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Behind the Scenes at Jelly Belly Candy Company - Part 1

By Anthony Todd in Food on Sep 1, 2010 5:00PM

It's every kid's dream to get loose in a candy factory. We've toured lots of candy makers, pastry kitchens and storefronts, but we'd never been inside an actual, full-scale candy factory before! Even better, it was a Chicago factory for a product we really love, Jelly Belly Jelly Beans. We've been enamored of these many-flavored lovelies since our childhood, when we used to buy them at movie theaters to get the best bang for our buck. We were thrilled when Bill Kelley, Vice President (and 4th generation candy maker) agreed to show us around the plant. The plant is not open to the public (unlike Jelly Belly's other plants), so it was a special experience.

Goelitz Candies (now under the Jelly Belly Candy Co. label) has been making candy at their North Chicago plant since 1913. Still housed partly in the original building, Goelitz originally made its name with candy corn, their biggest seller in the pre-bean years. They still make lots of different candies (including candy corn) under the "Confections by Jelly Belly" label, but their most important product is the beans.

The process starts on the very top level of the factory. On the roof, a huge 60,000 lb. sugar tank and a 200,000 lb corn syrup tank feed into the top level. Mixed with corn starch, these three ingredients are cooked to form the gel center of a jelly bean. On the day we visited, these same ingredients (combined with marshmallow and fondant) were being cooked into candy corn. All the cooking is managed by computers, but the ingredients are measured and mixed in by hand.

After the goo (called a slurry) is cooked, it is fed to the next level down, where an enormous machine sits chugging away. This is the starch molding machine, and we will sound like huge geeks when we admit that this machine has entered our list of the top 10 coolest things ever. Did you ever wonder how Jelly Beans were formed? We assumed they were poured into molds. Well, kinda. Fixed molds would be inflexible and very expensive - and can you imagine how many would be needed? Instead, they are molded in cornstarch.

Metal dies are pressed into wooden trays filled with cornstarch, forming shapes. As you can see in the pictures, these can take many shapes, including gummy bears and giant rats. The candy is poured very precisely into the starch molds, and it doesn't mix with the starch. Then, the trays are left to cure for a day. A machine dumps out the bean centers and shakes off the starch. At this point, they look like Jelly Beans - the ones we saw were licorice, and tasted great. But, they aren't even close to done. The last step on this floor is the most fun - the beans are sprayed and tumbled with sugar.

Cornstarch is everywhere in this part of the plant - wheelbarrows of it. The factory has to use a special filtering system to keep the air safe. To give an idea of scale - each of the board molds holds 1260 jelly beans, and in a typical shift at the factory, they will process 25,000 pounds of jelly beans. That's 10,000,000 beans per shift.

Tomorrow, we'll see the rest of the process, including candy coating and packaging.