Sweet Memories: How Jelly Belly Invents Flavors

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In an echoing, high-ceilinged chamber in Northern California, there spin row upon row of what look like small cement mixers. The gleaming metal drums churn for hours on end while white-uniformed technicians pour in sugar, corn starch, color, and certain other, more miraculous concoctions. Out of one drum comes a whiff of red apple, conjuring a fall afternoon spent picking fruit; from another comes the buttered-popcorn scent of an evening at the movies. Out of drum after drum, all down the room, come smells evoking everything from apple pie to piña coladas to freshly mown grass.

Here, at the Jelly Belly candy factory, memories are reincarnated as jelly beans.

Flavor and scent are beloved for their ability to bring back memories long buried in the sensory deluge, a point made by Proust with his madeleine decades before modern science let us peer into the physiology of flavor. The flavor designers at the Jelly Belly Candy Company make it their business to speak this sensory language, and, through a process alternately technical and zany, to suss out exactly what it is that makes those tastes—and by extension, those memories—jump.

"In the flavor industry, we sometimes say one plus one equals three," reflects Lee: mix pear with orange, for example, and what you get is peach.

All Jelly Belly flavors, from toasted marshmallow to cappuccino—there are around 100 on the market at any given point—grow from ideas submitted by company employees, members of the public, retailers, and others, but the execution depends on a four-person team of food scientists, led by head of research and development Ambrose Lee and aided by the company's marketing and executive teams.

The development process begins with a very specific idea. The taste must be instantly recognizable, says Lisa Brasher, a fifth-generation member of the founding family and executive vice chairman of the board. "When you say 'pickle,' do you mean sweet or dill? When you say 'potato chip,' do you mean regular or barbecue? Those are very important questions for us."

Thus, the food scientists and marketers taste-test extensively to find what sort of pickle is most pickle-y, whether Bartlett or D'Anjou screams "pear" loudest, and which specific combination of spices, dairy notes, and pumpkin puree sends you straight back to your grandma's pie. When they began development of the chili mango bean, Elise Bernstein, a food scientist, says, they descended on a local Trader Joe's and spirited bag after bag of the chili-covered fruit to their labs for tasting.

Sourcing inspirational ingredients is a matter of utmost importance in the design of a flavor. In its quest to know the taste of a pomegranate inside and out, the group taste-tested juices and fruit from different regions, climates, and providers. "Pomegranates from different areas taste different. Even the bottles they use [for juice] affect the flavor," Lee says.

Once the team decides exactly which version to mimic, the scientists retreat to their labs. They work to determine what mixture of juices, purees, and any of a huge variety of compounds can best call to mind their target. Sometimes they work backward from a sample of, say, pomegranate juice, which they run through a gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer, a pair of instruments that heat up the fluid and vaporize the juice's molecules one by one. The temperatures at which the molecules break down help the scientists determine what kinds of compounds are in the juice and guide them in constructing a faithful flavor.


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With the precision of chemists, they mix batches with slightly different amounts of each component, adding compounds like aldehydes for a fresh green flavor, or esters for a fruity note. Sometimes the effects are not what they expect. "In the flavor industry, we sometimes say one plus one equals three," reflects Lee: mix pear with orange, for example, and what you get is peach. In addition, special compounds must be deployed to make flavors meld with the properties of their "vehicle," as the vessel for the flavor is known. Jelly Belly even has a secret ingredient that suppresses the sweetness of the bean so that savory flavors, like buttered popcorn, can show through.

The most promising permutations are incorporated into small batches of beans for taste-testing. At tasting parties, with the bean in one hand and the real deal in the other, food scientists, marketers, and executives silently rate the fidelity of the flavor. They hold up signs with numbers, and if the overall rating is not an 8, 9, or 10, the flavor doesn't pass on to the next stage of development, Brasher says. The new cocktail flavors were particularly fun to test, she says: "One of the guys in marketing who used to be a bartender made us up some pomegranate cosmos and peach bellinis and mojitos. We tasted the bean versions and tasted the real thing, and tasted the beans—and tasted the real thing again." (The three new flavors were released in June in sleek black boxes announcing, "It's five o'clock somewhere." None contains alcohol.)

Sometimes a flavor must be recalled: Grandma's Pumpkin Pie flavor, for instance, is back in development, because it turns out that nobody's grandma makes pumpkin pie in exactly the same way. Occasionally, the scientists' success overtakes them, as when an experimental four-cheese pizza bean managed to empty a whole mixing room with its noxious smell. But even disasters can redeem themselves: with the release of the company's Beanboozled novelty line, cheese pizza, with a few tweaks, became barf. "They sell like hotcakes," Brasher says.

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Even with all his technical skill, Lee acknowledges, he sometimes finds that human taste buds are the most sensitive detectors of flavor: "They can pick up it when something is missing," he says. Intuition and creativity are also integral to his work. The buttered toast flavor was languishing in the lab, with something lacking from that delicious burnt taste, until Lee, on instinct, added a dab of caramel. Even the buttered popcorn flavor (loved by many, hated by many), was the result of his tinkering in the lab with corn, butter, and salt flavors, just to see what he could come up with. It is now one of Jelly Belly's top three flavors.

To those in the business of building flavors, memories of tastes and scents can be especially poignant. Brasher, who grew up eating pomegranates on a family farm, sent early pomegranate beans back to the kitchen because they lacked the distinctive tartness. And she recalls the way the air tastes when it's full of sugar from wandering the factory floor as a small child, watching row upon row of candy corn kernels ride up conveyor belts to be shipped.

For Bernstein, that special memory is of a certain spice cookie she ate as a child when her family lived in Germany: "Whenever I taste those, I go back to that time, when I was eleven or twelve. Cloves, nutmeg, cardamom, ginger ... the amounts of them, the way they're mixed, there's nothing else like it."

Lee, who once made a raw garlic bean by mistake, is ever the maverick: cloves still remind him of youthful dentist office visits. "[When] we were developing a pumpkin spice flavor and added cloves, that rang the dentist office bell for me," he laughs. "I hate that flavor."

It just brings back too many memories.

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Veronique Greenwood is a staff writer at Discover. Her writing has also appeared in Seed, Technology Review, Scientific American, and elsewhere. You can learn more about her at veroniquegreenwood.com.

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