ice in the Black Sea and bring it down to the towns,” she said. It would be kept cold either by being floated in the water or by being buried deep in the ground, snow piled on top.

The J Marr Group, the parent corporation of The Ice Co, started in a similar fashion. It was founded in 1860 by Joseph Marr — the fifth-great-grandfather of the company’s now-managing director, Polly Marr. Joseph opened business as a fish curer in 1860. Ten years later, he purchased his first fishing vessel.

The challenge was how to keep fresh catch cold. Like generations before them, the local fishermen used the natural resources at their disposal. “All the fishermen, they’d go and cut off chunks of glacier from Norway, tow it back across the sea and put it on the dockside,” said Marr. “Then they’d all help themselves.”

The family started using their first ice factory in 1927, but wasn’t until the 1960s, after her grandfather visited the US and noticed that supermarkets were selling bags of ice, that the family decided to get into the packaged ice business themselves, Marr said.

The company has become a major player in the European ice industry in the past few years, largely thanks to selling their fishing business in 2006 and re-investing the funds into the South Kirkby site. They also purchased other ice companies, re-launching them under one brand in 2010. 

The result: The Ice Co now runs six other sites as well as the 51,000sqft South Kirkby factory. They supplied the 2012 London Olympic Games not only for beverages, but with medical ice for athletes. And while most of the company’s products stay in the UK — the supermarket Tesco is their largest buyer — 10% are exported. From 2010 to 2015, it increased international sales by 770%.

Demand for ice in Europe seems to be increasing. Previously seen as a peculiarly American tic, putting ice in a glass of soda, or even whisky, is becoming more acceptable over the Atlantic. The rise of cocktail culture may contribute, too.

“In France, we find bags of ice all over now: in the petrol station, in the supermarket,” Prior said. And at bars including the Mayflower, one of London’s oldest pubs, British clients seem to be adding ice to their cider more frequently today — which may partly be in response to the images in ads by companies like Magners and Strongbow, said Mayflower manager Sueleen Fletcher.

Led by Spain, Belgium and the Republic of Ireland, European Union countries buy 88% more ice from Britain now than they did in 2013, according to Britain’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Another fast-growing market is China, which has more than tripled British ice imports since 2013.

The Ice Co did its own survey recently of ice consumption in the UK. Their finding: “Hardly anyone in the population buys ice,” Marr said. “It’s small — a very small percentage. But it’s doubled in the last five years.”

To penetrate more of the market, one big theme packaged ice companies are trying to hit is hygiene.

To visit the South Kirkby factory, you must don white coats, booties and sanitary caps. There’s a mandatory handwashing station and strict no-glass policy. After being chopped and bagged, the ice even goes through a metal detector to check for stray jewellery. All of that even though you’ll get nowhere near the ice — nor do the workers, who not only don’t handle the frozen stuff, but don’t even touch the plastic bags.

Marr points to one of the eight massive freezing compartments in the South Kirkby factory. Each one is pumped with water from the factory’s filtration and purification system; after freezing inside the cylinders, the tubes of ice are chopped into cubes at the bottom and blow-dried so they don’t stick together. A conveyer belt sweeps them off to be screened and packed.

But apart from hygiene, there are more fun reasons to buy ice, too, Marr said. Their products aren’t just regular ice cubes. There’s also the Super Cube, launched in 2014, which takes five times as long to melt as the usual kind. Ice & Slice, which packs big cubes and frozen fruit slices in one bag. Or the latest: 250ml pouches of frozen cocktails — in strawberry daiquiri, pina colada, mojito and margarita — ready to drink right out of the grocery store freezer.

The main ingredient to be added, of course? Warm weather.

Then again, if even Scandinavians are buying England’s ice, maybe sun isn’t as necessary as you’d think.

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