B&M fans say makers far and away don’t know about beans

When Rob Foster found half a dozen old cans of B&M baked beans on an almost empty supermarket shelf a few months ago, he was thrilled.

“When I saw the Portland address, I felt like I had struck gold,” said Foster, 36, a writer and editor who lives in Portland. “The new cans are just inferior, not as cooked, a bit more crispy. There is more water, it is not thick and slimy. Beans are a comfort food. You don’t expect the baked beans to break. ”

Foster ate one of his treasured tins of old beans – made before the B&M Portland factory closed in late 2021 – and found them to be just as tasty as ever. He rations the rest to make them last as long as possible. When his old stash of cans runs out, he says, he’ll likely go in search of a new favorite brand.

B&M loyalists in Maine and across the country have a bad taste in their mouths these days after discovering that their favorite beans, now made in multiple factories across the Midwest, just aren’t the same. People on social media have complained that the beans are too firm or even crunchy, more like canned black beans, and there’s too much liquid. Others say the taste is bad, too sweet for some. Some people have posted pictures of a slimy goop on the beans in the can.

“When I opened the box there was a layer of silt on top and the beans had all settled to the bottom and I had to chase them down with a spoon,” said Joanne Carey, 62, from from Massachusetts living in California. “They were too tough. I baked them for two hours on the stove just to make them a little more mushy.

Changing the taste and texture of B&M Baked Beans is like changing history. Burnham & Morrill Co. began canning vegetables, meat and fish in Portland in 1867, built the factory that still exists near Casco Bay in 1913, and began selling its beans in 1927. In Beyond that, baked beans have been an integral part of the cultural history of Maine and all of New England, the standard Saturday night supper for generations and a staple that has maintained its popularity for approximately 200 years. Baking beans at home can be an all-day process, which is why many people turn to B&M for their fix of baked beans.

Giant pots filled with beans, at B&M’s Portland factory in August 2021. The pots were lowered into top-loading ovens for baking. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

“I think baked beans are still very popular with a certain generation, but I think the habit of cooking them from scratch is dying out,” said Nancy Harmon Jenkins, 85, Camden writer and food historian. “You still see them being made for community suppers. And I always hear about Mainers going to Florida in the winter and the first thing they do is bake beans and bring other people over for supper.

Dozens of people on Reddit and Facebook have been sharing their sad bean stories over the past few weeks, along with speculation about why the snub was happening and what to do about it. Some believe the beans are now steamed rather than baked. Others say the beans don’t taste the same because B&G Foods, B&M’s parent company, didn’t bring the huge iron bean jars to the new facility and those jars somehow held the secret to the flavor of beans. Several B&M employees told the Press Herald that workers were allowed to take the pots home, which some did, to use as planters and fire pits.

Some disgruntled bean eaters have become sleuths, figuring out how to tell a good (Portland-made) can from a bad (non-Portland-made) can. Foster and others found a few cans still on grocery store shelves that say “Burnham & Morrill” and have an address of “Portland, ME 04103” on the back label.

Foster checked the label after eating a “new” box of substandard beans earlier this year and found the New Jersey address. But he also had a can in his cupboard with a Portland address, prompting him to look for more Portland cans at his neighborhood supermarket. And that’s how he found his precious old tin can. Most cans on store shelves now say “Distributed by B&G Foods Inc., Parsippany, NJ, 07054” and make no mention of Portland.

Rob Foster and his daughter Theodora, 2, with their stock of hard-to-find B&M beans made in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

The reason there are still older Portland-made cans on the shelves is that most B&M cans have an expiration date of about two years after they were made, former employees said. The cans found by the Press Herald in Greater Portland with the Portland address had expiration dates in the early months of 2023, meaning they were likely made in 2021, while the cans with the address New Jersey had expiration dates in mid-2024.

Cans made in Portland also say “Brick Oven Baked” as part of the B&M logo, but on New Jersey cans this phrase has been replaced with “A New England Tradition”.

David Rickett of Raymond is among those who think beans can be steamed now. Rickett was a production supervisor for B&M in Portland for about 20 years, until his retirement in 2019, and says the beans were still cooked there. At the Portland factory, the beans were mixed with spices, molasses and other ingredients in iron pots that weighed 200 pounds empty and over 900 pounds when full. The pots were then lowered into top-loading kilns – some were brick while the newer ones were metal – and fired for about three to four hours. The main heat source was under the cooking pot, but the tubes also carried heat to the top of the oven, Rickett said.

Rickett said B&M owners had experimented with steamed beans over the years, but the method had never been used for production. Rickett said he tried some of the newer cans and “didn’t care”. He said the lighter color he saw and less satisfying flavor could be the result of steaming instead of baking.

“When you don’t bake, you don’t have the beans turning over and going back and forth with the sugars and water,” said Rickett, 68, who worked at B&M for 46 years. “The beans we were making were as close to homemade as you could get. We were very proud of it. »

The speculation among B&M enthusiasts is just that, though. B&G Foods did not return several phone calls and emails from the Press Herald asking where and how the beans are currently being made. When B&G Foods officials announced the Portland plant would cease production by the end of 2021, they said the beans would be made at a B&G plant in Iowa and third-party plants in Illinois and Minnesota, but did not name specific locations. B&G manufactures more than 50 food brands, including Cream of Wheat, Crisco, Ortega, Green Giant, Maple Grove Farms and McCann’s Irish Oatmeal. B&M baked beans were made exclusively in Portland.

B&G Foods announced in August 2021 that it was selling the Portland plant to a nonprofit group representing Northeastern University’s Roux Institute, with plans to develop a high-tech graduate school and business center. business. The last B&M beans were made in Portland in early December 2021, according to employees and union officials.

The B&M Portland plant, seen here in 2021, has been a local landmark for over 100 years, visible to anyone passing through town on I-295. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

B&M’s website has a history which states that in 1913 B&M moved “to its present site on Casco Bay, also in Portland”. There is a timeline of B&M history on the website beginning in 1867 but ending with B&G Foods buying B&M from Pillsbury in 1999.

An analysis of the labels on each box showed that the ingredients were the same regardless of where they were made, but the nutritional values ​​were not, meaning different amounts of ingredients were used. The box with a New Jersey address listed 7 grams of fiber at 8 grams on the Portland box, for example. The New Jersey can also contained 18 grams of added sugars compared to 16 grams for the Portland can.

The lower fiber count could mean the company uses fewer beans now, to cut costs, said Sandy Oliver, a food historian and writer from Islesboro. And more sugar could mean less molasses is used or manufacturers want a sweeter bean, Rickett said.

A tale of two cans: one says it was made in Portland and the other says it’s distributed by a company in New Jersey. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Although B&G stopped making B&M beans in Portland in December of last year, it took some bean fans a while to discover that the new batches were different. Since most B&M cans have a best-before date about two years after they are made, they can sit on store shelves for quite some time.

Drew Buckley, 64, from Cape Elizabeth, only discovered the difference in early October when he packed a box with hot dogs. He had last eaten the beans in the summer and noticed no change. But the batch he reheated in October was tougher than he likes — more like black beans, he said — and had more water. He suspected they had been steamed and said they were tasteless.

Buckley wondered if he had just received a bad batch, so he posted his experience on Reddit to see if anyone else had found the newer B&M beans to be harder, watery and lacking in taste. He discovered that several other people shared his displeasure.

“I’ll try them again, but if they’re the same, I might have to start buying bush beans,” he said.

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James C. Tibbs