The Jelly Belly and Beer Tour

The world’s best jelly beans and the most popular beer in America, side by side.

Story David Bolling 
Photos Steven Krause

There is no evidence of collusion between Anheuser-Busch and the Herman Goelitz Candy Company.

So chalk it up to coincidence that two industry titans made the same strategic decision to site their facilities cheek-by-jowl just off Interstate 80, on the southern fringe of Fairfield, a short 26 miles from the Sonoma Plaza.

But there they are, so conveniently contiguous that if you visit one you might as well visit the other—an experience that has come to be known in some circles as the “Beer Belly Tour.”

Anheuser-Busch, as virtually every beer drinker knows, is the all-American (but now foreign-owned) creator of the nation’s most popular (and simultaneously, perhaps, most ridiculed) beers—Budweiser and Bud Light.

Herman Goelitz is the original name of a candy company that invented Jelly Belly jelly beans (famously promoted by Ronald Reagan) and has now cornered the gourmet jelly bean market.

The two companies sit little more than 100 yards apart in the Solano Business Park. You can’t see one without seeing the other, and both offer factory tours. But the beer arrived first, when Anheuser-Busch opened its Fairfield suds factory in 1976, 10 years before Herman Goelitz came along. Still, the opening of the Anheuser-Busch Fairfield plant did coincide with the Herman Goelitz creation of their now ubiquitous mini jelly beans, originally with eight unique flavors, including root beer, cream soda, green apple, tangerine and very cherry. Forty years later, Jelly Belly has more than 50 official flavors (one count goes as high as 228), with new ones born every year, and a global footprint that extends into low earth orbit (more about that in a moment).

While the focus and the feel of the two tours are profoundly different—one is sugar-centric and kid friendly, the other involves alcohol and appeals to people who drink it—kids are welcome at both sites, although the brewery’s minimum age is 6.

Jelly Belly, located at 1 Jelly Belly Lane, has a standard self-guided tour that lasts as long as you want to make it and welcomes kids of any age. Think Willy Wonka meets Disneyland.

Across the way at 3101 Busch Drive, all the tours are guided, with a variety of options. The $30 Beermaster Tour is a great experience if you have the time, and maybe the desire to drink some fresh, unpasteurized Bud straight from a 55,000-gallon tank. Or you can do the standard, one-hour tour ($5 for beer consumers, $2 if you’re under age), which gives you a thorough review of the seven-step brewing process, along with beer samples in the hospitality room.

The Anheuser-Busch aesthetic is like the inside of a ginormous submarine with huge tanks and endless hot and cold pipes running over, under and around you in every direction. Think The Hunt for Red October meets Cheers.

Truth be told, if you want to hit both facilities on the same day with kids in tow, go to Jelly Belly first with a designated sitter, and after the tour park the supervised little ones in the jelly bean café where, besides shakes, fries, dogs and burgers, you can get bean-shaped pizzas. There are also all manner of Jelly Belly attractions (crane machines, a gumball machine, a Jelly Belly Spin machine, a photo booth and a “Where’s Mr. Jelly Belly Hide and Seek Game” machine) to keep them entertained.

Then, after a café meal, the ultimate jelly bean experience begins with multiple visits to the free sample counter and browsing through the gift shop where every combination of packaged Jelly Belly beans keeps company with endless souvenirs to wear, play with or hang on your walls.

The Jelly Belly tour itself leads you from one large flat screen to another, each delivering brief videos about what you’re seeing below as you traverse an elevated and glassed-in walkway that follows the inside perimeter of the building’s walls above the factory floor. In addition, photo displays line the walls and jelly bean portraits are everywhere, enshrining an art form that reaches its fullest expression at the Jelly Belly factory.

There are jelly bean portraits of Princess Di, Martin Luther King, an American Indian chief, George Washington, Ben Franklin, the Statue of Liberty, a bald eagle, a buffalo nickel, Abe Lincoln, a grizzly bear, Santa Claus, Batman, American Gothic, John Wayne, a Chinese dragon, Vermeer’s Girl With the Pearl Earring, the Mona Lisa, Harry Potter, James Dean, Mickey Mouse, Laurel and Hardy, Elvis, Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, the pope and, of course, Ronald Reagan, all mosaics composed entirely of Jelly Belly beans.

Reagan is something of a patron saint at Jelly Belly, given that he was an early adopter, keeping jars of the company’s uniquely flavored beans on his desk in the governor’s office in Sacramento as early as 1966, before the Jelly Belly name was even adopted.

When he was elected president in 1980, more than three tons of Jelly Belly beans were distributed during his inauguration celebrations. Reagan kept a jar of Jelly Belly jelly beans on his Oval Office desk and is quoted as saying, “You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”

Reagan was so enamored of the candy that he sent Jelly Belly beans into orbit on the Space Shuttle in 1983. And posted in the factory is a copy of a Reagan letter sent on the eve of his departure from office that concludes, “Thank you for making my job just that much sweeter.”

That sweetness can be a little overpowering at times as you follow the tour route and sugar particles sometimes thicken the air. Asthmatics take note.

But the multicolored sight of Jelly Belly beans by the ton is impressive, as is the efficiency of robotic machines that do the lion’s share of the sorting, mixing, separating, collecting, packaging, packing and labeling.

And along the way there are smell stations offering whiffs of various Jelly Belly scents, including buttered popcorn, now one of the company’s most popular flavors.

Jelly Belly has several strategic partnerships that help build the brand’s footprint (not that it’s really necessary), and given the company’s willingness to explore the further reaches of good (and bad) taste, it was inevitable that Jelly Belly and Harry Potter would partner up.

Which means the company sells special bags of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans (you’ve read the books, right?), a spectrum of tastes that includes Booger, Dirt, Rotten Egg, Vomit, Earwax, Earthworm and Pickle.

Other oddball flavors are available for the wildly popular BeanBoozled game, a kind of Jelly Belly Russian roulette in which you could be picking either licorice or skunk spray, strawberry banana smoothie or dead fish, and you won’t know which it is until you start to chew it.

If you want a more in-depth Jelly Belly experience, there is a special behind-the-scenes guided tour for small groups of up to six guests offered through “Jelly Belly University” (JBU) by reservation and at the price of $47. Kids must be over 6 and the tour, which leads onto the factory floor, is wheelchair accessible. Hairnets and lab coats are required and provided free during the 60-to-90-minute advanced educational experience.

And on top of all that, adults can now enjoy the Jelly Belly Chocolate & Wine Experience, a twice-a-day pairing of six Suisun Valley wines and six Jelly Belly gourmet chocolates. Reservations are required, and kids can participate without the wine.

But if you really want to get up close and personal with a staggering amount of alcohol, it’s within easy walking distance, basically a parking lot away.

For $30, the price of the Beermaster Tour, you can get an intimate understanding of the immensity of Anheuser-Busch, now aggregated into the multinational giant, Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, the largest brewing company in the known universe, with close to 50 percent of total beer sales in the U.S., annual U.S. production of almost 31 billion gallons, and annual American revenues of better than $45 billion.

In that context, the Fairfield plant (second smallest of AB’s 13 U.S. breweries) is tiny, but it’s tiny like an elephant seal compared to a blue whale.

That “elephant seal” of a facility produces about 8,000 barrels of beer a day, which translates into 2,645,333 12-ounce bottles of beer. Every day.

Running almost 24/7/365, the Fairfield plant can churn out close to 4.4 million barrels a year. The plant is closed on seven holidays.

Coming face-to-face with the elements of that stupendous production is what happens during the Beermaster Tour, whether or not you are a fan of Budweiser, which, incidentally, was one of the first questions tour guide Veronica asked a Valley of the Moon magazine team when she opened the doors to the kingdom.

“It’s OK if you aren’t,” she assured us. “I know not everybody loves Bud.”

She was right, and we didn’t, but that only elevated the experience of exploration. And truly, whether you love Budweiser or hate it, you can’t fail to be impressed by the magnitude, the scientific precision, the commitment to creating exactly the same taste experience in every single bottle, can and keg time after time after time.

That taste is described in the company’s own literature as a light, crisp lager that, “in accordance with its original recipe,” is aged over beechwood chips for 21 days. The company likes to say the beechwood gives Bud “a perfectly balanced flavor and a crisp, clean refreshing taste.”

In fact, according to both Veronica and numerous online beer reference sites, the beechwood imparts no flavor to Bud. In fact the beechwood chips are boiled and stripped of all flavor ingredients before being added to the aging tanks. Their purpose is to provide more surface area on which yeast can accumulate on the bottom of the tanks, which shortens the aging time.

You’ll see large bags of beechwood chips on your tour (you’ll even be invited to touch them) along with super-concentrated hop pellets and bags of rice (used, AB claims, to get a “crisp snap” from the beer, while the brand’s critics suggest the rice is used to cut cost or add more fermentable sugar without adding flavor or body).

The tour takes you through the seven steps of brewing—done on an almost galactic scale—in tanks and tubs big enough to live in. There are 12 tanks for secondary fermentation, each 72 feet long and looking like horizontal Atlas rockets.

Along the way Veronica takes us to the control center, a circular room lined with 23 computer screens and three big flat-screen TVs, looking like NASA Mission Control, but with a mosaic Anheuser-Busch logo on the floor.

In the fourth floor finishing tank room, the temperature is held to 34 degrees, a fact worth taking note of if you’re taking the Beermaster tour. That’s where Veronica (snug in a puffy jacket) stopped to attach a pigtailed device called a “swiggle” or “squiggle” to a two-stage valve that allows for small amounts of fresh beer to be siphoned from the enormous tanks. Otherwise it would be like trying to sip from a fire hose.

Drained unpasteurized and highly chilled into a lager glass, it was hands-down the best Bud the VOM team ever tasted. Clearly, there’s something to be said for going to the source.

Pasteurizing, Veronica explained, occurs on the bottling line, which was the second-to-last stop on the tour, an automated marvel of whirring and hissing machinery that can fill 1,800 12-ounce cans in a minute without breaking a sweat.

Everything about the AB plant is done on a grand scale, although the number of workers seems minimal. Three hundred people are employed there, but they’re broken up into three eight-hour shifts and the facility has almost 17 acres under roof, so you don’t see a lot of people in one place.

Besides its impressive production figures, the Fairfield AB plant is known as the greenest production facility the company has. It uses seven acres of solar panels, and two very big wind turbines visible for miles on nearby Interstate 80. The brewery generates about 30 percent of the energy it consumes, and utilizes a bioenergy recovery system, along with energy conservation and water recycling.

Last stop on the tour is the Budweiser Tasting Room where flights are available of all the beers brewed in Fairfield, and an adjacent tasting room is full of Bud schwag.

Finally, AB apparently loves to party. On the first Friday of every month the Fairfield brewery holds a live music concert from 7 to 10 p.m., and on the third Friday there’s a Party in the Tap Room, featuring other local bands.

For more details on all these attractions go to budweisertours.com/locations/Fairfield.

 

 

 

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