At Kit Kat's U.S. Headquarters, New Flavors Are An Art, A Science, And A Gamble

In this world, there are two kinds of Kit Kats. One, made by Nestlé and sold everywhere except in the United States, comes in a myriad of flavors that are collected and adored by candy snobs all over the world. The other, made by Hershey and sold in only America... well, it does not. Or, if you want to be kind about it, it prefers the tried-and-true over experimentation.

It's not that Hershey hasn't been thinking about new Kit Kat flavors. The people at Hershey know how much the candy world has been bitching about how American Kit Kats aren't as exciting as the ones in Japan. This is, in fact, the second most-frequent Kit Kat complaint received at Hershey headquarters in Hershey, Pennsylvania; the first is from unfortunate people who got defective Kit Kats without wafers.

Over the years, food scientists at Hershey have been quietly experimenting with new Kit Kat flavors in the company's Chocolate Innovation Lab, some 300 in all—although the only people who get to eat them are trained tasters in Hershey's research and development facility. (Now wouldn't that be a job!) Some flavors have been more successful than others. The people at Hershey were really excited about maple bacon, but they couldn't get the texture right. And the attempts at soda flavors went flat because soda needs be cold and fizzy to taste like soda.

But it's a new decade! Times are changing! And now Hershey has decided it wants to let some of those new Kit Kat flavors out into the world, and, incidentally, make American Kit Kat (almost) as cool as international Kit Kat. It's already released, with great fanfare, the full-sized Mint + Dark Chocolate Duo, and with a bit less fanfare, two limited edition miniatures: Sweet Cinnamon for Christmas and Raspberry Crème for Valentine's Day. Lemon Crisp miniatures will be here in time for Easter. But after that, Hershey has promised, there will be several more full-sized flavors coming in 2020. Speculation ran rampant across the candy-obsessed part of the internet, fueled in part by the official Kit Kat Twitter account:

In preparation for the dawn of a great new era of Kit Kat, last month Hershey brought ten journalists and influencers to Hershey to visit the Chocolate Innovation Lab and meet with members of the Kit Kat team. I was one of them. This was the first time anyone on the team could remember inviting reporters in. It was like getting a Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's factory, except that there were no sinister men begging me to steal an Everlasting Gobstopper, and I will kill all suspense now by telling you that no one fell into a chocolate river or turned into a blueberry that was rolled away by Oompa Loompas. Since I was not allowed into the factory itself—it's on a hill surrounded by the sort of fences and guardhouses you see around prisons and other important federal sites, and to get approval to go inside, even Hershey employees who work in other buildings have to go through several levels of clearance—I don't know for sure that there's no chocolate river, although every Hershey employee I asked said no. I do know that there are bowls of Hershey's miniatures in every room, and it is someone's actual job to go around filling them. During meetings, people usually stare at the bowls until someone breaks the ice and tears open the first piece of candy.

(A fun fact: Milton Hershey, Roald Dahl, and I all share a birthday, although in different years. This visit was meant to be.)

Susanne Prucha, the marketing director of Kit Kat (and also PayDay), was the one who told me about the candy etiquette in meetings, and also about how Kit Kat USA is very aware that it has been compared to Kit Kat international and found wanting.

"We design with the U.S. consumer in mind," she said. "The pipeline of flavor development is crazy extensive. We work with a two-two matrix: uniqueness and appeal. We don't want something so polarizing that it's off-putting." Earl Gray tea, for instance, scores high on uniqueness, but very low on universal appeal. Or, as Prucha put it, "the taste is acquired."

Lately Kit Kat has been experimenting with what it calls white crème, which is sort of like white chocolate but bland enough that it can be flavored to taste like other things. Milk chocolate can be too overpowering—which you may have already found out if you tasted the Sweet Cinnamon miniatures at Christmas and discovered that they weren't much different from the OG Kit Kat except their texture was a little waxier and they smelled a little spicier. ("We can do better," Prucha admitted.)

But with white crème, you can mix in some mint flavor and then dye the chocolate green so it contrasts with the dark chocolate bottom of a Duo. Or flavor it lemon and dye it the pale yellow that makes you think of Easter bunnies. It looks better than plain old brown on Instagram. Which has become an important consideration. There's even a technical term for a photo of a Kit Kat split open and photographed in cross section so the viewer can see the wafers: nudie bar.

It's not just about appearances, though. Obviously. Otherwise, we could just be eating wax. When the research and development team began working in earnest on the Lemon Crisp Kit Kat, they started with one very basic but also very complicated question: What does lemon taste like? Or, rather, what kind of lemon would appeal to the greatest number of people?

Justin Kukura's official title is senior manager of chocolate product development, but he was also introduced to us as a magician. He is one of the people who gets to make up new flavors in the Chocolate Innovation Lab. Some of those flavors are requested by the marketing department, based on research data about popular flavors. Others come from members of the product development team themselves, who get inspired and wonder what their inspirations will taste like. "We're working on things all the time," he said.

Inside the Innovation Lab—a medium-sized room with a large square granite countertop that holds kitchen-sized devices for tempering and mixing chocolate as well as a few plastic Kit Kat molds—Kukura passed out four small squares of lemon-colored and -flavored white crème. All four were candidates for the icing on the new Lemon Crisp Kit Kat.

"Lemon, in theory, is simple," he said. "But it has a lot of complexity. Lemon can be a lot of different things. You have to design the lemon flavor."

The first sample, for instance, had more of a lemon zest flavor: it had an edge of bitterness from the pith. The second was sweeter, like the filling of a lemon meringue pie. The third was sour, like a Lemonhead hard candy. The fourth was the one the team finally went with, a less sugary iteration of sample two.

"The flavor is going into the white crème," Kukura said. "But it has to work with the wafer. You're building all these things together. What's the icing bringing? What's the wafer bringing? What's the color bringing?" Lemon crisp, he said, was "surprising." He hoped that the surprise would delight customers.

The wafer itself is the same wafer all the other Kit Kats have been using since Kit Kats began (in the U.K. in 1935, manufactured by Rowntree; a licensing agreement brought them to Hershey in the 1970s), and no one saw any reason to mess with something so essential to its identity. Or, as Prucha put it, "the wafer is the great equalizer."

Team Kit Kat was reticent about the new flavors that it would be introducing later this year. Just because a flavor had been "leaked," team members said, that didn't mean it would actually go into production. As long as you have a mould, some wafers, and chocolate or icing, it's not terribly hard to whip up a prototype in the Chocolate Innovation Lab. "We're not going to fight [rumors]," Prucha said. "We'll play into it." Which I guess explains tweets from last fall like this one:

But it doesn't explain the mysterious new flavors that I spotted on the Kit Kat website while I was working on this story. It promised glorious new possibilities like Strawberry, Matcha, Red Velvet, Banana, Cookies and Cream, and Sakura. When I asked someone from Hershey's PR about it, though, she attributed their appearance to "an error in building" the website. Aside from Lemon Crisp and a new flavor that's going to be announced next week, no one from Hershey is prepared to admit they know anything more about upcoming flavors.

So this means you can keep speculating about new Kit Kats as much as you like. Maybe Kit Kat is even listening.