Friday, April 15, 2011
Tour Wisconsin's Jelly Belly Candy for inside look at jelly beans
Sweet look at small, mighty Jelly Bellys
Photos & feature by Lisa Meyers McClintick
With Easter coming, jelly beans are on the brain--and so is one of the Midwest's sweetest factory tours. Pleasant Prairie, Wis., isn't officially the producer of Jelly Bellys, but this distribution center offers a fun train-like ride that explains the process of creating gourmet jelly beans with videos shown along a playful loop tour.
Pleasant Prairie sits near Kenosha, midway between Milwaukee and Chicago. At the Fairfield, Calif., home factory in the Bay Area, you also can see actual production of Jelly Belly candy being made. Tours at both locations are free and so are the sampler packs given to guests at the end. Just don't expect to leave without buying more--not if you have kids in tow.
Jelly Bellys endure past the 80s boom
The little jelly beans with a big taste were first created in 1976 and became the cult candy of the '80s. Jelly Bellys really rose to fame thanks to President Ronald Reagan who used them to kick his pipe-smoking habit and passed them out at the White House. The blueberry flavor was invented so the company could do a patriotic red, white and blue mix.
Soon Jelly Belly boutiques opened in shopping malls to showcase their astonishingly accurate flavors of root beer, watermelon, cotton candy and even buttered popcorn. If you grew up in that era like I did, it was the best thing since Bonne Belle Lip Smackers.
From worst jelly bean flavors to the best
When Jelly Belly started, there were seven flavors. There are now 50 official flavors. They're the core. But there are close to 200 flavors when you add up special lines such as Bean Boozled, inspired by J.K. Rowling's imagination in the Harry Potter books. Remember Bertie Bott's and deceptive flavors that could be ear wax?
It's like Halloween with all the double-dog-daring you can do. Bean Boozled look-alike flavors are are either delicious or downright disgusting. What looks like peach may be barf. Licorice could be skunk spray, and top banana could be pencil shavings. You've got a 50-50 chance of a sweet surprise or a nasty one. Of course kids might not blink at ones flavored like toothpaste or boogers.
Do you dare to taste the dog food?
Bellying up to the bean tasting bar at the Pleasant Prairie visitor center was the most memorable part of our tour. Think wine tasting bar for the kiddie set. The swill bucket to gag in would have come in handy as you can sample one jelly bean at a time and suddenly regret trying to out-gross your kids with daring choices.
But can we be blamed? With a company that made amazingly accurate tastes its forte, it's tough not to try even the ickiest of flavors.
Curious about a jelly bean labeled "centipede"? It looks like strawberry, tastes like dirt. Canned dog food? Just like it sounds. I quit after sampling "baby wipes." Ewwww. We quit at before moldy cheese, skunk spray and barf.
Instead of palate-cleansing crackers between sips of red or white wines, you've got sympathetic employees handing over tangerine beans to eradicate or at least mask the vile taste of rotten egg. That was my husband's misfortune to taste.
Favorite Jelly Belly flavors
Our tour guide told us it takes 11 days to make a jelly bean, and new flavors can take months to develop and perfect. Kiwi, in particular, was a challenging flavor to get just right. You'd think it would be easy after figuring out caramel corn, strawberry cheesecake, margarita and toasted marshmallow.
There are several specialty lines, such as sours, sport beans that supposedly have electrolytes like mini-Gatorades, sugar-free beans, Soda Pop Shoppe that tastes like bestselling soda brands and a Cold Stone Creamery Ice Cream Parlor Mix with flavors such as apple pie, birthday cake and strawberry blond sundae. There's even a superfruit mix with natural sweeteners.
Ideas always are coming in from customers, but they can be pretty bizarre. Our guide rattled off, "Macaroni and cheese, pickles, ketchup and mustard" to name a few. Sounds like a kids meal that just needs a burger and fries.
Most flavors are more traditional but fun: chili mango, strawberry daiquiri, wild blackberry, tutti-fruitti and Dr. Pepper. Very cherry and buttered popcorn still top the charts of customer favorites.
Our favorite souvenir: the cheap hodge-podge bags of jelly candies labeled "belly flops." They sell a lot more sweets here beyond jelly beans--even a big case of chocolate truffles--but it's the colorful, quirky Jelly Bellys that rule as the star attraction.
Tours run 9am to 4pm at 10100 Jelly Belly Lane, Pleasant Prairie. You can call 866-868-7522 for more information.