Some people look forward to their birthdays. Some favor Thanksgiving and Christmas. At The A.V. Club, we mark our calendars for the All Candy Expo, the trade show of the National Confectioners Association. Since we first learned of this blessed event a few years ago, we have become regulars. Lest you think “trade show” equals “boring,” you should understand that this industry-only event is like heaven for sugarheads. Candy companies big and small—from Mars to little mom-and-pop organizations—gather to hawk their wares to buyers and distributors. And they even let journalists in to report on new products and trends. Like the journalistic whores we are, we’re happy to take free candy by the bagful (the small, convention-provided-bag full; no outside bags, cases, or containers were allowed on the convention floor) in exchange for some good press. It’s win-win, because who’s going to talk shit about a giant convention-center hall filled with bright colors and sugary treats? Not us, that’s for sure.
This year, we even slowed down long enough to take in some non-candy-grabbing activities, including a “blogger lunch” and a “chocolate luncheon,” plus a press conference that was as surreal as you might imagine. So here’s our reportage on candy treats, many of which you haven’t seen before, and the blow-by-blow of our multi-thousand-calorie days:
Taste Tests preview
First off, we set aside a few new products for future Taste Tests, lest you think we missed them: There are two new flavors of M&Ms coming out this year, coconut and “strawberried peanut butter”—the latter is a tie-in with the Transformers sequel. The coconut package is white and features a sexy green M&M lady wearing fuck-me boots. The strawberried peanut butter, we each ate one of, and so far, so good. A company named Sweet’s out of Salt Lake City is marketing a new line of wine bars—dark chocolate fingers filled with port, champagne, and cabernet-derived wine gels. These were so good and so different (and the Sweet’s people were so generous with their samples) that we set them aside for the whole office to try. The good people at Chuao, home of the spicy ChocoPods that impressed us so much last year, gave us a heaping pile of their latest invention, the ChocoPod Firecracker (dark chocolate, chipotle, salt, and popping candy) and hinted at a new product next month, so we’re holding out for a full tasting. We’ll probably also sample the Snickers Fudge bar at some point, though past Snickers bar variations have left us underwhelmed, possibly since the Snickers bar is already the pinnacle of casual candy snacking.
Because there’s nothing new under the sun, it’s up to candy companies to repurpose flavors they already have—hence a new line of Hershey’s Pieces. You’re surely already familiar with Reese’s Pieces, the peanut-butter candy in a crunchy M&M-type shell. Well, even though none of these rhyme, Hershey’s is introducing York Pieces, Special Dark Pieces, and Almond Joy Pieces. The dark ones pretty much taste like dark-chocolate M&Ms, unsurprisingly, but with a touch more sweetness—very good. The York Pieces are deliciously peppermint-y—excellent. And the Almond Joy Pieces are tasty but strange, with a waxier, bumpier outer coating and a really strong, natural coconut flavor—very tasty. (JM)
Jarm Real Magic Potion Bracelets
One thing I love about the All Candy Expo is the small operations with big dreams—the guys with a small booth off to the side, but an idea that they think will make millions of dollars. And who are we to say that Jarm Real Magic Potion Bracelets won’t catch on and sell kajillions? The guy at the booth obviously really believed in the product, which is a little plastic bracelet filled with dextrose. But the key to this item is that each bracelet is imbued with a special power: There’s “Soccer Goal Power,” “Volleyball Power Potion,” “Best Friend’s Potion,” even “Love Potion.” At the insistence of a very eager, very nice sales guy (he said to us: “The magic is within each of us”) I tried a “Brain Power” bracelet, and I immediately felt dumber, because I couldn’t get much of the powder out. But when I finally do: cocaine holder! (JM)
The quest for candy dominance isn’t just about great, tasty products—it’s about great, evocative names. Wonka naturally has some pretty good ones, and this year it’s introducing Kazoozles, which is described on the package as “delickoricious chewy candy.” (Strangely absent from the Wonka village was the recent Wazoo bar—maybe somebody told them that a Wazoo is an anus.) Anyway, the Kazoozles (just try to say that name without smiling, grown-ups!) are basically very heavy, filled licorice. They come in two flavors, cherry punch and pink lemonade. The actual licorice on the cherry punch is very good, though the actual filling doesn’t taste like much—it’s more there for effect. The pink-lemonade flavor, oddly, is yellow on the outside, and it’s covered with gritty sugar. Neither is terribly tasty, but the cherry punch might be worth another try if the A.V. Club offices weren’t loaded down with so much other candy right now. (JM)
Smarties Bubble Gum
Smarties have been around for 60 years. (We’re talkin’ the hardened sugar discs in America, not the chocolate Smarties you get in Europe.) During this time, nobody has really fucked with the formula. These are old, reliable Halloween candies that most people would never think to buy at the store. Get ready to have your mind blown, because Smarties just introduced Bubble Gum. It looks exactly like a regular Smarties package (tightly rolled plastic containing a cylinder of little candy discs), but the pieces actually congeal into chewing gum, much like Razzles. The problem: You basically need to eat the entire roll to get enough together to make one piece of gum. The other problem: The gum tastes like crap. Stick with what you know, Smarties! (JM)
Harry London Apple- And Orange-Chocolate Bars
Gourmet-ish chocolatier Harry London does a lot of the basics very well, but nothing super-innovative. This year was the first time we saw their long, thin 1.4-ounce flavored chocolate bars, available (at least at the expo) in apple and orange. Apple and chocolate is a tricky combination, but they try to class it up: It’s milk chocolate plus “apple nuggets,” a.k.a. very small bits of apple-flavored chewy stuff. It’s interesting, but not great. Orange and chocolate, on the other hand, is often excellent, and Harry London wisely goes with a dark chocolate for this one—70 percent. The orange isn’t strong enough, but it’s pleasant nevertheless. (JM)
Das Foods Gourmet Lollipops
The Das Foods booth has lots of delicious caramels, but the company was big-pimpin’ its line of gourmet lollipops this year, with young ladies giving potential customers a “flavor profile” to determine which lolly flavor—maple-bacon, salty caramel, orange-pomegranate, or ginger-lemon—was for them. Turns out I’m a pomegranate guy, but I wanted to try a maple-bacon, to at least compare it to the ones we tried for Taste Test a while back. Verdict: not as good. But the salty caramel and the super-tangy orange-pom flavors made up for it. Next time, though, be careful how you use that bacon! (JM)
The big new step from Ghirardelli is the Luxe line of milk chocolates, which comes in five varieties: Milk (the plain bar), Duet (a layer of milk over a layer of dark), Hazelnut, Almond, and Crisp. The latter three are also available in the form of individually wrapped flat squares. I’m not much of a fan of milk chocolate, especially not since the entire office is practically paneled in delicious dark chocolate right now, but as the stuff goes, it’s nicely smooth, without the grainy, crumbly quality of cheap milk chocolate, and without the “tastes like cream, not chocolate” problem of some high-end varieties. Also, the hazelnut and almond varieties are very generously packed with the nuts, which improves the texture even more. (TR)
Moose Munch Dark Chocolate Bar
While the Harry & David rep was one of the nicest, most outgoing people I met at the convention this year (which is really saying something), I wasn’t expecting great things from the Moose Munch Mini Dark Chocolate Bar she handed me—it’s a candy bar that incorporates Moose Munch, the company’s signature snack-mix blend of popcorn, nuts, caramel, chocolate, fruit, etc. What she neglected to tell me is that the base of the bar is an impossibly rich, smooth, extra-soft truffle-like blend, and the whole thing is covered in more dark chocolate. This instantly became my new favorite candy bar. Alas, the minis were a convention-only product—the rep said they were a product that didn’t take off, and now they’re only used for promos—which is too bad, because the bar is so incredibly rich that a single square was about all I could take. “Fun-sized” candy has never been this much fun before. (TR)
Guittard Green Mint Chips
The Guittard Chocolate Company was at the expo with something interesting—bowls of chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, and my favorite, the “Green Mint” chips. I don’t know how well these will work in cookies—they’re the kind of soft, extra-sugary confection that melts instantly in the mouth, which makes me wonder how they’ll hold up in the oven—but they’re tremendously delicious, with a subtle sweetness and a gentle chocolate-mintiness that reminds me of Andies Mints. If they don’t melt and scorch in the oven like some novelty chips (cinnamon and peanut butter chips both come to mind), these will make the most amazing chocolate-mint cookies ever. (TR)
Ferrero Rondnoir and Garden
Anyone who likes fancy chocolates is probably at least glancingly familiar with Ferrero Rocher, the little gold-foiled ball containing a hazelnut inside a wafer shell full of hazelnut cream, coated in milk chocolate and nut bits. But we’d missed out on the Ferrero variety packs, which also contain the relatively new Ferroro Rondnoir—same coating and shell, but around a dark-chocolate filling—and the relatively rare Ferroro Garden—again, same shell, but around a coconut filling. Of these, the Garden variety was the best; it’s so sweet and smooth that it’s almost coconut pudding, and the whole thing melts instantly in the mouth. Pity the Garden variety are only available, sparingly, in those variety packs, and not on their own. They’re fantastic. (TR)
For me, the Holy Grail of last year’s convention was Chocolate Pez, which was new back then and the focus of all Pez’s promos. And yet they weren’t permitting samples at all, even though they had tons of the stuff on hand. Pez was similarly buttoned-down this year about samples—the company mostly seemed to be promoting sports-themed and Disney Pez dispensers—but at the end of the last day of the convention, everything in the display cases was up for grabs (see final paragraphs below), and I scored a couple of blister packs of the chocolate, which I still haven’t seen in stores. (I’m probably just not looking. I sadly don’t think about Pez much outside Candy Expo.) Turns out that Chocolate Pez smells and tastes exactly like Cocoa Pebbles, in firm pellet form. I kinda like it. Sure, it tastes about as much like chocolate as normal Pez tastes like actual fruit, but it activates all the nostalgia taste buds, which I believe are on the bottom of the tongue. (TR)
Silly Ice Cream
A Dippin’ Dots-like snack that doesn’t require refrigeration, Silly Ice Cream doesn’t live up to its name in any sense. It comes in cotton candy, banana split, mint chocolate chip, and Neapolitan flavors, but the dried, tiny Crunch Berry-colored beads resemble packing peanuts in texture and flavor more than they resemble ice cream. Putting “amazing new ice cream candy” and “ice cream so cool, it won’t melt” on the promotional material doesn’t make it so. And it certainly doesn’t make it silly. (DW)
Fluffy Stuff Cotton Candy Pops
Since lollipops seemingly come in every natural flavor imaginable, it was only a matter of time before sucker kingpin Charms got around to the artificial ones. Fluffy Stuff Cotton Candy Pops don’t taste particularly fluffy, but they certainly are as brightly colored and sickly sweet as the cotton candy they simulate. After two hits on this, anyone over the age of 10 will need to cover their eyes, lie down, and take a nap. (DW)
Say you’re a company like Lemonhead: You’re known for doing one thing, and doing it well. (In this case, it’s balls of hard sugar surrounded by soft, yellow, sour sugar.) But growing the company can be a challenge—what to do next? Seems the brand is hoping to attract less stiff-jawed candy consumers, as this convention saw the birth of Chewy Lemonhead & Friends candies. (The line now includes flavors like orange, grape, and cherry.) Essentially the offspring of jelly beans and Sour Patch Kids, the pieces pack a much stronger sourness than might be expected, and the lemon ones still smack of the ‘heads that made the company famous. Just be prepared for a bag with only the “Friends” flavors, as was the case over and over with our mini-packs. (SH)
Continuing the ever-prevalent “things stuffed inside other things” candy trend, a Las Vegas company called Güdfüd (get it?) was offering up its wares at the convention: marshmallows stuffed with chocolate and various fruit flavors, billed as “the best thing to ever happen to a marshmallow.” No, in spite of the playful floating-head graphics, the company isn’t Japanese, though the owner claims it’s “inspired” by a company from overseas, and that his brand is the only American company to do the process right. Problem is, everything else about this one is just plain wrong. The marshmallow itself is near-flavorless and completely flat, and the gooey insides are sparsely inserted. When we microwaved the product, as instructed by the owner, the marshmallow inflated to five times its size and then flattened out again, and its edges hardened unpleasantly. But at least the flavor dispersed. A.V. Club prediction: Big hit with the stoner market. (SH)
The term “candy” can mean a lot of things; in the case of Twangerz, for instance, it’s as loose a definition as they come. The company, called Twang itself, specializes in this line of flavored salts and sugars—meant to be added to the rim of alcoholic drinks, on top of food, or in a pinch, enjoyed out of the comfort of one’s sweaty hand. While Apple and other safe flavors remain predictable, the boldest ones stand out the most. Pickle Salt, for one, could easily provide the proper bite to a Corona or margarita. And Mango Sweet & Sour Chili Flavored Candy is a surprising balance of sweet and savory, sour and fiery. Candy and burgers, together at last. (SH)
“Crisp” candy bars
Since the dawn of time, crispy and solid were like the Montagues and Capulets of candy-bar varieties: We all knew the wedding was gonna happen, it was just a matter of time and trickery. Now some major players are introducing the married couples, in the form of Crunch Crisp, Baby Ruth Crisp, and Butterfinger Crisp, with the ostensible goal being that the forbidden crossover of flavors will sneak these bars back into people’s pockets. (Sick of broccoli? Have ya tried broccoli crunch?) But while these bars are still delicious—they’re candy bars, after all—the layers of wafer dilute the flavors that made these bars so popular; the Crunch version packs far less crisped rice, and the new Baby Ruth leaves far too little room for peanuts. The Butterfinger one fared far better, with the wafers cutting through the thick inside. Just don’t expect a huge departure from the regular ol’ bar. (SH)
Skittles Crazy Cores
I am a longtime Skittles fan—or a longtime Skittles apologist, depending on your take on this Skittlesiest of taste sensations. Heck, I even enjoyed the little-loved Chocolate Skittles, even if they were essentially M&Ms. So I was cautiously optimistic about Crazy Cores Skittles, a newly developed mutant strain of Skittles featuring four explosive flavor combinations: Blue Raspberry/Lemon, Melon/Berry, Strawberry/Watermelon, and Mango Peach/Cherry Lemonade. So it pains me to concede that they suck. Taste and texture-wise, they remind me of Carnival Skittles, but with way more sugar. That’s no small feat, considering Carnival Skittles are essentially sugary sugar in a sugar shell, sprinkled with sugar. Crazy Cores taste like rock-hard cotton candy; it’s sickeningly, nauseatingly sweet. I still love you, Skittles people, but you shouldn’t be fucking with a classic. (NR)
The jerky conundrum
I have a half-assed theory: The worse the economy gets, the more jerky people consume. It is the true people’s food, a beloved foodstuff of truckers, hillbillies, and rural gentleman the world over. If our economy sinks any lower, I suspect that we Americans will subsist on an all-jerky diet. This theory was borne out by the preponderance of jerky pimps at the convention; they seemed to make up at least 5 to 10 percent of the vendors. That makes me wonder, is there really that much of a difference between good jerky and bad jerky? If so, is that the difference between finely ground horse hooves and plain old meat-flavored sawdust? Josh has been to the Convenience Store Convention (such difficult lives we lead!), so he was jaded by all the jerky. I gotta admit, though, for something that barely qualifies as food, jerky can be pretty delicious. (NR)
Asher's Sugar-Free Low Sodium Peanut Butter Truffle Bar
The warning on Asher’s Sugar-Free Low Sodium Peanut Butter Truffle Bar gave me far more enjoyment than the product itself. “Not A Low-Calorie Food,” it sheepishly concedes in tiny type. In slightly bigger type on the back, it informs diabetics, “This product may be useful in your diet on the advice of a physician. Excess consumption may have a laxative effect.” So there you have it, folks: a chalky, foul-tasting candy bar with just as many calories as delicious sugary candy bars. Oh, and it may give you the runs. Actually, I’m not even going to finish half this foul little fucker. Begone, sugar-free candy antichrist! (NR)
Spicy Chili Mango Jelly Bellies
This year marks the death of the jalapeño jelly bean from Jelly Belly, to be replaced in July with a spicy chili mango flavor. The new bean is all mango on the front, but then hits hard with the spiciness. Other Rookie™ (yes, they’ve trademarked “Rookie”) flavors include the Cold Stone Creamery ice-cream-parlor mix, which we first tasted last year. Of these, the mint chocolate chip is spot-on, as is the from-a-box batter taste of Birthday Cake Remix, but the Apple Pie A La Cold Stone tastes like nutmeg-spiced suntan lotion. More successful are the Superfruit varieties, sprung from the most-requested flavor of açai berry (seriously?), though the no-food-coloring rule makes the five flavors nearly impossible to tell apart. (EW)
Durukan Chocolate Pops
Busting into the Durukan booth was something of a triumph—the Turkish candymaker had walled off a rectangular area with one opening, so those wanting to sample some of the multi-layered lollipops advertised all over the quarantined area had to infiltrate the sales folk and talk them into sharing. They’re just now breaking into the U.S., promising “lollipops that adhere to the strictest quality and hygiene standards,” but the choco pop tastes mostly like mildly chocolate-flavored Karo syrup. (EW)
The same kind of “two things are better than one” thinking that gave us Alien Vs. Predator now gives us Oak Leaf’s gumballs with Nerds. “Kids love big, sugary gumballs. Kids love Wonka’s Nerds. Put ‘em together, and you’ve got a powerful new revenue stream!” Although the wrapper promises it’s “loaded with REAL Wonka Nerds,” the gumballs lack the satisfying crunch such a hybrid seemingly promises. It mostly tastes like a big gumball—where are those delicious Nerds? (KR)
Lindt Sea Salt Bar
Chocolatier Lindt proved to be a staff favorite at this year’s event, thanks to a new dark chocolate with “a touch of” sea salt (coming out in September). The high-end chocolatiers keep a tight hold on the samples; there are no overflowing bins of freebies in the Lindt booth, just a sharp-dressed woman doling out individual squares of chocolate with silver tongs. Basically, the sea-salt chocolate is Lindt’s upscale take on a chocolate-covered pretzel, uh, minus the pretzel: The sea salt gives it just the right amount of bite. Tasha proved the hero of the convention when she managed to score a whole bar of the stuff, possibly for a later taste test. Also at the Lindt booth were some new Lindor Truffles—white-chocolate truffles with cocoa nibs inspired by Stracciatella gelato and cookies-and-cream ice cream. Totally delicious, though they look like they’re filled with semen. (KR)
Dove Peanut Butter Chocolate
The big guys—Hershey, Mars—try to compete with the high-end chocolatiers by offering their own lines of premium chocolate, which usually pale in comparison to the good shit out there. Mars has Dove, and it has introduced a new attempt at the original candy blockbuster: peanut-butter-filled milk chocolate. Ghirardelli did the same thing last year, with chunky peanut butter, but Dove goes the smooth route with totally acceptable, completely unexciting results. It’s not as bold as their bananas foster and tiramisu flavors from last year, but those were kind of gross anyway. (KR)
The most memorable exhibitor at the expo may have been the Frenchies behind Le Whif, a new product that boasts “Enjoy chocolate without the calories!” How? Is it sugar-free? No. Mocholate? No. Some weird brown substance masquerading as chocolate? You’re getting warmer. Le Whif is basically a nicotine inhaler for chocolate: a little tube you suck on for an “essence” of chocolate—what looks like a little cocoa powder—just without the taste or satisfaction. The guys who make Le Whif were basically out of samples just a few hours into the first day of the expo, so they denied our request for one—though they cornered us for an eternity to talk about how Le Whif is the “evolution” of eating. But master thief Nathan inadvertently (or advertently) swiped one. Here’s me trying it out. (KR)
Sour Patch Chillerz
As far as sour candies go, Sour Patch Kids are lightweights—delicious, delicious lightweights. Well, Cadbury has decided to pussy them up even more by adding a weird “surge of cooling” to soothe the poor tongues of the wusses who eat them. Problem is, that cooling sensation gives Sour Patch Chillerz a distinctly medicinal aftertaste that negates all the sour, gummi goodness that precedes it. It’s as if a Hall’s mentholated cough drop wandered into the Sour Patch and molested the grape, lemon, and cherry kids. (GK)
Sour Patch Exploderz
Another such wandering mutant species is the misleadingly named Sour Patch Exploderz. (They really love that wacky “z,” don’t they?) Like Gushers before them, Exploderz purport to hold an explosive wave of flavor inside their gummi depths. Instead, the complementary sour flavor inside (apple-strawberry, berry-lemonade) kind of seeps out and then quickly disappears, leaving you with a pretty standard, not-very-sour gummi wad to gnaw through. It isn’t bad—unless you’re bothered by the sensation that your candy is bleeding to death inside your mouth—but its value is based more in novelty than taste. (GK)
Seeds Of Change Mango-Cashew Bar
Organic candy was a big theme at the Expo this year, and the big name in the organic seed-trade game is Seeds Of Change, which has partnered with candy giant Mars to distribute its chocolate products. The fashionably packaged bars come in three-packs of dark and milk chocolate augmented with goodies like puffed grains and coconut, which the nice lady behind the counter enthused was like “going on vacation.” The most popular flavor, though, and the one we tasted, is the 61-percent cacao dark chocolate with mango and cashew. The chocolate is pretty good quality—on par with Ghirardelli—but the chunks of dried mango and cashew hidden inside are a tasty surprise. And hey, 1 percent of Seeds Of Change’s sales goes toward sustainable agriculture advocacy, so you can feel 1 percent less guilty about stuffing your face with chocolate. (GK)
At least three of the companies we checked in with mined the delicious vein where booze and chocolate intersect, with varying results. Turin Liquor-Filled Chocolates ooze out tiny helpings of Jack Daniels, Jose Cuervo, Kahlua, Bailey’s, and Grand Marnier, and the familiar burning sensation on the tongue indicates that yes, that’s real booze in there. Some combinations are better than others—Bailey’s and chocolate is a no-brainer, Jose Cuervo is surprisingly compatible with its milk-chocolate shell, and Jack Daniels sullies the Turin chocolate with its bitter insides—but like alcohol, these are best in small doses. (Or is that in ill-advised binges?) Anthon Berg Chocolate Liqueurs take a milder approach: Each bottle-shaped chocolate (wrapped in foil branded to look like the liquor inside, awww) is filled with a flavored, marzipan-like substance that delivers 2.5 to 5 percent alcohol content without oozing down your chin. However, the chocolate-to-insides ratio is a little off, and the Remy Martin “Crème De La Crème” and Cointreau “Cosmopolitan Cocktail” flavors are nauseatingly sweet. These are obviously targeted to people who don’t actually like the taste of booze, whereas the Turins are basically chocolate-wrapped shots. (GK)
Turin Cold Stone Chocolates
Turin is also marketing a full line of Cold Stone Creamery-related filled chocolates, though they were out of samples, and even though the company had a humongous, fancy display area, with a luxurious circular couch surrounded by gauzy curtains hanging from the ceiling, it apparently hadn’t blown any of its copious money on promo sheets. There are at least four varieties of the chocolates—Our Strawberry Blonde, Chocolate Devotion, Coffee Lovers, and Peanut Butter Cup Perfection—and a zillion varieties of packaging, with the candies coming in bars, single candies, mixed variety packs, and all kinds of specialized packaging. But the rep could not comprehend my requests for a summary sheet of the products—something most Candy Expo booths are far happier to give away than actual samples—and we went around and around for five minutes with me trying to explain why they might want to have a brochure or a sell sheet or something explaining their new line for the press. In the end I gave up and came back to the office and found that someone who went to the Expo on a different day had scored one of the Strawberry Blonde singles. Turns out it’s pretty nasty, with a grainy, cheap-tasting milk chocolate shell around a sickly-sweet, slightly gooey center. Granted, for Cold Stone fans, it does kind of taste like their savagely sweet, gooey ice cream. (TR)
Calling Tung Toos candy is a bit of a stretch, but that can be said of a lot of novelty candy. Unfortunately, these flavored tongue decals function as temporary tattoos about as well as they function as candy, which is to say, not very well. They hit the tongue with a quick blast of sour that made me salivate wildly, which made the edible ink smudge into oblivion. I was left with a dirty-looking tongue and the sense that I’d just lost a sizable chunk of my dignity. (GK)
Things we’re too nauseated to try right now
There’s still plenty more candy to try, and some of it might end up in Taste Tests, but looking over the piles of random samples on the A.V. Club conference table, we’re feeling intimidated. We’re staring down Rockaleta, which looks like a giant Mexican jawbreaker (“4 chile layers and mango artificially flavored gum center”), a new horrible-looking Combos flavor (jalapeno-cheddar), a little chili bar called Tonchitos, and a series of Landrin Wafferato, which are “fashionable chocolates” that were being handed out by fabulous ladies in high-fashion clothing. (This looked a little strange in the convention center.) Astor’s filled dark chocolate bars—they have a whole line of them, and we picked up pomegranate and key lime bars—look incredible, but too rich to try when we’re already crammed full of cheaper chocolate. The latest flavor of Mentos Gum—Tropical Fruit—made us want to go do something obnoxious and then give our victims a thumbs-up, but didn’t make us want to actually taste it. No one has yet delved into the massive piles of sour candy in various forms—gummi, bubble gum, “chew bar,” spray inhaler, etc. from Toxic Sludge, whose name somehow fails to inspire confidence. Hot Tamales has a new line of Spice Flavored Jelly Beans that our stomachs are just too upset to handle. Anthon Berg’s Strawberry In Champagne confection seems like it should be served alone on a silver plate, not shoveled down our throats following all this other tasty crap. Fannie May’s Fruit & Nut Egg looks like a tiny chocolate-covered fruitcake, thus not to be eaten at all, just passed on to future generations. The Oskri Turkish Delight Bar is just too challengingly foreign for the moment; unlike the Turkish delight we’re used to, this is a dense mass of pistachio and apricot pressed into a thin but ultra-dense bar. (Ingredients include “pompoenzaad 12%, honing 10%, boekweit 10%, knapperige rijst 4%,” and much more. We just don’t have the stomach.) And the chocolate-and-nut-covered pretzel stick from The Painted Pretzel looks fantastic, and deserves its own personal day of glory.
A few random things not mentioned above: Josh says that the best piece of candy he had the entire time was from Belgian chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt—a dark chocolate caramel with Hawaiian sea salt. His pick for next-best was some sort of pecan concoction (a terrapin, maybe?) by Kohler Chocolates—a company that spun off from the Wisconsin toiletry manufacturer/spa. (Everything they do is pretty awesome.) Also, remember Bartons, the Chocotini people who gave us the nastiest, most patronizing treatment we received at the convention last year? We were looking forward to a rematch, and maybe to telling them about the smack Ghirardelli talked about them last year. (Okay, and also to see what else they’ve come up with, since the one Chocotini bar we tried was delicious.) But as near as we could tell, they weren’t at the convention at all—no display, and they aren’t listed in the show directory. Bummer.
Last year, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association changed its name to the more stately Chocolate Council when it officially joined the NCA. The Council invited us to a “chocolate luncheon,” which promised to explore the more savory side of chocolate by way of a boxed lunch and guest speaker. We settled in with our chocolate-laced salad topped with goat cheese and pecans and mole-sauced chicken sandwich while Fritz Knipschildt talked mostly about himself. His fancy-rags-to-fancier-riches story had him hand-wrapping chocolates with his mother before becoming the darling of both Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey as the head of “super premium” chocolate company Knipschildt Chocolatier. Knipschildt’s advice to budding chocolatiers included dreaming big and breaking rules, such as sneaking into private bathrooms to steal supplier secrets and finding the best way to do your taxes, wink wink.
The Mars Press Conference
These trade expositions are when companies theoretically introduce their new products, though this year felt a little restrained: There didn’t seem to be a lot of new stuff on the floor, just more of the same from the past couple of years. But you can count on a big company like Mars to unveil some new stuff at their press conference.
Mars and Hershey are the Pepsi and Coke of the chocolate world. Hershey’s even made a New Coke-esque blunder last year when it decided to stop using real chocolate in products like Whatchamacallit, Milk Duds, Mr. Goodbar, and Krackle. To save money, the company decided to stop using cocoa butter, which violates the FDA’s definition of chocolate, so the company subtly changed labeling to tout the chocolate-like flavor of these things. Unsurprisingly, Mars has moved in for the kill: first by opening the “Dove Chocolate Center of Excellence” a mere 10 miles from Hershey’s main factory; and now with its “Real Chocolate Relief Act,” which hammers home that Mars uses only real chocolate in all of its products—7 million of which it’s giving away every Friday until September. Each week, the company will distribute 500,000 full-size versions of their various candy properties, which include M&M’s, Snickers, Dove, Twix, 3 Musketeers, and Milky Way. To emphasize just how much goddamn chocolate that is, Mars U.S. president Todd Lachman semi-dramatically unveiled a giant 12-foot pyramid of Mars crates, which he said represented 1 percent of the giveaway booty. The company even created a phony but funny Neal Patrick Harris PSA about the program:
Some other interesting stuff from Mars, all of which we’ll feature in Taste Test:
• Although the weird limited-edition M&M’s have yet to produce any tasty flavors—orange, raspberry, and cherry were generally blech—the company is introducing Strawberried Peanut Butter—basically PB&J—M&M’s to tie into the Transformers movie for some reason, available through July. Also in the new M&M’s department: M&M’s coconut. Also limited edition, coming in July.
• Also tying into Transformers in the least interesting way possible: the new Snickers Nougabot Bar, which has, uh, yellow nougat. Because, you know, Bumblebee in Transformers is yellow. Hello? Anyone?
• Coming in August is the limited edition Snickers Fudge Bar, which has a peanut-loaded chocolate fudge layer above peanut butter nougat.
The doors close, the floodgates open
After three days of magic, from distribution of free candy to leveraging of branding synergies, All Candy Expo 2009 ended at 2 p.m. on Thursday. But by 1 p.m., most of the exhibitors were really ready to pack up and hit the road. There was a notable difference in their behavior, depending on the exhibit size: The enclosures run by the biggest companies, like Mars and Hershey’s, were towers of impregnable, locked glass cases full of highly visible, carefully arranged product, and the exhibitors just walked off and left them, presumably for some enterprising convention techies to break down later. At the other end of the scale, at the many tiny mom-and-pop-type booths, the exhibitors carefully packed up every last remaining food sample, brochure, and display sign into the boxes they’d come out of, prepping the whole setup for the next convention. But in the middle between these two extremes were all the mid-sized exhibitors who lacked techies or the personal desire to take home every last scrap of their displays, and these people stood back, threw up their hands, and let the hordes descend. Which they did. Crowds formed, swarmed, and spontaneously swept away like sharks in a feeding frenzy, denuding booths in mere minutes.
At the Harry London booth, the associates watched with jaded amusement as people swept in to strip the displays of boxes of truffles, chocolate-covered gourmet pretzels and graham crackers. Some people rapidly grabbed fistfuls of individually wrapped candies, sweeping everything they could get their hands on directly into their little convention-provided bags. Others went picking and choosing among the shelves, selecting entire boxes of truffles, then looking around guiltily to see if someone would stop them from taking them. (My biggest score from this free-for-all: an entire box of Harry London’s “Peanut Butter Crispy Joys,” delicious peanut-butter meltaways crammed with crisp rice. These have an amazing peanut-butter kick and were a big hit with my houseguests Thursday night. They’re ambitiously but aptly named.) Over at the Ferrero booth, where most of the sampler packs had been taped into the cardboard display cases, people literally stood around yanking on the packs until the cases gave them up by ripping apart. In accordance with convention rules, the grabbiest people were putting everything in their little convention-provided bags, but some of them were carrying six of those bags. In several places, I saw people surreptitiously muttering to each other “They’re letting us take this? This is okay?” while determinedly not looking around for permission, or to see the reactions of the reps that might hold them back from the free-for-all.
As the last A.V. Clubber on the floor, I made out like a bandit, snagging a couple of entire Moose Munch bars (a.k.a. about a two-month supply) and a box of Harry London Hot Fudge truffles, then going back to a few key spots to request (or just walk off with) samples of things that had been previously off-limits. But I stopped when my one bag became exhaustingly heavy, and left the floor to the increasingly crazed shark-people and the increasingly weary or absent reps, one of whom I heard cheerily telling another “See you next month at the Fancy Food Show!” There were still a million things we hadn’t picked up, and entire booths to pick apart, but there was no need to look like too much of a pig. There’s always next year. (TR)