WE’RE a nation of crisp lovers, eating an estimated 6billion packets annually – working out at 92 bags each every year.
Everyone knows you start off with a mud-caked potato and end up with a handful of crunchy golden crisps… but how exactly do you get from a plain old tatty to the nation’s favourite snack?
From fields to factories
Sun Online has gone inside the Walkers factory to reveal a day in the life of a crisp, from being caked in mud on a potato farm to the shelves of your supermarket.
The site in Leicester is the largest crisp production plant in the world, producing over 11million bags of crisps per day using a high-tech system of automated crisp-making machines.
And it all starts with a good wash.
Every one of the 800 tons of potatoes which turn up at the factory – a mix of types including Lady Rosetta, Hermes and Saturna, from a selection of approved farms – is blasted down to scrub off the dirt, and then carried away on a flume of water.
This tide leads the mass of newly-washed potatoes bouncing into a peeling machine, where the top layer of skin is flayed off.
Then, a smooth conveyor belt carries the clean-shaven tatties into a slicer – which cuts them into pale discs and shunts them onto the next conveyor belt.
As they zoom through the factory, the thin slices of potato are washed again – and they emerge from a tide of starchy, white water ready to be fried.
Thousands of crisps are heated at once, marching steadily along a conveyor belt the whole time.
Once cooked and crunchy, the crisps are automatically seasoned and weighed, before being dropped into packets.
From here, the crisps are off around the country – often less than 60 minutes after arriving at the factory as potatoes.
Crisps may only take an hour in the factory to produce, but the process of developing new flavours and getting them to market can take years, involving hundreds of people.
In many ways, this is the most important part of the whole operation: anyone can fry a potato, but nailing the taste is what makes crisps sell.
At crisp giant Walkers, celebrating its 70th anniversary this month, it’s a sixty-strong panel of trained taste assessors who are responsible for giving the nod to exciting new flavours like Cheese and Bacon or Cajun Squirrel.
Before any new bags hit the shelves, all Walkers’ flavours have to pass a thorough taste test with these crisp connoisseurs – sometimes several times.
Matt Cullingworth, a sensory and consumer product insight manager, explained to us that his panel of supertasters had to jump through a series of taste-related hoops to make the cut.
“One in four people have the skillset that we need to become a supertaster,” he told Sun Online.
Not only do they have to correctly identify the five pillars of taste – sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami (or savoury) – but they are tested for colour blindness because much of their work is visual too.
These applicants undergo odour recognition and descriptive ability exams, in which they guide scientists through the eating journey, describing aspects from appearance to flavour, texture and aftertaste.
It’s the same sort of skills a food critic would need – creating a visual picture of the flavours so that whoever is listening could imagine the taste on their tongue.
“They never quite know what they’re working on because we have to keep it top secret,” Matt adds. “We want them to be completely objective.
“Until we’ve launched something, they won’t know what they’re working on.”
From meat to tatties
Walkers wasn’t always such a high-tech venture… in fact, it wasn’t even always in the crisp business.
The household name started out as a tiny butcher’s shop in Leicester, bought by Henry Walker in the 1880s.
Walkers was in the meat game for decades, but rationing after World War Two caused the demand for meat to plummet.
In 1948, the company faced no choice but to change direction and start mass-producing crisps, since potatoes were abundant and crisps had started to become popular with the public.
Making a packet
Ben Barlow, who has been flavour manager at Walkers for seven years and worked on over 100 flavour innovations, is another key player in the development of new taste sensations.
His main job is working out what consumers want from his crisps: which wacky flavours will create a buzz and which are just a step too far?
He then spends time with the marketing team and Walkers’ suppliers to nail down the idea, before collaborating with the chefs to develop the dishes and map the flavours into a seasoning.
Inspiration for a flavour can come from anywhere, particularly restaurant or ingredient trends, for example, or popular street food brands.
“I spend a fair bit of time in supermarkets stalking consumers to see what they’re putting in their trolleys,” says Ben.
“The UK really leads the way on the range of flavours – there are so many and preferences differ even depending on the region.
“The North of England, for example, prefers acidic flavours like pickled onion and ketchup.”
Ben’s team of supertasters work at Walkers Sensory Testing Facility in Leicester’s Beaumont Park, where they put the latest seasonings through their paces.
But they can only work one eight-hour shift a week – any longer and their sensitive palates might lose their effectiveness.
Hot drinks (especially coffee) and spicy food are off the menu the night before and during a shift, because they temper taste buds and alter the ability to gauge flavours.
A typical day might include trying out a new crisp flavour, assessing how long a bag of Doritos taste their best and sampling other products by Pepsico – the owner of Walkers – like Quaker Oats porridge, Snack A Jacks or Nobby’s Nuts.
In between each type of food, assessors must take twenty minute refresher breaks and are only allowed natural palate cleansers like fruit, natural yogurt and water.
Do you have what it takes to be a crisp supertaster?
- Can you identify and name the five pillars of taste?
Picking up on the five pillars of taste is essential. Can you decipher and say whether something you’ve eaten is sweet, sour, bitter, salt or umami? You will be tested on something simple like an apple – if you can describe it accurately with the right tasting notes, then you might be in with a shot. Equally, you need to like eating most things – vegetarians or vegans may struggle in the job.
- Are you fully sighted?
It might seem as if tasting is all about your tongue, but Walkers Supertasters observe do a lot of appearance testing too. Products are held under red lights in the lab to show appearance differences so if you are partially sighted or colourblind, this could be difficult.
- Do you have a strong sense of smell?
Smell plays a very important part in your tasting process, so you will be expected to decipher and name different odours during the recruitment exam.
- Are you a regular smoker?
Smoking hampers your taste bud regeneration so regular smokers can’t adequately taste the five flavour pillars, which might jeopardise your suitability as a champion taster.
- Can you work part time?
As tasters are only allowed to work eight hours a week – typically on a morning – the ideal candidates will need to fit other work around this schedule. The pay is £14 an hour so it’s certainly not enough to live off, but could be a fun part-time role.
Once the taste testers have agreed on a flavour, it is seamlessly added into the production process, which is automated smoothly from start to finish.
“You’ll find that the seasoning contains a lot of the original herbs and spices, so, for example, you’re eating more coronation chicken than you realise if you ate a bag of Walkers Coronation Chicken,” says Ben.
Although he’s a fan of most flavours, a cheese and salad cream-flavoured Heinz collaboration left a nasty taste in his mouth.
“I really hate salad cream so it was quite difficult going through that process – eating cheese and salad cream sandwiches, developing the seasoning and then critiquing it was not easy,” he said.
Obviously, working on new innovations before they hit the marketplace is a big perk and supertasters may be involved in the sampling up to ten years before the product is available to buy.
But while nailing the flavour for the perfect tasting crisp may take many years, crunching your way through a bag is undoubtedly much quicker.