CALS “candy school” aims to make its 2nd 50 years as sweet as the first

Joe von Elbe was a new CALS food science professor in the fall of 1962 when he drove down to Herb Knechtel’s research and development laboratory in Skokie, Illinois, to pick up equipment for the first Resident Course in Confectionery Technology—or, as it’s known to the hundreds of students who have taken the course over the past half century, “the candy school.”

A half-century later, this course, hosted by CALS and National Confectioners Association, has become an important training ground for the candy industry. Hundreds of students — from line workers and company owners to technical staff and suppliers — have learned the science of candy from the world’s confectionery experts. Rich Hartel coordinates the program now, but von Elbe still helps teach it.

“The word to describe it is probably impossible,” says consultant Walt Vink, who spent 26 years with LifeSavers and attended, sent employees to and teaches in the course. Students are often competitors, he says, but when they get to campus, they share information.

As the confectionery school begins its second half-century, it is looking for private support to improve students’ candy-making experience. A campaign is underway to celebrate the confectionery school’s 50th birthday and raise funds to buy new, updated equipment to ensure top results.

At its heart, candy school is about science. And the chemical and functional interactions of ingredients don’t change. Students learn the science of candies and then make them, varying ingredients to see what happens. The curriculum begins with hard candy — sugar and sugar free — includes gum, gummies and jellies, nougats and taffy, fondants and creams, panning, and ends with chocolate.

Knowing the science behind the products allows candy makers to adjust and change, says consultant Pam Gesford, who has worked for Hershey and Jelly Belly. She has taught at and has sent students to the school. Understanding how ingredients act and react shows ingredient suppliers where their products will work well.

“It’s important for companies to try new products and do more with the people they already have,” Gesford says. “This kind of general course gives employees a confectionery background. I’ve seen people excel, whether they have a good science background or not much science at all.”

For more information about gift opportunities, contact Barb McCarthy at or 608-265-5891 or go online to

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