When Hong-Kong-born Ambrose Lee joined the Jelly Belly Candy Company in 1981, the firm had just 20 flavors. Today, it produces over 150 varieties of jelly beans.
Lee is head of a three-man R&D team that has introduced an array of novel and unexpected tastes for the jelly bean including beer and cocktail versions and even stinky socks flavor.
Last week, he was selected as Confectionery Personality of the Year 2014 by ConfectioneryNews readers.
Draft beer jelly bean spent years in development
“There’s no typical day in R&D – we are continuously developing new products. Every day is a new experience,” he told this site.
Lee said that a Jelly Belly flavor usually took one to three months to develop. But Jelly Belly’s draft beer flavored jelly bean, launched in 2014, took a few years. “When we first started, it didn’t taste like beer,” said Lee. The Jelly Belly R&D team experimented with the hops and other materials to make beer, but the product was slightly too bitter. Lee eventually nailed the flavor, but it took his team a few more months to perfect the color.
Lee throws up an unintended flavor
However, it wasn’t the longest Jelly Belly flavor in development. The barf flavored jelly bean that features in Jelly Belly’s recently launched BeanBoozled range holds that accolade. Like penicillin, Velcro and the Popsicle before it, the barf-flavored jelly bean was created by accident.
Lee was trying to develop a pizza flavor for a Harry Potter-branded range of jelly beans using cheese and meat flavors.
“People were actually trying to run away from the lab. They were saying it was so stinky – you stunk up the joint!”
Senior management told Lee the flavor tasted sickly, so he added slightly more flavoring and the vomit-flavored jelly bean was born. The R&D chief went on to develop other risqué flavors for Harry Potter including earth worm, rotten egg, ear wax and sardines.
“It was so successful that we started our own for Jelly Belly,” he said. Lee worked on other stomach-turning flavors for the BeanBoozled range such as stinky socks, centipede and baby wipes.
Buttered popcorn: The flavor that may not have been
Lee said his all-time favorite Jelly Belly flavor was buttered popcorn, which he developed around 25 years ago when the microwave was rising in popularity.
“I was watching people making it in the lunchroom and smelt this pleasant smell,” he said.
The R&D manager combined sweet and savory flavors in the lab before testing it with the quality assurance team.
“People were saying yuck! It doesn’t taste right – they hated it,” said Lee. Upper management expressed similar sentiments – but then Lee passed by the office of the CEO and asked his boss to guess the flavor. He got it in one.
“He said ‘congratulations Ambrose, you have developed the first candy with a sweet and savory base!’” Buttered popcorn remains one of Jelly Belly’s top 10 flavors.
The Reagan effect
Lee graduated from food science in Canada in 1976. He initially worked for McDonald’s, but then made his move to the US.
Jelly Belly's most famous fan
Former US president Ronald Reagan used to hand out jelly beans to White House visitors. He once said "you can tell a lot about a fellow by his way of eating jelly beans".
“I took the smallest job offer because I wanted a family-owned company and not a big corporate company with all the politics, “ he said.
Lee joined Jelly Belly in 1981 as a quality control technician when the firm was still the Herman Goelitz Candy Company. Within three years, he was appointed quality assurance manager at the company’s old headquarters in Oakland.
“Ronald Reagan tasted our candy and afterwards we couldn’t fill the orders, so that’s why we moved to a bigger facility,” said Lee.
Jelly Belly transferred to its current headquarters in Fairfield, California, in 1986. From there, Lee and his team have developed hundreds of flavor firsts for the candy industry.
“Usually the idea comes from the internet,” said Lee.
The public inputs ideas into the ‘Taste Bud Club’ and Ambrose takes the concepts to marketing. If they are happy, he’ll work on the flavor.
Jelly Belly previously produced a Ball Park mix with hamburger and hot flavors combined with ketchup, mustard and pickle jelly beans.
“We take Heinz ketchup, French’s mustard, Vlasic pickles and Heinz radishes. We look at their ingredients and mimic what they are doing,” said Lee.
After the development phase, finished products are sent to a focus group of around 50 people and if they like the taste, the brand will be presented at a trade fair.
Lee said that Jelly Belly’s R&D department was currently focused on non-GMO ingredients and was staying away from the Southhampton colors that had be linked in a study to child hyperactivity.
“We try to go as organic as possible – this is the trend,” said Lee.