Beyond Ben & Jerry’s
Vermont’s Smaller Ice Cream Makers Come in Many Different Flavors
Written onJune 01 , 2008
Let’s face it. We’re spoiled by many artisan food producers in Vermont. Bread bakers Randy George and Liza Cain of Red Hen Bakery in Middlesex. Cheesemakers Willow Smart and David Phinney of Willow Hill Farm in Milton. Bob and Martha Pollak, makers of Snowflake Chocolates in Jericho. The list goes on. Vermont is a foodie’s paradise.
So why not expect the same diversity with Vermont’s ice cream? Ben & Jerry’s may be our most famous export, but there are other ice cream makers around the state freezing up some terrific stuff, and they represent a variety of approaches to the making and marketing of ice cream. They’re mostly small-batch, artisan producers, and even better, they’re using Vermont milk in their recipes.
From the Northeast Kingdom to NYC
On a snowy day in April, I headed out to the Vermont Milk Company processing plant in Hardwick to meet the people behind the product. Brian LaCoss spent two years selling organic milk in Lyndonville; now he serves as president of the Vermont Milk Company, which makes about 350 gallons of ice cream per week.
“We currently produce five flavors,” LaCoss said: vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, and maple. They’re sold at many co-ops and markets around the state, including some Hannaford and Grand Union locations—“and we’re working on Shaw’s right now,” LaCoss adds. Restaurants are also requesting three-gallon tubs. The Wayside Restaurant in Berlin, for example, typically serves six or seven tubs of VMC ice cream each week.
The Vermont Milk Company also produces “One-Shot Creamies.” Single-serve containers (recyclable, of course) are placed in a user-friendly dispenser and the ice cream comes out in a creamy soft swirl. Part-time Waitsfield resident Johnny Reid recently approached VMC about introducing their Creamies to New York City, where Reid spends the rest of his time. He took Creamie machines to the Central Park Zoo and the Circle Line tour boats, and now the ice cream is being sold to Big Apple tourists through Reid’s Vermont Ice Cream Company.
“Several major New York restaurants are interested in carrying it in three-gallon containers,” Reid told me. “The celebrity chefs like the maple product, as it does feature real, 100% Vermont maple syrup. While the roll-out is small and slow, early signs are that the ‘Vermont brand’ is indeed a hit.”
Helping Farmers and Small Producers
The founding goals of the Vermont Milk Company, which was started by a few farmers and some non-farmer investors, were to create a cooperative of dairy farmers, set up a facility to process their milk into value-added products, and put more money into the pockets of farmers and the local community. The company has had some tough breaks since it began—for example, fuel prices have reached all-time highs, and the minimum price the company had set to pay for milk, which was originally well above the market price, is currently below what even conventional farmers are receiving.
Even though it’s been a challenge to pay a fair price to the farmers who supply milk to VMC, the company has had the blessing of diversity: its value-added processing facility can be used by other ice cream producers, and VMC also makes yogurt and cheese, in addition to ice cream.
“There aren’t a lot of diversified dairy plants around the state,” said Anthony Pollina, a founder of the company who recently stepped down from his role as VMC’s vice president to run for governor. “It’s a valuable resource.”
A case in point is Wilcox Dairy in Manchester. The Wilcox family has been making ice cream since 1928; they are the oldest ice cream manufacturer in the state. A fire destroyed their manufacturing plant in 2001, but they were able to continue operations at a facility in Greenfield, MA. However, when Vermont Milk Company opened its doors, they chose to make their ice cream in-state.
Howard Wilcox and his daughter, Chris, drive six hours round-trip to make their ice cream at the Hardwick plant. “My dad and I travel there every Friday to work with the Vermont Milk Company crew,” Chris says, to flavor, freeze, and package their ice cream, all made with milk obtained through the VMC cooperative. They make 1,500 finished gallons in a day, which they transport back home and distribute out of Manchester along with many other frozen treats—including some made by Ben & Jerry’s.
When I asked how they’re able to distribute other companies’ frozen desserts alongside their own, Chris explained that there are many different markets that want different products. “Ben & Jerry’s is very sweet, and they target customers who want the sweetest and most chunkiest thing in their hand.” By contrast, she said, her father “wants people to taste the flavor of the ice cream,” which contains all-natural ingredients and high-end flavorings and additions, including pure vanilla bourbon extract from Madagascar.
Michael Lesser and Carlo DePrato, owners of Leonardo’s Gelato & Sorbet, are also looking forward to utilizing VMC’s facility. They have been making delicious Italian-style ice cream since 2000, and are working on a base-mix recipe that will be produced at VMC’s plant, then finished off in Leonardo’s own facility in Barre. According to Lesser, “we’re looking forward to having Vermont milk in our product, which will only improve it.” They hope to start production there by the end of the year.
The On-Farm Approach
Over in Strafford, ice cream is being made in a different way at Rockbottom Farm’s Strafford Organic Creamery. Husband-and-wife team Earl Ransom and Amy Huyffer use the certified organic milk from their herd of 40 Guernseys to produce 13 different flavors of small-batch ice cream, about 100 to 150 gallons a week. They incorporate fresh-brewed coffee, mint plucked by hand from their garden, and organic eggs. Some flavors include coconut almond, egg nog, and black raspberry. Smooth maple is a popular choice among localvores, since the ingredients are all from Vermont.
Seven people, plus Amy and Earl, do all of the field work, milking, processing, administrative duties, and delivery of products. The creamery also produces milk sold in glass bottles. Their ice cream can be found in stores, co-ops, college cafeterias, and restaurants from Craftsbury to Brattleboro.
“We do almost all our own distribution, but we do deliver to [distributors] Squash Valley Produce in Waterbury and Hillside Poultry in Wilmington, and they bring our stuff to places we can’t get to, like Waitsfield and Manchester,” says Huyffer.
I asked Huyffer what she thought of Ben & Jerry’s.
“My hat is off to them for paving the way for what we do,” she said. “They introduced people to super-premium ice cream, in a pint at the grocery store, from cool people in Vermont who went out of their way to make a great product.
“As for whether Ben & Jerry’s, or anyone else, is competition for us, I think we’re probably too small to have any of that matter. We sell out of ice cream every summer...and have a knee-deep waiting list of stores and restaurants that are interested in carrying it. I suppose if another operation came along and made ice cream that was better than ours and less expensive, that might be an issue, but I’d be surprised if anyone could make ice cream as good as ours for less money. I think it might be hard to make ice cream better than ours on any kind of commercial scale, period.”
A Tale of Two Tastes
Huyffer initially wondered if Vermont Milk Company ice cream would impact Strafford’s market, particularly “for the people who are motivated to buy our stuff because it’s made locally.” But she isn’t worried, given the clear difference in the products.
I agree. After a taste test of both ice creams, I found they exhibit two totally different styles that would appeal to different taste preferences.
Vermont Milk Company produces a mild-tasting ice cream. Their chocolate has a delicate milk chocolate flavor that doesn’t scream ‘chocolate!’ in your mouth. Instead, the texture is light, with a mild sweetness. Their vanilla is also light and fresh, with just enough vanilla flavor balanced again with a pleasant sweetness.
Strafford Organic Creamery’s ice cream reminds me of the ice cream my family made when I was young. Their organic vanilla has a bolder custard flavor than Vermont Milk Company’s. The organic chocolate almond also has a stronger custard consistency, with a rich, dark chocolate flavor. It is a bit creamier than their organic vanilla.
So when the temperatures rise this summer and you’re looking for a great treat that’s locally made and supports farmers and local communities, try some Vermont Milk Company or Strafford Organic Creamery ice cream. Remember that Wilcox Dairy ice cream and Leonardo’s sorbet and gelato are also available.
And the next time you’re in New York City, swing by the Central Park Zoo or hop on a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan, and ask for a Vermont Ice Cream Company One-Shot Creamie. You’ll feel like you’re home.
Photo of Amy Huyffer courtesy of Strafford Organic Creamery