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.
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.)