Third in a series on food tours in the East Bay
As we peer over the vast field of rotating stainless steel tumblers, each churning about several hundred pounds of jewel-colored candy, successive wafts of bubblegum, citrus, and cheap margarita swirl around us.
I’m surrounded by forty strangers, many of them under ten, who are sporting paper caps bearing the “Jelly Belly” logo. One half-hour north of Berkeley, we are all touring the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield.
And we are all at the mercy of a tour guide who demands audience participation. When the group appears a little too sedate, she whips everyone into a halfhearted frenzy with: “I say Jelly, you say Belly, okay? Jelly! … I can’t hear you … JELLY!” Once we oblige her we are allowed to move on.
Televisions at each station demonstrate the candy-making process — on weekends, they’re all you’ll see of the factory’s workings. On a Wednesday morning, though, most of us ignore them to stare rapturously at the rumbling machinery below, half Rube Goldberg, half Willy Wonka.
To build a Jelly Belly is not a simple thing, we learn. Each Belly starts with a center of sugar, corn syrup, and flavorings poured into bean-shaped molds. The centers are dried, “engrossed” by being tumbled together with granulated sugar and flavored syrup, then dried again. After seven days and six rounds of engrossing, the finished beans are checked for size and consistency, stamped with a tiny logo, and sent off to the packaging machines. The Fairfield factory produces 100,000 pounds of Jelly Bellies a day.
Jelly Bellies first came to national attention when Ronald Reagan became president, and the Herman Goelitz company still pays tribute to Mr. Reagan with a memorabilia case and a large portrait made of Jelly Bellies.
I sulk through the canned tour, fretting over the effect of so much candy on the American diet. But after watching hundreds of tons of sugar and artificial flavors pass beneath my feet I go a little crazy at the factory store’s pick-a-mix bins. The lesson I take with me? Buttered popcorn and peanut butter suck. Grapefruit plus plum plus French vanilla, though, make a mighty fine fruit smoothie.