From the moment we stepped inside, the Jelly Belly Factory was beyond my imagination. Larger-than-life jelly beans and a hot-air balloon dangled from the high ceiling, their bright colors energizing the large space. A Jelly Belly-decorated motorcycle resided in the center of the room, and framed Jelly Belly art—jelly bean mosaics of Hollywood legends and celebrated leaders, like Ronald Reagan—hung on the walls. Reagan was a big fan of Jelly Belly jelly beans and even wrote to the company in 1973 as the Governor of California, “We can hardly start a meeting or make a decision without passing the jar of jelly beans.” During his presidency, his sweet tooth became famous, as he had a special Jelly Belly bean holder installed on Marine One and 3.5 tons shipped to his inauguration celebration, all of which helped put the company on the map.
It was my daughter Nika’s fifth birthday. After attending one too many birthday parties at loud and stress-inducing pizza joints, my husband, Ed, and I wanted to try something different this year. We hoped this Jelly Belly Factory tour would be a wonderland of sweet exploration and make for a memorable birthday for our little girl.
On the drive to the factory in Fairfield, California—a city between Sacramento and San Francisco—Nika’s 8-year-old brother, Kimo, had excitedly listed off his favorite jelly bean flavors: Crushed Pineapple, Toasted Marshmallow and Pumpkin Pie. Nika confessed her wish to try one of every flavor. Ed and I laughed at her enthusiasm, feeling hopeful this tour would be our birthday-girl’s dream come true.
After examining the whimsical décor, we decided to try the Chocolate and Wine Experience, which gave us front-of-line access to the factory tour after the tasting. Eating chocolate instead of waiting in line with our birthday girl—yes, please.
The scent of cocoa was strong as we entered the tasting area on the second floor. We weren’t sure what to expect, as we came for sugary sweets, not velvety chocolate and wine. We all sampled the chocolates and fudge. They were a heavenly fusion of sweet and salty. Ed and I also took a few sips of local Suisun Valley wine, the fruity pairing with the bittersweet chocolate tingling our taste buds.
My kids looked up at me with huge, chocolaty smiles, and I grinned back.
So far, I had every indication this tour was going to be a triumph, as we had already begun to capture the factory’s sweet magic with our chocolate encrusted smiles.
Before we knew it, we finished our tasting and it was time for the self-guided factory tour. We were ushered onto elevated platforms over the factory floor and began our sweet journey in the candy kitchen, which included interactive games and HD/4K videos with an up-close look at the candy making action.
We watched confectioners mix water, corn syrup, sugar and flavoring (that day was peach, which we could smell when we walked in) to make a hot liquid that would eventually become hundreds of jelly beans. The liquid was poured into trays with bean forms, and then we followed big cranes carrying those 25-pound trays of beans to where they rest for a few days.
A Jelly Belly employee offered us a few solidified samples, which Nika eagerly snatched up. “Sweet, but doesn’t taste like jelly beans,” she declared.
The employee replied, “That’s because the beans haven’t gotten their sugar coating yet.”
We entered the area where the beans get their sweet coating, which looked like a construction zone with large rotating drums spinning freshly made beans. Kimo intently watched as a confectioner shoveled sugar onto the spinning beans. “It’s like they’re making sugar cement,” he laughed.
Nika was clearly enthralled with the process, her eyes glued to the machines. “Are they jelly beans yet?” She asked as we continued the tour into the next room.
The sorting room is where the “Belly Flops” are separated from the perfect Jelly Belly beans. A rainbow of crates spread before us, Nika jumped and exclaimed, “They’ve got the candy coating now. I want to try everything!”
Another Jelly Belly employee, standing near one of the interactive stations, heard Nita’s exclamation and laughed.
“That’s right,” the employee said. She handed Nika another jelly bean sample and took one for herself. “Let’s eat it at the same time,” she told Nika. “One, two, three!”
They both popped the jelly bean into their mouths and intently chewed, analyzing the flavors with their tongues. Nika giggled and said, “It’s a real jelly bean now.”
Ed and I sampled the margarita and blackberry flavors that had been resting for the past several days. The kids eagerly tasted every flavor available, a truly birthday-worthy splurge, and a birthday wish come true for Nika.
“I wonder if oompa loompas work here after dark,” Ed teased as the kids explored the jelly bean smorgasbord.
Kimo rolled his eyes—a little too old for his dad’s silly antics—but Nika’s eyes widened. “I want to be their Willy Wonka!” she exclaimed.
Ed laughed, “Or Wilma Wonka in your case.”
Our self-guided tour came to an end, but we could sample more beans just beyond the exit door in the candy shop. The kids raced to the massive shop—basically a jelly bean utopia. Brightly colored candy met us at every turn. The kids gleefully sampled all their favorites and found some new ones—Buttered Popcorn and Sunkist® Lime. I glanced at Ed, and giggled when I saw he was just as enthralled as they were.
After our practically gluttonous jelly bean tastings, the kids filled bags with their favorite flavors. We also grabbed some bean-shaped burgers at the Jelly Belly Café (hoping to curb the sugar rush) and a box of chocolate at the fudge counter. On our way to the car, with arms full of sweet treats, Kimo asked “Can we come back for my birthday, Mom?”
“If that’s what you want. I’m up for plenty more tastings,” I said, smiling.
Nika skipped the rest of the way to our car, singing a song she made up about jelly beans and birthday cake, and I distinctly heard the lyric “best birthday ever” enthusiastically chanted from her lips. Her fifth birthday had been a total success, and so much more enjoyable than birthdays we’d had in the past, because it was just the four of us having fun together. I could foresee this becoming a new family tradition.
It doesn’t stop at Jelly Belly’s sweet confections. Discover Fairfield’s other tempting tours and tastings.