Bean Scene

In which we tour the Jelly Belly factory and gag on the Harry Potter flavors

With Halloween still weeks away and Easter just a scrumptious memory of melting chocolate bunnies, we needed a sugar fix to get through these delicious dog days of summer. Nothing keeps Dog Bites running strong like a candy snack, and, lucky for us, San Francisco is one of the sweetest cities this side of Hershey, Pa.

But we were tired of Ghirardelli Square and its tourist mobs, and frankly we'd seen all the See's we needed to for a while. We were yearning instead for a very specific confection that not only tantalizes the palate, but can open the sweat glands as well -- and may even have played a central role in the decision-making process of our nation's 40th president. To quell this craving, we hit the freeway to see just what in the name of Willy Wonka was cooking at the Jelly Belly factory up in Fairfield.

The famed beanery is inconspicuously situated in the Solano Business Park, just downwind from the Budweiser brewery on Interstate 80. We pass a boring building labeled Professional Hospital Supply and turn onto Jelly Belly Lane; we know we've arrived upon spotting the festively decorated Jelly Belly RV and Volkswagen Bug in front of the visitor center. After marveling at the cartoon Jelly Bellies plastered on the walls, eyeing an elaborate gumdrop mobile, and lamenting the dearth of singing Oompa Loompas, Dog Bites dons a Jelly Belly-issued baker's cap and heads for the tour.

Our guide, Janelle Rinken, begins by explaining the three main stages in making Jelly Bellies: cooking the candy centers, creating the crunchy shells, and -- our favorite -- "polishing it for a jewellike finish." For the uninitiated, Jelly Bellies are very flavorful beans that have also figured prominently in right-wing politics: Ronald Reagan got famously hooked on jelly beans as a substitute for smoking. In a somewhat unsettling 1973 letter to the candy maker, then-California Gov. Reagan wrote, "It's gotten to the point where we can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing around a jar of jelly beans."

According to Rinken, after Reagan was elected president in 1980, he requested red, white, and blue Jelly Bellies for his inauguration. In response, the company sent Very Cherry and Coconut flavors for red and white, and took the extraordinary step of creating a new Blueberry flavor to serve as the previously unavailable blue bean. Rinken didn't mention if Jelly Bellies played any role in the Iran-Contra affair (perhaps by inducing temporary sugar psychosis in the chief executive), but we have our suspicions.

San Francisco artist Peter Rocha capitalized on this presidential advertising by approaching Jelly Belly for supplies to create a bean-by-bean portrait of Reagan on a big slab of wood. Jelly Belly agreed, the portrait was a hit, and Rocha went on to glue together scores of similar renditions of subjects ranging from icons (Elvis and the buffalo penny) to outcasts (Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson). In 2000, Rocha retired and passed the gig to his nephew Roger Rocha, who's created another 20-odd pieces. Roger Rocha, a San Francisco sign painter by trade, enjoys the work because "paints are toxic and jelly beans are not." His pieces usually take about a month and a half to make, and require roughly 15,000 beans.

Another artist, Stevie Famulari, decided to go the Rochas one better, creating a Jelly Belly mural at the factory for Easter. "We had a bet going on how many Jelly Bellies would disappear over the week it was up," says Famulari, who divides her time between S.F. and Albuquerque. "About 20 percent were removed; it's funny because [bean snatchers] get free Jelly Bellies on the tour."

Famulari's favorite beans are the rather unconventional flavors based on the magical beans in the Harry Potter books. Dog Bites had the distinct displeasure of sampling several of these and immediately spitting them out. From the moment the beans hit our taste buds, we realized that Sardine is as bad as it sounds, Black Pepper belongs on a fresh salad in hell, Dirt tastes pretty much like its namesake, and Vomit makes us want to, well, hurl.

"They developed Parmesan Pizza [beans] years ago," Famulari explains, "but it tasted like shit so they shelved it. Then for Harry Potter, they re-brought it out as Vomit. If you put it in your mouth and just think, 'Parmesan Pizza,' you can stomach it." Well, not really.

Famulari goes on to reveal that "whenever they do Sardine, they only do it at night and they have to use masks, because the flavor is so strong." Nonetheless, she insists that the Harry Potter flavors "taste bad and great at the same time."

Back on the tour, Janelle Rinken declares that the most popular Jelly Belly flavor is Very Cherry, followed by upstart Buttered Popcorn. Although new flavors are closely guarded trade secrets, Rinken does let slip that Jelly Belly has concocted a Garlic flavor for the Gilroy Garlic Festival. "If that goes through," she says, "we'll sell them here." For our part, Dog Bites can't wait until they come up with a French Fries flavor and start hawking it at Giants games.

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