I am a chocoholic. There, I have admitted it. From the rich, grainy purity of Green & Black’s seventy per cent cocoa solid to the waxy thinness of chocolate-flavoured cake covering, nothing can expect to live longer than its best before date in my house when phenylalanine-withdrawal starts to kick in.
The problem can be traced, like so many other things, to my childhood, when, after tea, my grandfather used to produce a ‘two by six’ from the larder. This chocolate treat was never the same, and my early milk-toothed memories are populated by Starbars, Doubledeckers, Bountys, Cabanas, Milky Ways, Marathons, Mars bars… the list, as I run my tongue ruefully around my now mercury-filled mouth, is seemingly endless. But oh, chunky milk chocolate dissolving into sugary pools, its creamy sludge sliding warmly down the throat, has to be one of the best experiences in the world.
One senses that Joël Glenn Brenner, author of The Chocolate Wars, Inside the Secret Worlds of Mars and Hershey, has the same lickerish attitude to chocolate. Her description of the chocolate experience is dithyrambic; her narrative chockful of interesting nuggets of information which are as satisfying as the M&Ms Mars employees regularly graze on in their office in Maclean, Virginia. Did you know, it takes three days and nights to make the chocolate smooth in a Hershey bar, that chocolate contains 1200 chemicals, one of which smells of rotting fish, and that the floors in the Mars factory at Hackettstown, New Jersey are washed every 45 minutes?
Brenner likens herself to Charlie Bucket, the hero of Roald Dahl’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, standing outside Willy Wonka’s factory gates sniffing the sweet chocolate aroma that hangs over the mysterious factory, longing to go inside and see what it was really like.
Her Golden Ticket into the furtive world of the chocolate maker came in the form of a routine assignment she was given by the Washington Post: to find out Mars, Inc.’s reaction to the news that Hershey had become the number one candy maker in the United States.
For over a year she pestered Mars until, finally in 1990, the family, which is estimated to be the third richest in the world, relented and gave her full access to the company’s global operations. Two years later they wished they hadn’t; for Brenner wrote candidly about an intensely secretive family and a patriarch who most certainly wasn’t as sweet as the bars he created. The family never forgave her and they haven’t spoken to a single journalist since.
The late Forrest Mars cut a Napoleonic figure. A brilliant strategist, he founded Mars Inc. in 1922, and through hard work, a steely deter-mination, and an idiosyncratic set of management philosophies, built a business that is now worth $13 billion. He relinquished control in 1973 but not before his paroxyms had instilled fear into the heart of every Mars ‘associate’ - as the company prefers to call its workers. One manager recalls being called out of bed in the early hours of the morning to have Forrest rant down the phone at him because part of the m was missing on some of the M&Ms he had bought. He wanted the manager to track down the serial number and recall the batch. When the hapless employee said he couldn’t do it at 3am, Forrest said that if he didn’t go down to the plant that instant he would be fired. The manager quickly got dressed.
The fanatical desire for perfection extended to Forrest’s attitude towards his, frankly, non-descript heirs - Forrest Jnr., John and Jackie - whom he left to sink or swim back in 1973. As children Forrest would interrogate them every dinner-time about their school work, their friends, their hobbies; demanding excellence in everything they did. The children found the grilling such torture that none of them can now sit down to a meal, hence the sparse eating facilities at their head office. Indeed, the family’s foibles define the business today. Mars does not make chocolate bars with peanut butter. Why? Because the children were raised in England where, Brenner sweepingly asserts, peanut butter is , apparently, ‘despised’. The Mars siblings prefer hazelnuts and have constantly pushed the testing of hazelnut-based products over peanut butter ones, despite the fact that peanut butter chocolate always outsells hazelnut chocolate in the States. It is one reason why Hershey is winning the chocolate war.
Whilst taking the silver wraps off Mars, Inc., Brenner discovered a quietly forgotten fact: that the other M in M&Ms stands for Murrie, as in R. Bruce Murrie, the son of William Murrie - the unsung President of Hershey Chocolate Company, and Milton Hersey’s best friend. How could it be that Mars and Hershey, now litigious enemies, had once collaborated to create Mars’s most popular product? The answer harked back to a bygone age before the candy kings, as insiders call these behemoths, worried about marketing plans, production technology, shelf space and take-overs; an age when Willy Wonka, in the form of the dapper Milton Hershey, really did exist.
Hershey does not have the same cultural resonance in Britain as Mars. We have been raised on the extra-sweet caramel chocolate of the bars I recalled earlier. We simply don’t like the sour taste of the Hershey bar; and therein lies the rub for the quintessentially American chocolate-maker: the company has singularly failed to market its product in Europe.
Hershey was the first man to make milk chocolate in the US and achieved mythical status because of it. Unwrapping the distinctive purple wrapper of a Hershey bar, and biting your way around the word Hershey to leave the letters S-H-E has been become one of the definitive moments of the American childhood.
It took many years of experimenting for Hershey to create his special ‘off-note’ chocolate – his European detractors say it was a result of using a batch of of powered milk that was spoiling – but when he perfected it, he revolutionised the industry, bringing a luxury commodity to the masses. And that’s where Hershey’s passion lay, with dreaming up grandiose schemes and trying to make them work. Some did, some didn’t.
The Victory Whip was an ice-cream which did not use cream; it sold for six months until pressure from Pennsylvania’s 10,000 dairy farms took it off the market. Chocolate soap, however, was not a success. People were put off by the strong chocolate odour and its similar appearance to a Hershey bar.
But, unlike Mars, Hershey was not into empire building, and massive sales were not the point. Invention was a means to create his dream of an industrial utopia for his workers. In 1902 he bought a plot of land in Pennsylvania and set about designing a town where each house had plumbing and electricity, and where every worker could enjoy the finest schools, transportation system, swimming pools, parks, gymnasiums and theatres. In 1906 the town of Hershey was complete but Hershey’s philanthropy didn’t end there. A few years later he set up a trust fund for poor, orphaned boys to give them the security, stability and education he lacked as a boy. When his beloved wife Kitty died in 1918, Hershey bequeathed his entire estate, valued at $60 million, to the school. Today his gift is now worth $5 billion making the school – which is now home to 1,000 boys and girls from poor inner-city neighbourhoods - one of the richest private schools in America, and the largest shareholder in Hershey.
Will Hershey retain its candy king crown for long? Nobody’s sure. What is for certain though is that Mars and Hershey will remain at the top of the candy rack. Together the two companies control 75 per cent of the market, making eight out of ten bars on sale in the States today. It’s a sobering thought, and one that surely neither man could have dreamed of when they first started experimenting with their condensing kettles and bags of sugar.
It was halfway through reading The Chocolate Wars that the glossy dustcover came off in my hands to reveal a brown hardback cover. Instantly I was reminded of a square of chocolate. How fitting, I thought, that Brenner’s well-written and engrossing book should look and taste like a slab of good milk chocolate – rich, substantial and utterly moreish – yet, thankfully, a whole lot kinder on the teeth.