When I was kid in the 1970s, jellybeans were a particular obsession and while the big, commercial confection purveyors didn’t pay this segment a whole lot of attention back then, neither was it hard to find them, all year long.
Today candy marketers treat them as a seasonal item, available in bounty only the 6 weeks ahead of Easter. This surely troubles my fellow jellybean aficionados, yet when they do arrive in stores, sometime in February or early March, they come in an ever expanding range of flavors, many inspired by tried-and-true candy genres never before associated with the jelly bean.
Easter 2017 seems as good a time as any to parse the jellybean’s curious evolution of variety and accessibility. Like so many things (a handful of jelly beans in particular), it’s something of a mixed bag.
My mother and maternal grandfather were both jellybean enthusiasts and to the extent the choices allowed it, connoisseurs. I embraced this legacy from a young age and took it to a new level.
There was an inside joke my mother and I shared on this subject, though it wasn’t so much a joke as a cover for snobbery. Basically, anything but first-class jellybeans were derided as “inferior” and, more often than not, it was only a pectin-style jellybean that made the grade. We might be given some jellybeans, or I might bring some home, and if they weren’t up to snuff we’d look at each other very gravely and pronounce them “inferior”.
Then we’d devour them just the same.
What makes a pectin jellybean? In cooking, pectin is commonly used as a natural thickening agent in jams and jellies. The first pectin available for purchase was derived from apples, which are naturally rich in it. Pectin is essentially a complex carbohydrate, which is found both in the cell walls of plants, and between the cell walls, helping to regulate the flow of water between cells and keeping them rigid. You’ll note some plants begin to lose part of this complex carbohydrate as they age; apples left out too long get soft and mushy as the pectin diminishes. When apples are perfectly ripe, they have a firm and crisp texture, mainly due to the presence of pectin.
I couldn’t tell you what the addition of pectin does or is meant to achieve in the jelly bean-making process. I can only tell you what distinguishes the finished product. The candied shell of a pectin jellybean is shinier than a regular Brach’s jellybean. It’s also more brittle, though that term isn’t exactly apt.
Many folks are familiar with jellybeans made by Brach’s. They’ve been around forever and can still be found, year round, in places like CVS and Walgreen’s. These are not pectin-style jellybeans. Their coatings are dull and when you press two Brach’s jellybeans together, nose to nose, each sort of smushes into the other.
The candied coatings of pectin beans have more integrity. Russell Stover has made a quality pectin jellybean for decades. When you press two Russell Stover jelly beans together, nose to nose, one will inevitably prove stronger and simply burrow into the other — the weaker coating will crack and splinter into small but identifiable pieces as it gives way… This is not idle observation, by the way. I performed this critical testing for many years, as a youth, so the world might better distinguish one jellybean genre from another.
The upshot is that pectin jellybeans provides a crisper, cleaner eating experience, in line with the role it plays in ripe apples. In other words, it’s the mushiness of a non-pectin jellybean, inside and outside your mouth, which renders it inferior.
Flavor is another distinguishing factor, of course. Pectin bags are primarily citrus in nature, i.e. lemon (yellow), lime (green), cherry (red), grape (purple) and orange. Russell Stover threw in pineapple (white) and grapefruit (pink), but not all pectin jellybean purveyors went for these options.
Some of these pectin assortments included licorice (black) and some did not (Russell Stover didn’t go there, for example, and still doesn’t). Black jellybeans are divisive. Some people love them, some hate them. Some like them well enough but don’t want to eat them with any OTHER jelly beans, as some argue licorice or anis-flavored anything doesn’t really go well with anything else (I reside in this camp).
Read into this dyamic larger cultural issues as you will. But know that I’m talking about jellybeans only.
Back in the 1970s there were dozens of independent jellybean makers, pectin and otherwise. Some of the varied products would appear in stores ready-packaged in cellophane packets; some were offered in bulk, to be scooped out, weighed and dropped into small paper bags.
But these varied assortments all tasted a bit different. There was no uniformity, adding nuance to the “inferior/superior” judgment.
But I think this much can be said without fear of reprisal: The draw of pectin jellybeans is that all those citrus flavors go together. You can grab a handful and not worry about one flavor not “working” with another (save the licorice issue, which is subject to taste).
Russell Stover brand jellybeans were always considered to be pretty good. They were solid pectin entries that had the added allure of being available broadly. However, I remember the best jelly beans were the kinds you found in the cellophane packets at specialty candy emporia, places like Bailey’s, an upscale ice cream and confection shop in Wellesley, Mass., where I grew up.
Bailey’s was quite a place, the stuff of nostalgic confection fantasy. The ice cream was top notch and old fashioned (never soft-serve) and the candy first-rate, featured as it was behind a giant, glass-faced display case that ran the entire width of the store. It was one of those places where you stepped up into the establishment from the street, which added to its class somehow, along with the small, marble-top tables served by rounded, wrought-iron chairs. When you had a bit of cash, this was the place to get superior jellybeans (in addition to fine chocolates, traditional ice cream sodas and sundaes).
The other end of the spectrum was a plastic bag of Brach’s jellybeans, which you could find just about anywhere, despite their inherent inferiority. Somewhere in between were the beans we bought at the Wellesley College candy shop, in the school’s student union-type meeting place, The Schneider Center. This place was only a 5-minute bike ride from my house, and many a run was made there for jelly beans in particular — scooped from large jar, weighed out and poured into small paper bag.
There were other jelly bean-like products out there on the market: Mike & Ike, essentially low-grade, elongated pectin jelly beans that came in a box; Good ‘n Plenty, the all-licorice cousins to Mike & Ike; Brach’s offered a “spiced” version of its jellybeans (never a favorite of mine); and then there were Skittles, which debuted in the late 1970s. These were and remain undoubtedly jellybeanesque but their shape, thicker pectin shells and chewier insides set them apart. I’m not sure anyone dislikes Skittles, but it’s hard to call them “jellybeans”.
The late 1970s and early ‘80s brought the first real change to the jellybean universe, so far as I was concerned, and it wasn’t necessarily a change for the better. Jelly Bellies debuted in 1976 but I’m not sure I was aware of them until I went off to college in 1982.
Jelly Bellies were, without a doubt, an innovation. These were quality pectin beans whose manufacturers pioneered the selling of beans in single, fantastical flavors. At first the novelty of a buttered popcorn- or peppermint stick-flavored jellybean might have seemed inviting and fun. Some varieties really worked (watermelon) while others didn’t (bubble gum), but it’s hard not to applaud the creativity, this completely new take on the milieu. If I’m not mistaken, Jelly Bellies also pioneered the flavoring of both the candy coating and the jelly within. This provided a very strong taste the likes of which one needs, presumably, to pull off something like a Dr. Pepper jellybean. One cannot hope to do that with a flavored coating alone.
The problem comes when you try to eat a sour green apple Jelly Belly as part of a handful that includes others flavored of buttered popcorn, margarita, strawberry cheesecake, chili mango and Dr. Pepper. As we were prone to intone during the ‘80s, “Gag me.” In specialty stores one could buy a bag of entirely one flavor, or one could buy/mix them according to personal taste, for lemon drop and raspberry surely do go well together.
But all too often Jelly Bellies were purchased and continue to be packaged for commercial sale en masse and utterly mixed up with a dozen different flavors represented in any one bag. Sorry, but that’s just too many disparate flavors to be consumed by the handful — for that is the way one is meant to eat jellybeans, grabbing a bunch and popping 2-3 at time, confident that no matter which 2-3 you pop, they will work together on a flavor level.
Sadly, because they don’t work together on this level, one is obliged to eat Jelly Bellies individually, savoring those tastes Jelly Belly does well and cursing the rest. Jellybeans, in my view, were not meant to be consumed on this individual basis.
I must be alone in this, or part of a distinct minority, for Jelly Bellies proved so popular that nearly all the independently manufactured pectin varieties disappeared over the next 20 years. Brach’s and Russell Stover have hung in there, but for years starting in the mid-1980s, I would go into candy shops and scan the dozens of clear-plastic Jelly Belly receptacles seeking a citrus-only mix of pectin varieties, or the independently produced cellophane packets of yore. No dice. They weren’t there, either on account of low demand or competitive pressures from Jelly Belly, whose corporate overlords might well have insisted that stores carry its product only and no competitors.
I’m not exactly sure when the game changed once again, but methinks it was on or around the millennium, as candy makers began to leverage their various brands (and tastes) by putting them to work in other confectionary contexts. Think Reese’s Pieces, the taste of a Peanut Butter Cup deftly rendered in M&M form, or Oreo candy bars.
There was a further and related development. In the 21st century, we live in an era where candy purveyors are continually in search of limited edition sales. Distributing jellybeans only on or around Easter is one example of this dynamic, seasonally driven. But there are other examples of genre-twisting that come and go more or less randomly: the dark chocolate Kit Kat, the Pina Colada Almond joy, etc. Some of these innovations must test or sell particularly well, because they remain consistently available (the dark chocolate Milky Way is frankly a huge improvement on the original). Others, however, appear in some special-offer bin for a time only to disappear without a trace.
I’m here to tell you the jellybean segment has been greatly enhanced by this confluence of candy marketing initiatives. We may not see all these new entries but for a few months each year, as winter segues to spring. But they are welcome additions to a genre too long starved of innovation and hamstrung by the misguided Jelly Belly Syndrome.
See here a few examples of what I’m talking about:
• Starburst Jelly Beans — A prime example of a distinct candy taste brilliantly adapted to the jellybean genre. Like Jelly Bellies, Starburst beans use both a flavored center and flavored shell to maximize taste. Tart and admirably pectin in composition, they trade on the winning Starburst flavor spectrum while providing the ability to eat by the handful — every flavor goes with the others. Indeed, this is a step up from Starburst chews, whose squares are rarely eaten together — too much unwrapping and chewy mass for that. One might not have realized that all the Starburst flavors work so well together, but they do. Oh they do.
• Jolly Rancher Jelly Beans — There’s nothing quite like the taste of a Jolly Rancher, though it’s hard to describe just what distinguishes its essence from other hard candies. (There was something distinctive about Hawaiian Punch that is similarly hard to pin down). Whatever it is, this essence has been successfully rendered in jellybean form, and an appreciative public applauds. The signature green apple and watermelon tastes work extremely well according to the handful test.
• Lifesaver Jelly Beans — A let down, but this should come as no surprise for Lifesavers were considered a banal candy choice by friends and colleagues as far back as 1975. Even 35 years ago they were seen as something one’s grandparents might prefer. Boring. Nostalgia is another arrow in the candy- and snack-marketing quiver these days, but I’d bet that Lifesavers are too far gone (their fans too many deceased) to save the brand and its jellybean incarnation.
• Sweet Tart Jelly Beans — This was the entry that really got me thinking about how sophisticated and nostalgia-driven these cross-over jelly beans had lately become. Everyone loves a Sweet Tart, and coating a jellybean with its essence is a master stroke. They are definitely not pectin style beans; the coating is more cakey/chalky, as a Sweet Tart should be. But they pass the handful test and taste like no other jellybean out there.
I’m surely missing some of the new jellybeans out there on shelves this Easter, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that marketers/manufacturers continue to plumb these depths for new innovations, trading on different aspects of the candy culture, and the culture at large, to better devise and sell product. (A recent version of the Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, inspired by the Harry Potter series, featured flavors described as earwax, dirt, pepper, and vomit.)
Yet, sadly, none of these innovations works effectively toward solving the seasonal issue. Some of us need jelly beans all year round for heaven’s sake. Surely my waistline doesn’t need them, but it’s damned difficult to find even Russell Stover brand jellybeans after April 15 or prior to February 15.
Two years ago I got the strong urge for some proper jellybeans and, having been foiled by several Russell Stover store displays that featured nothing both chocolates and sugar-free jellybeans (not bad but a poor substitute, all things considered), I went online. Turns out you can easily order Russell Stover beans direct from the factory. So I ordered a dozen bags and enjoyed them with my kids for 2-3 blissful weeks.
The idea of ordering something like jellybeans via something as fanciful as the Internet would naturally have been completely unimaginable in the 1970s. But then, as now, we work with the tools we have. In this era, on the dual continua of jellybean innovation and availability, this represents progress.