The A.V. Club Meets A Giant Building Full Of Candy

Although it changed its name from the All Candy Expo to the Sweets & Snacks Expo—to reflect the ample non-candy products it showcases—the National Confectioners Association's annual convention in Chicago is, in the minds of The A.V. Club, Candy Land. As such, we greet it with an enthusiasm unbecoming of people our age—but candy is, if nothing else, the Great Regressor. Faced with a tray of free Twix bars, even the most refined person turns into a child whose only thought is "Open mouth, insert candy."

As professional journalists, we know how to comport ourselves in this environment. We studiously examine all of the booths spread out in McCormick Place, chat with their proprietors, and take pains to pace ourselves in the stuffing of our faces. We inevitably fail, as Emily Withrow did a mere two hours into our trek to this year's event, when the sight of a cupcake made her gag. To be fair, it was a cupcake that had a Circus Peanut and a Froot Loop on it, but by the end of the trip, all anyone wants is a salad and some water.

The 2010 Sweets & Snacks Expo felt more restrained than in years past, with fewer big product rollouts and tight security that limited what attendees could take out the door. (That didn't stop a crowd from denuding the Ferrero Chocolates booth toward the end of the last day like piranha on a cow stuck in the Amazon River.) Aside from MARS, which unleashed a slew of new/newish products—M&M's, two varieties of Snickers, Twix, and Three Musketeers—most companies seemed to keep a lower profile. When we asked the bored-looking Ghirardelli reps what new products they had this year, they mentioned the Luxe Milk Toffee bar, but didn't seem terribly interested in talking. At the nearby Ritter Sport booth, we experienced similar disinterest, though our retinas suffered from their blindingly pink shirts, a tie-in to their new Strawberry Creme chocolate bar that benefits breast-cancer research.

Cybele May over at the Candy Blog has a run-down of many new products from the expo—including, for some goddamn reason, Ed Hardy-branded candy—but for this week's Taste Test, we wanted to spotlight some of the items we found.

Twix Java
MARS has regularly toyed with the world's most perfect candy bar over the years, and it first introduced the Java in Limited Edition format in 2007. It tweaks the Twix formula by using coffee-flavored caramel and a chocolate cookie, wrapped in the usual milk-chocolate coating. In a country that has become obsessed with blending coffee and dessert, the Java makes sense. (Why hasn't Starbucks launched its own line yet? Is it because Frappuccinos are basically drinkable candy bars already?) The slightly bitter caramel complements the smooth milk chocolate, unobtrusively cutting through the sweetness. The bolder flavor makes it stand out in the Twix family, but we'll probably just stick to the original. You can't improve a classic. (Although making it less terrible for you would be a start—the Java has the same amount of saturated fat as a Quarter Pounder. Yikes.)

Butterfinger Snackerz
Nestle doesn't have a lot of new ideas, but it sure has plenty of ways to repurpose established brands. The original Butterfinger dates back to the 1920s, but in recent years, Nestle has released Butterfinger BB's (round Butterfinger pellets), Butterfinger Crisp (made with wafers), and now Butterfinger Snackerz. (The "z" helps kids know the Nestle Corporation is totally down with the streets! Can they get jiggy with something for you?) In continuing with the Crisp's lightening of Butterfinger's teeth-sticking consistency, the Snackerz put a Butterfinger filling in a wafer wrapped in mockolate coating. (That means it's "chocolate flavored," but not real chocolate—a controversial maneuver companies use to cut costs.) Pseudo-chocolate aside, the Snackerz offer plenty of Butterfinger taste with a pleasing crunch—and none of that Butterfinger residue that sticks to your teeth and gums.

Hoja Verde 100% Dark ChocolateThere's a name for 100 percent cacao chocolate: baker's chocolate. It might look and smell like the good stuff, but this virginal chocolate has never known the touch of sugar. It tends to go down with the ease of a mouthful of Saltine crackers. Yet in recent years, chocolatiers have engaged in a sort of space race to make a palatable super-dark, pushing the cacao content careening past 70 percent and into the 80s and 90s—and in a few cases, all the way to 100. Ecuadorian single-origin chocolatier Hoja Verde peddled its 100 percent bar at the Sweets & Snacks Expo along with its other dark bars (which clock in at 58, 72, and 80 percent cacao), with plates offering squares measuring less than 1 inch by 1 inch. They may sound small, but this isn't chocolate that you just pop in your mouth—the effect is akin to taking down a teaspoonful of wasabi. It's best to chip off a piece and let it melt on your tongue, allowing the flavors to slowly build. Without any sugar, the 100-percent bar is basically savory, offering a much more complex flavor than most people associate with chocolate. It pairs well with coffee and a strong red wine (like cabernet sauvignon), both of which offered more pleasant tasting experiences for us than the chocolate on its own. It's a lot of work for something people don't tend to think about, but it's also probably the most interesting thing we tasted this year.

Snickers Peanut Butter Squared and Snickers All Nuts & Caramel
Snickers has released several variations on its tried-and-true formula over the years, but they've never ventured far from the core ingredients. So even though various new types sound exciting—Snickers Fudge, Snickers Dark, Snickers Rock'n Nut Road—they inevitably taste pretty much like Snickers with a slight twist, rather than anything majorly different. This year's big rollout is Snickers Peanut Butter Squared, which adds an extra squirt of peanut butter, but takes away a lot of the bulk of a normal Snickers. It's two small-ish pieces that add up to the size of about half a bar, though it weighs about as much as a regular Snickers. The other Snickers we were able to get our hands on—after brave Emily Withrow chatted up a MARS publicist for 20 minutes—is called "Xtreme All Nuts & Caramel." It's a limited edition, which is probably just as well: Taking away the nougat called more attention to the peanuts, and the whole thing came off as just a really chewy, extra-peanutty Snickers. The Peanut Butter Square might last, but this one probably won't.

Dove Sugar Free Peanut Butter Crème Silky Smooth Chocolates
At this celebration of gluttony, it's always interesting to see the niches that companies try to fill: People who can't eat sugar need candy too, don't they? Our diabetic future selves think so, though they won't likely be partaking in Dove's Sugar Free Peanut Butter candies. They aren't low-calorie or low-fat (200 calories, 16g per serving), and they taste a little fake. If sugar is completely off the table, they'd be a decent substitute, but there's no other reason.

Kickbutt Amped Energy Ballz
From a pamphlet espousing the virtues of Kickbutt Amped Energy Ballz: "I eat 2-3 ballz throughout my workout to keep me focused, motivated and energized." That's right, these ballz are filled with exactly the juice you need: ginseng, fiber, caffeine, gurana seed extract, taurine, and lots of vitamins. They're recommended before workouts, when driving, or as a replacement for morning coffee. And how does the combination of boosters, chocolate, caramel, and honey taste? Like a bitter, artificial, taurine-injected ball. In other words, exactly what you think a product called Ballz might taste like.

Chocolate Covered Peeps
Peeps abide because they're simple and timeless: The marshmallow treats have been around for more than 50 years, and though they've expanded into different shapes, sizes, and occasional flavors, they've mostly remained un-fucked-with. Coating them in chocolate seems like a pretty obvious (and smart) move for the Just Born company, but there are two fairly significant problems in the execution. One, the Peep loses its crunchy sugar coating in this new format. And two, the chocolate used to coat the Peeps is decent, but not great. So the result is less like an exciting new product, and more like a marshmallow-chocolate egg you might get for Easter. Which is fine; those are tasty enough. But you could've been so much more, chocolate-covered Peeps!

Brookside Perfect PairingsSort of like Raisinettes for the foodie crowd, Brookside's "Perfect Pairings" line of chocolate-covered fruit-juice pieces harnesses the natural combination of fruit and chocolate and gooses it with quality dark chocolate and trendy, antioxidant-rich fruits like pomegranate, goji, and acai. The fruit-juice blends inside the chocolate are solidified with pectin, so this isn't a Gushers-like experience, but more along the lines of chocolate-covered fruit. The health-food posturing—note the Whole Foods-ready packaging—is a little disingenuous, considering one tiny 15-gram package will set you back 2.5 grams of fat and 25 grams of sugar. (Wait, how is that possible?) But the ingredient list confirms Brookside's "all natural" claim, and hey, there are worse ways to get your flavanol antioxidants.

Jelly BellyAfter veering off into unusual flavor combinations that vary from so-crazy-it-might-just-work (chili-mango, which we sampled and loved last year) to oh-hell-no (roasted garlic), Jelly Belly's latest Rookie™ flavor is simplicity itself: honey, nature's candy. The new Honey Bean flavor is extremely sweet, but then again, so is honey, and anyone who's ever enjoyed a spoonful of wildflower honey straight up will probably dig this bean. Like good honey, it's noticeably flowery, which is a little unsettling when paired with the dense chewiness of a jellybean.

There are also a few new flavors to be had in Jelly Belly's latest mix-pack, Cocktail Classics. Trendy upstarts Mojito, Peach Bellini, and Pomegranate Cosmo join old-fogey flavors Margarita, Pina Colada, and Strawberry Daiquiri in this alcohol-free happy-hour assemblage. The peach and pomegranate flavors are almost identical to their teetotaling Official 50 counterparts, but the mojito distinguishes itself with an odd mint zing that's unappealingly medicinal.

Green & Black'sGreen & Black's organic chocolate bars are dependably delicious, so we were excited to see the company hawking two new flavors that are dependably delicious chocolate pairings: mint and peanut. Peanut is definitely a crowd-pleaser, combining creamy milk chocolate, caramelized peanuts, and a hint of sea salt into a luscious bar that practically dares you not to snarf it down whole. The mint bar is a little more robust, with 60-percent chocolate and an extreme mint flavor that's more botanical in nature than confectionary. It's delicious, but strong and not particularly sweet, like a 'roided-up Andes Mint.

Like Le Whif before it, Cholive is more gimmick than chocolate: an olive-shaped chocolate truffle meant to be speared and dangled from the rim of a cocktail glass. That said, it's a pretty decent truffle, with whole-cream ganache enrobed by 55-percent dark chocolate. We tried it with a glass of Castries Peanut Rum Crème Liqueur—at 10:30 in the morning!—and while neither was particularly mind-blowing on its own, together they made for a pretty enjoyable drinking experience. (Or perhaps it was the fact that any drinking experience before lunch is inherently awesome.)

Pop Rocks
Pop Rocks and Fun Dip are already the hyperactive brats of the candy world, so it's unsurprising that the combination of the two—Pop Rocks Dips—feels like it should come with a side of Ritalin. This is candy that's meant to be eaten while you're running in circles, screaming at the top of your lungs—pure sensory, sugary overload. The only way to up the ante further would be to factor in that classic sugar-delivery device, Pixy Stix, in some way, and that's exactly what Pop Rocks XTreme aims to do, promising "super loud, super sour popping candy" in a tubular package perfect for slamming before recess. Unfortunately, the packaging is the only thing here that earns the "Xtreme" tag—check out all that neon!—as the Pop Rocks inside seemed to have the standard amount of loudness and sourness.

Far more Xtreme, as in Xtremely fucking weird, is the Pop Rocks Limon salt-and-lemon flavor, also available in tube form. We'll have to take their word on the lemon part, because all we could taste was a mouthful of salt popping all over our tongues. As candy, it's a huge failure, but it has some interesting culinary potential: popping popcorn or French fries perhaps?

Time for a science lesson: Chewing on Pop Rocks diminishes the point of Pop Rocks. Crunching through the rocks breaks them up into tiny pieces, which then melt more quickly, making the popping short-lived. Plus it just feels wrong to bite down on them. But here, Pop Rocks invites you to do just that, mixing little gum bits in with the normal rocks. Pop Rocks Bubble Gum purports to be "popping bubble gum," but really, the experience is more like chewing up Pop Rocks and then chewing gum—a tasteless gum that quickly becomes hard and flat.

PoppingFUNFortunately (or not), the Pop-Rocks-plus-actual-food market has already been cornered by PoppingFUN, Inc., maker of Poprs. These packets of popping pastilles are marketed toward parents of picky eaters, promising to liven up that icky applesauce and yogurt with flavored carbonated crystals that will make food "sing." The applesauce crystals add cinnamon flavor, the yogurt ones add color, and both add a whole lotta noise. (According to a Poprs representative, there's also a butter-flavored iteration that's in the works to pep up vegetables.) Both our yogurt and applesauce were "singing" long after the novelty wore off, but kids will probably get a kick out of it—and the fact that it's sugar-free, gluten-free, and packed full of vitamins should help parents overlook the racket.

However, there's nothing saying grown-ass adults can't enjoy a little novelty as well. Enter Java Jazzer, made by the same company. Plopping a packet of these unflavored crystals into your morning joe results in a strange sizzling effect that thankfully wears off before it gets too unsettling. Once dissolved, the crystals purportedly add "depth and strength" to your coffee without adding any flavor. There are no extra vitamins here, just a bunch of extra caffeine that will give you the energy to be as loud and obnoxious as your coffee.

3 Musketeers Truffle Crisp Bars
Though these bars were released earlier this year under the 3 Musketeers banner, they have little to do with the original. Where regular 3 Musketeers is all nougat dipped in chocolate, this is that same chocolate with a "whipped-up chocolate truffle on a crisp layer [of meringue]." The result is some soft chocolate and a light initial crunch that disappears pretty quickly; you're left gumming a chocolate that's almost sickeningly sweet. It comes in a twin pack like a Twix bar, and while all the ads around this suggest you won't want to share, chances are you will.

Chuao Chocolatier Coffee & AniseBrothers Michael and Richard Antonorsi opened up a shop in Encinitas, California, called Chuao, named after a cacao-rich region in central Venezuela, where they're from. Of course, now it's not just a shop but a company that sends chocolate around the U.S., and here at the show they were pushing a few unusual varieties, including the coffee and anise. The anise flavor hits strong at first; the thing smells like licorice. But on tasting, the ground anise mellows out and nearly tapers off altogether; the ground espresso in the bar takes its place, sitting a bit more naturally in the dark chocolate. Quite good, even for those who don't care much for anise.

Wonka Whipped Wingers GummiesWonka might be stretching it a bit with the term "whipped" here, seeing as how this is a gummy candy through and through. Maybe it's just the power of suggestion, but the wingers do seem to be a bit lighter/bouncier than normal gummy candy. In every other respect, though, they're normal gummy candy, boasting 25 percent real fruit juice and four flavors: pineapple, watermelon, tropical punch, and orange. Of these, the winner is watermelon, though it doesn't really taste much like watermelon.

Unidentified spoon of tamarind candyThese spoons were sitting out on the display table as samples, so we asked, "How is this packaged normally?" Out comes a big bag of them: spoons with heads wrapped in cellophane secured by a rubber band. Mexico! Though the spoon is useful once unwrapped, the packaging makes unwrapping the damn thing nearly impossible. The rubber band is wound too tight to really slip off, and pulling too hard neatly delivers a sting when the band snaps. Perhaps that's a fitting punishment for picking it up at all. Inside is a spicy, grainy tamarind paste, every sugar granule still in place. Tart and disgusting, with chili powder strong enough to induce coughing fits if it goes anywhere near your throat. Stay away.

Other noteworthy stuff

• The Elmer Chocolate company is based in Pochatoula, Louisiana, two and a half hours from Avery Island, where Tabasco hot sauce is made, so it was perhaps only a matter of time before someone combined the two.  Elmer's Tabasco Chocolate Truffles start off like normal truffles, but the heat from the Tabasco gradually fades in, to great effect. The Sugar Pressure blog discovered that the company uses the habanero variety of Tabasco instead of the original formula, so it isn't quite as vinegary, but the flavors work surprisingly well together.

• At last, the world has caffeinated beef jerky, and with a cutesy name to boot: Perky Jerky. Of course it doesn't come right out and say that, only that it's "flavored with guarana," which is the caffeine-rich plant that's the active ingredient in Rock Star Energy Drink and others.

• The Dove wine-pairing booth returned, with a flight of four surprisingly good Gallo wines matched with four varieties of Dove milk and dark chocolates. Our favorite: Dove Dark Chocolate with McWilliams Hanwood Estate South Eastern Australia Shiraz. Of course, this was right after we tried peanut-creme rum with chocolate, so maybe we were loaded by that point.

• They aren't too expensive, but Hawaiian Host's line of macadamia-enhanced chocolates taste like some serious gourmet action. One of the best pieces of candy at the show was their ToffeeMac, which is a dark-chocolate covered piece of toffee with macadamias in it. Delicious.

• The very best bite at the show was from a Cote D'or dark-chocolate bar with sea salt and caramel. Yep, that flavor combination is sooooo 2008, but this was just about the perfect mixture. The bar isn't listed on the fancy chocolatier's site yet, but they're worth seeking out.

• If you're a fan of ginger candy, seek out Chimes Ginger Chews immediately. In addition to the standard, spicy stuff, Chimes makes blended varieties, including mango and orange. These came home with us instead of being delivered to the break-room table. Delicious.