The Magazine

Gimme Mein Gummi

Joseph Bottum, Der Gummibärchenkenner

Nov 4, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 08 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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Herr Riegel’s father vas a candy maker. Was, I mean. Was a candy maker. This morning, over the phone, a friend made some passing reference to German economic policy—speaking, unfortunately, in that exaggerated German accent that used to be a standard of American comedy. You remember? Sgt. Schultz on Hogan’s Heroes, Arte Johnson on Laugh-In. And the trouble is that once that voice gets into your head, it hangs around for days.

Hans Riegel, October 2009

Hans Riegel, October 2009

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Anyway, Hans Riegel’s father was a candy maker in Bonn in the early years of the twentieth century, and like many confectioners at the time, he started experimenting with reduced-liquid pastilles. Sugar was expensive, and hard candy, from lollipops to candy canes, requires heating to at least the hard-crack stage, where sugar forms over 90 percent of the hot solution from which the candy is made. If you could get the candy to hold together at a lower temperature, you could make it cheaper—selling, in essence, sweetened water in place of pure sugar. Chewy sweetened water. Maddeningly addictive chewy sweetened water. 

American gumdrops typically attempted the trick with pectin. Swedish Fish, meanwhile, used a disturbing combination of corn starch, mineral oil, and Carnauba wax. Und Herr Riegel yet another way to make the candy found. In 1918 he began using a thick slurry of gelatin. In 1922, he reduced the size of his candies, shaped them with animal molds, and started marketing Gummi Bears. Haribo, his company was called (an acronym formed from the first two letters of the words “Hans Riegel” and “Bonn”), and those little chewy bears—die Gummibärchen—marched across the country, surviving all the turmoil of the 1920s and 1930s to become Germany’s most popular treat, sold at every kiosk for a pfennig a package.

What the company couldn’t do as easily was survive the Second World War. And that’s where the son comes into the story—Hans Riegel Jr., who died on October 15, the 90-year-old marketing genius who turned his father’s bombed-out company into a worldwide phenomenon. 

Well, maybe not such a genius. In Europe, Haribo sells an unpalatable mix of fried-egg and cola-bottle candies. A French version flavored with Orangina. “Hot Sticks” in Germany, mixing raspberry with jalapeños and orange with habaneros, to add that burn-your-tongue element so lacking in older forms. Milkshake flavors in England. Nonalcoholic wine flavors, for that matter. And in Turkey, gummies shaped like teeth. No wonder the American market has retained nothing except the traditional shape and the original five flavors: raspberry, orange, strawberry, pineapple, and lemon. 

When introduced into the United States in the 1980s, Haribo offered what seemed a unique European product that had made gelatin-based candy into something actually edible. This was the world—remember?—of Jelly Babies, Jujubes, and over-sugared gumdrops. “Wine Gums” in England (named by their teetotaling Methodist manufacturers as offering an alternative to drink). The horrifying movie theater experience of glue-your-teeth-together Dots.

Those times are gone. We live in the golden age of soft candies, and in recent years, offerings from other companies have eaten their way into Haribo’s market. Gummy rings and gummy sours. Australian gummy frogs. Niche-marketed candies that use vegetarian gelatins. Gummy worms now outsell Haribo’s proprietary Gummi Bears around the world.

Still, what Hans Riegel Jr. achieved deserves remembering. After spending much of the war as an Allied prisoner, he returned to join his brother Paul in rebuilding their father’s company. By the 1960s, they had one of the most successful candy companies in the world, and their expansion into the United States prompted the soft-candy boom that ended the reign of the old mass-produced American candies, with their chemical-flavored pectin bases.

When we saw the news that Riegel had died, my wife responded by pulling down some packages of unflavored gelatin to make her own gummy candy, flavored with juice. The results were good—corn syrup in place of some of the sugar and a little corn starch proved to be the keys to keeping them from turning into pure rubber. Or Dots. 

But my own response was to stop by the store and buy a few gummy candies to give away for Halloween. Some gum drops, some Swedish Fish knock-offs, some sour worms, and a package of Haribo Gummi Bears. And, of course, I tasted them all—to find that memory had been correct. They were horrible. Except for Herr Riegel’s. Today, almost a century after his father invented them, the candies remain what they were: maddeningly addictive chewy little bears. That is not nothing, is it? Die Gummibärchen a good thing were, ja?

 

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