WisBusiness: Pros Visit UW for Sweet Truth about Candy

By Brian E. Clark

MADISON – As a kid growing up on Long Island, Rich Hartel recalls that he could eat candy – any kind of candy – until he was “blue in the face.”

“I even stole my dad’s licorice jellybeans, and I wasn’t that crazy about them,” admitted Hartel, who is now a professor of food science in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at UW-Madison.

Through next week, Hartel will be able to indulge his greatly diminished sweet tooth as he directs the university’s 43rd annual “Resident Course in Confectionary Technology” for professionals.

The class began Monday and is being taught in Babcock Hall, the campus “ice cream” building. Hartel said the course costs about $4,000, with lodging and some meals included at the Friedrick Center.

Besides tasting good, candy is a huge business in the United States.

According to Eileen Scherzinger of the National Confectioners Association, Americans spent $2.6 billion last year on sweets. Half was spent on chocolate, with rest going for gum, hard candy and other goodies. The NCA is a co-sponsor of the candy course.

Wisconsin does not have a large confectionary industry, with most major American candy makers based in Illinois and New Jersey. In the Badger State, confectioners include Middleton’s Clasen Quality Coatings, Cambridge’s Melster Candy Co., Milwaukee’s Ambrosia Chocolate Co. and Nestle in Burlington.

And the U.S. candy industry is struggling, Hartel said. Because of a strong American sugar lobby, import duties mean it costs 34 cents for a pound of sugar here vs. 10 cents in Canada or Mexico, he said.

“It’s a lot cheaper to make candy in those countries because sugar is one of the main ingredients,” he said.

The fit-appearing Hartel, whose expertise is in the scientific side of confections, said it’s good that he doesn’t try to sell sweets.

“There is an old saying that you shouldn’t buy candy from a skinny candy maker,” he laughed.

“Now I can pretty much take or leave sweets or chocolate, I don’t have those kid cravings anymore,” said Hartel.

Hartel said 30 consultants from the candy industry are also helping teach the two-week course, dropping in for a day or less. Some of their skills, Hartel acknowledged, tend more toward art.

On Wednesday morning, Walt Vink of Vink Associates, was busy stirring a huge pot of sugar and corn syrup. A hard candy expert, he took the UW-Madison confections class in 1965.

Paul Srnak of Primrose Confections in Chicago was on hand to teach students how to make a “filled pillow” candy Wednesday morning. Srnak earned his master’s degree from UW-Madison in food science.

While Hartel said he knows how to make many kinds of confections he leaves “the fancy stuff” up to the consultants.

Using hands-on learning techniques, 28 students are now creating hundreds of pounds of hard candy, chocolate, toffee, gum and fudge.

They’ll also – and this is Hartel’s part – analyze the chemical and functional interactions of ingredients.

His pupils will also use their very own taste buds to figure out what tastes best.

Vink, a stout fellow who looks every inch a candy maker, has been teaching NCA classes for 16 years. He worked for LifeSavers for 26 years before starting his consulting firm.

One of his specialties, appropriately, is compressed tablets. On Wednesday, he was teaching students how to make old-fashioned “cut rock,” which features roses and flowers in the middle of hard candy.

Vink said Americans eat a whopping 23 pounds of candy a year, which is still three pounds behind what residents of Great Britain consume.

Rose Defiel, director of research and development for Clasen Quality Coatings, said she said had been on the job for a year and was taking the class to learn more about the basic science of candy making.

“Our coatings ‘enrobe’ candies, energy bars, granola bars and similar things with chocolate alternatives made from oils that have higher melting points than chocolate,” she said.

“The more I learn here about candy, the better,” said Defiel, who noted that she’d put on a few pounds in her new job.

“But I’ll try my best not to eat too much of what we make during the course,” she said with a chuckle.