13 Ice Cream Secrets From Ben & Jerry's Flavor Gurus
As a kid growing up in Waterbury, Vermont, Kirsten Schimoler was a regular on the Ben & Jerry’s factory tour. Now, after getting a food science degree from Cornell University, she’s moved back to her hometown and taken her dream job on Ben & Jerry’s research and development team, where she helps think up, develop, taste, and perfect every flavor that comes out of the company kitchen.
1. THERE’S A REASON BEN & JERRY’S FLAVORS ARE SO RICH
It’s partly because co-founder Ben Cohen has anosmia, or almost no sense of smell. If he couldn’t taste a recipe, he just added more flavoring!
2. THE R&D DEPARTMENT IS ULTRA ELITE
Schimoler is one of just three food scientists on staff. The remaining four members of the team come from culinary backgrounds. (One of them has the title “primal ice cream therapist.”) Together they launch about five flavors each year.
3. A FLAVOR CAN TAKE MORE THAN A YEAR TO DEVELOP
The average development cycle of a basic pint is about 12 to 14 months, but there have been occasions where Schimoler nailed a flavor on the first try. “Other times,” she says, “you’re on iteration 10 and still wondering if it’s going to work.” Which is exactly what happened with Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt, one of the few products where the name came before the flavor. “They knew they wanted to do a Liz Lemon flavor but didn’t know what they wanted it to be. We looked at so many different lemon flavors.” At the other end of the spectrum, Schweddy Balls, inspired by Alec Baldwin’s SNL skit, got to market in a record four months.
4. MOST FLAVORS START WITH THE SAME BASE
A mix of milk, cream, liquid sugar, egg yolks, and water. But there are a couple of variations that have different fat and sugar levels. Choosing which to start with depends on what’s going to be added in. If a recipe calls for something high fat, like peanut butter, it starts with a lower fat base. “If you’re at too high a fat level, once you freeze it, you’re going to end up with concrete; it’s not going to come out of the machine,” Schimoler says. If they’re adding something sweet, like caramel, they use one with lower sugar.
5. EACH YEAR, THE TEAM MAKES A PILGRIMAGE TO A FORWARD-THINKING FOOD CITY
In order to stay ahead of the flavor curve, they’ll spend 12 hours a day tasting offerings from food venues of all types, hitting as many as 10 spots a day. The inspiration for Liz Lemon Greek Frozen Yogurt? A blueberry-lavender cocktail in San Francisco. This year, the team visited Portland, and Schimoler is forecasting a future full of caramel and burnt sugar. “We’re also seeing a lot of sour stuff,” she says. “You see that a lot in the cocktail world. Sour beers are coming back.”
6. BEN & JERRY’S RECEIVES ABOUT 13,000 FLAVOR SUGGESTIONS A YEAR FROM CUSTOMERS
Each R&D team member is given a month’s worth of feedback to review for new ideas or recurring themes. Some of the company’s most iconic flavors were born from these, including Cherry Garcia, which was suggested by two Deadheads from Portland, Maine. (In December 2013, after spending more than a decade at the top of the customer favorite list, the 27-year-old flavor was dethroned by Half Baked, which, surprisingly, was not suggested by Deadheads.)
7. NOT EVERY FLAVOR CAN BE FOUND IN YOUR LOCAL GROCERY STORE
Some are created exclusively for a single retailer. One of Schimoler’s favorites, Nutty Caramel Swirl, which she developed to taste like a Snickers bar, is only available at 7-Eleven. The very first flavor she worked on, Berry Voluntary, was made for Target. Walgreens sells a Truffle Trifecta, and Walmart hawks Cotton Candy.
8. THERE’S A FLAVOR GRAVEYARD
At the company’s factory in Waterbury, Vermont, discontinued flavors are laid to rest with a headstone. Among the rows of dearly departed flavors are many of Cohen’s creations, including Miz Jelena’s Sweet Potato Pie (Epitaph: “One potato, two potato, Sweet Potato Pie. No one would could appreciate it. So we had to let it die.”)
9. BEING A FLAVOR DEVELOPER HAS CERTAIN PERKS
Ben & Jerry’s has a take-home allowance of three pints—a day! Fortunately, the company’s corporate headquarters, in South Burlington, is equipped with a full gym. They also have a yoga instructor and an occasional massage therapist. (No wonder they also need a nap room.)
10. PUNNY FLAVOR NAMES DON’T ALWAYS WORK FOR INTERNATIONAL MARKETS
When Chunky Monkey first launched in Japan, there were questions about whether it contained monkey meat.
11. BACON WON’T HAPPEN
It’s among one of the most requested items, but we won’t see it because Ben & Jerry’s plants are kosher.
12. DON’T WORRY, NEITHER WILL KALE
The company has a long list of regular vendors for things like chocolates and caramel, but there’s an even longer list of snack peddlers hoping to sell their ingredients in a pint of ice cream, including one very persistent proponent of kale chips. Though a co-worker did a test batch, Schimoler says that, ultimately, “No one wants to sit down with a pint of Kale Ben & Jerry’s. So, Kale Guy, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.”
13. BUFFALO WINGS, ON THE OTHER HAND? WELL, THEY JUST MIGHT
“Everyone is so tuned to think that ice cream is sweet, creamy, and cold. But it doesn’t have to be,” Schimoler says. “Creamy and cold can be savory too.”