Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Gigi, Ben, Jerry, and a Trio of Gurus: The Saga IV

First of all, if you need to catch up, here are links to the previous posts covering my trip to Ben & Jerry's:

Gigi Goes to Ben & Jerry's Week Intro
Gigi Goes to Ben & Jerry's Part 1
Gigi Goes to Ben & Jerry's Part Deux!
Gigi, Ben & Jerry Jerry à Trois

Now, onto the Flavor Gurus...

Every Ben & Jerry's flavor that you taste comes down to the hard work and dedication of the company's Flavor Gurus.

Now I know what you are thinking: "Gigi, there have been a lot of flavors where the nicest thing you had to say was that you didn't have to eat it again." And yes, yes I did say those things. And no, I still do not, and never will like Dublin Mudslide or Vermonty Python. (In fact, I would rather not even get the memory of them either.) But these are also the guys who came up with the Hannah Teeter flavor, Mission to Marzipan, and the new Dolce Delish. They actually have the official title of Gurus. Hey, even the Beatles had Gurus. Heck, it could be argued that Yoda was Luke Skywalker's Guru. So how could you not want to meet these guys?

At first they led us into a little room just off the main test kitchen, where they introduced themselves and explained what they did. This is also the room where whatever journalistic integrity Gigi may have had flew out the window.

We got to meet three of the Gurus:

From left to right, the Gurus are Peter, John, and Eric.

Each of them, besides having a very groovy tie-dyed lab coat, also has an extensive and impressive culinary background. Just thinking about what these guys can do with ice cream, I found myself wondering what it must be like to actually have these guys prepare an actual meal? OK, fantasy dinners aside, let's talk about the ice cream gifts they have bestowed on the world's taste buds.

Peter: He is the man responsible for Chubby Hubby. If you have ever had pretzels in ice cream, you have this man to thank. Peter is also the Guru I got to spend the most time with -- but we will get to that in a moment.

John: John may have done a lot of great things in his life, but as far as I am concerned, the thing that tops the list is that he is the man who gave me Mission to Marzipan.

Eric: Eric did Key Lime Pie, and with that flavor (which still does not benefit manatees -- and for all you manatees who have somehow not only learned to read, but found a way to get Internet access, I was pulling for a name change the whole time) came the heavenly meringue swirl.

If nothing else can be said of me, it's that I will go for the moment even if it means sacrificing that pesky little thing called dignity, and all three of the Gurus got hugs for the pleasures they have added to my life. I have to wonder how often it happens that writers hug them, but they were all really good sports about it. I can't help but be thankful for the fact that since I write for myself, I don't have to answer to an editor for that one.

We got to talk to the Gurus about how they come up with the flavors. The long short answer is that they are inspired by anything and everything. They do try to keep up with the flavor trends and put the Ben & Jerry's stamp on them. We also learned that it can take dozens, if not hundreds of test batches to nail a flavor down. Each Guru also has sort of a pet flavor they are working on. There was also talk of the flavors that were tried but just never made it. For example, Ben himself had really wanted a rose flavored ice cream. They went through batch after batch, making the rose flavor stronger and stronger -- until it got to the point where even Ben had to call it a day. (A shame, because I looooove rose flavored items.) They even have tried to make garlic ice cream. Then there was the proposed Chips and Dip, which would have been potato chips and ranch dressing. I, for one, am glad that didn't one make it, because we all know I would have picked it up to review it, and I really have no desire to eat ranch ice cream. (So far as I know, they haven't attempted a Spicy Nacho Doritos flavor.)

We also learned during the course of our visit how flavors eventually make their way to the Flavor Graveyard. The basic answer is that new flavors are given a year to prove themselves. Depending on how well they have sold, they are either kept in the lineup...or a grave is dug. For existing flavors, it again comes down to sales. You might have loved a particular flavor (KaBerry Kaboom, anyone?), but if you were one of only five people in the world who actually bought it, well... it's out with the old, in with the new. For pretty much every new flavor that makes it to the shelf, something that isn't selling well has to go.

Special or Limited edition flavors are sort of different in that they only go through one production run, and whatever is made then typically comprises the flavor's lifespan. But exceptions to that rule are occasionally made. The Hannah Teter's Maple Blondie, slated as a limited edition, has proven so popular that it is now on its second run.

Even with all that said, if there was a flavor that you are just dying to have come back -- or if you would like to suggest one of your own -- there is an online request that you can submit. And because I am so nice, here is a link to it. I can't tell you that it will definitely help bring your flavor to life (or back to life), but I can tell you that the folks at Ben & Jerry's promise that they actually read every submission.

But let's get back to the Gurus...

Not only were we getting to talk to the Guru's, but we were also going to make our own flavors with them! We were split up, four bloggers to each Guru, and we were assigned the task of creating a special flavor. We had known from the start that we were going to get to do this, but it just sounded too good to be true until it actually happened...and then it was even better than I had dreamed of. The marketing department (who we would be talking to after this activity) agreed to judge our finished flavors.

My group's Guru turned out to be Peter.

Peter very generously answered all of our many questions. One of the things I have long complained about in my reviews is that it in all of the flavors of late, it seems that rather than what would have in the past been pieces/chunks of chocolate, that fudge is being used instead. Turns out I am not going insane (well, not from this anyway), the change has in fact been made to fudge. (I did not think to ask when this happened, and I should have.) The official reason is that because oils could be added to the fudge that help the fudge stay softer than actual chocolate would; and had they used chocolate, the hardened chocolate would eventually lead to a different texture than was intended, and therefore the consistency of the product would be harder to maintain.

So why not just use real chocolate with oil added to it instead of calling it fudge? Good question. Actual chocolate is trickier to work with. Real chocolate must contain cocoa fat, A.K.A. cocoa butter. And cocoa butter is not such a fan of the cold and being frozen in general -- and sadly, other (less tasty) oils get that job done better. Because you can only alter real chocolate so much before it can no longer legally be called chocolate -- even if you are still using cocoa solids (having replaced the required cocoa fat with, say, palm or coconut oils), you can't call it chocolate anymore...and, well, you have to call it something. I will at least admit that fudge sounds more appetizing than the commonly-used "chocolaty."

While I understand the science behind the reason, and I realize it does make for a more consistent product, I am still holding firm that it doesn't taste as good. To also be fair, Ben & Jerry's are not the only premium ice cream to go the Fudge/Chocolaty route. Haagen- Dazs is also using "chocolaty" flavored chips in flavors such as Java Chip and Mint Chip (although other flavors are, for the moment at least still using real chocolate chips). My inner conspiracy theorist (and chocolate purist) does have a raised eyebrow (Colbert style, of course), and can't help but wonder in both Ben & Jerry and Haagen-Dazs cases, if we've somehow made it through many years with real chocolate in the products, why is it that only relatively recently has the opinion seemed to swing to giving up a "real" ingredient in place of something that's more on the artificial side? And also, as it happens conveniently enough, cheaper for them to use...cheaper ingredients, yet same price points as time marches on...just thinking out loud here, people...

OK, tinfoil hat off now...

Consistent product standards is a big sticking point for Ben & Jerry's, and that's one of the reasons some flavors or some possible ingredients just don't make it. For example, have you ever had really good bread dipped in chocolate, and thought that would be great in an ice cream? Well it probably would, except that you would have to find a way to keep the bread from turning into a ball of mush. Ditto potato chips, certain type of cereal bits, etc. Not to say they are not always trying to boldly go where no ice cream has gone before -- they are in always looking for ways to make the impossible possible -- but some things take a lot more work than others. And sometimes you just have to know when to say "when."

Holy Cannoli was one of those times. While long gone (we're talking mid-1990's, people -- and yes, I ate it while watching first-run episodes of Friends. I did, however, skip wearing flannel) it is still in my top 15 favorite flavors. As you may have guessed from the name, it was a cannoli flavored ice cream that featured real ricotta cheese, pieces of cannoli shell, and pistachios. What ultimately killed this flavor was that the ricotta just did not always take to the production process (it doesn't like being frozen), and it just proved to be to difficult to deal with. Ah, least I will always have the memory of my best friend and I's weekly Thursday night ritual of beer, ice cream, and the NBC line up.

The test kitchen itself looked like...well, like a big, ovenless kitchen. There were lots of cabinets and drawers (some of them were actually freezer/cold drawers), banks of fridges and freezers, and in those walls pretty much everything you could imagine wanting to find in ice cream can be found.

Peter and John explaining the finer points of ice cream making (above.)

We had basically anything we wanted at our finger tips, and my team decided that our flavor was going to be a sweet and spicy combination. Oh, and in true Iron Chef style, we only got an hour to take our dream flavors from our heads to the pint. And yes, they did count off the time. Sadly, this was not done by Alton Brown -- though probably for the best. I have a feeling that between the excitement of just being at Ben & Jerry's period, to working with real live Flavor Gurus, to being in an amazing kitchen, that had they thrown Alton in on top of that, my heart might actually have exploded from the excitement. And if they thought I went overboard hugging the Gurus...well, I could not be held responsible for what I might have done to Alton.

But enough about Alton...we've got ice cream to make!

Above are just some of the toppings at our disposal. There were blondies, brownies, fudge chunks, fudge peace signs, Heath bar bits, pralines, chocolate covered almonds, cookies, peanut butter cups, ginger snaps, white chocolate chunks, and cookie dough bits. In the beaker is vanilla.

And there were more things we could have asked for, not counting liquid flavors,liqueurs, fruits, nuts, spices and swirls. In fact, as we were talking about possible swirls, Peter let us taste one he is working on. (I am not sure if I'm allowed to reveal what the flavor was, so I won't.) While ultimately it didn't end up in our flavor, it was so good on its own that I would happily eat that just by its lonesome.

After putting our heads together with Peter guiding us, we decided that our flavor was going to be a powdered cinnamon flavored base ice cream (it would be less hot than using liquid cinnamon, and visually it would give little specks of spice that would look good). Added to that would be a little vanilla to round out the cinnamon. Then some chocolate covered almonds, pralines, and blondie bits. There would also be a caramel swirl and a secret ingredient: just a hint of Ancho chili powder.

It all started off with a cream base...

Then the powdered ingredients were whisked into it...

Once you've got things nice and blended, into the churner it goes...

Those little tabletop machines are super powered, and can churn out ten pints of ice cream in about ten minutes. The chunks are added after the base has been churned into ice cream. (During the churn time, we asked Peter another thousand or so questions.)

When the churning was complete, the ice cream was extruded out we collected it into a big stainless steel bowl. While one of us stirred and rotated the bowl, the other slowly added in the chunks (the blondies, pralines and chocolate covered almonds). Part of what helps make Ben & Jerry's chunks so good is that they are always added to the ice cream well chilled -- if you are a home churner, try chilling your chunks on your next batch. Huge difference, especially if you are using fruit or cookies. (Gigi makes a rather kick ass blueberry ice cream, as a matter of fact. And I can tell you from experience that chilling the blueberries makes for a much better finished product).

Once the chunks were mixed in, we had to get the swirl worked in and get the ice cream into the pints. With Peter's help, we got the ice cream into a big pastry bag, then we got a bag of caramel. And with three of us, we squeezed the ice cream and caramel into pints. To get a good swirl, the ice cream and the caramel get piped into the pint at the same time, and the pint itself needs to be turned.

Here are some pints ready to go into the freezer...but of course we had to taste it first.

Oh yeah, it was GOOOOOD!

The cinnamon was warm, but retained some sweetness -- which got a nice assist from the blondie bits. The pralines added crunch. The caramel was buttery and gooey, and the chili added a little pop of heat. If it had been entirely up to me, I would have ditched the blondies (as great as they are) and the almonds, and turned the chili up just a smidge. But remember, this was a collaborative effort, and I have to say that as a team we did pretty darn good! Did we do good enough to win the marketing challenge? Gotta keep reading to find out!

At this point our team was the last to finish, and we just made the time deadline. That, sadly, also meant that it was time to bid farewell to the Gurus. You know that look kids get when being forced to leave Disneyland? I had that look.

But it's Ben & Jerry's, and even moving away from the Gurus, you know there was still more cool stuff to come. One last hug for the Gurus, and it was back to the conference room where talked marketing.

While the marketing talk was quite interesting to us, I am not sure that all of it would be to you guys' taste, so we will skip most of it. But one of the things I will talk about is how the flavors are named. Naming a flavor is actually a joint effort, and there are many brainstorming sessions that pretty much any of the employees are allowed to attend. They all taste batches, and basically just start throwing out names.

If left completely to theiy own devices, the names dreamed up by employees tend to be, as they liked to call it, "Left of Center." If they can sneak in a cool reference or double entendre, they are happy. Sometimes it works (as in the case of Half Baked), and sometimes it doesn't -- the new Peanut Brittle flavor is a good example. The name they really wanted was Peanuts Envy. But sadly, it was already trademarked.

Marketing explained how some flavors that are now classics came to life because of suggestions sent in. Cherry Garcia and Chubby Hubby both got their starts in life thanks to rabid fans.

Speaking of Cherry Garcia, this was also the first celebrity flavor. The flavor had been suggested as an ode to Jerry Garcia (well, duh), and was developed and made without working with Garcia. The original pint art had Grateful Dead font and bears on it -- and apparently Jerry Garcia/Grateful Dead's lawyers were not quite as flattered as one would have hoped. There was a lot of legal back-and-forth, and finally Jerry Garcia and Ben & Jerry's came to an agreement. Jerry Garcia generously donated his portion of the sales of the ice cream to a charity, and that in itself started something of a tradition.

In all of the celebrity flavors you see, such as the Elton John, Hannah Teter, Dave Matthews, etc., the artists have donated the proceeds that use of their names and or likenesses to charity.

Most of the time the flavor has already been worked out, and it's just finding a perfect celebrity match. Sometimes a flavor is tweaked for the celeb. Sometimes a celeb will go out of their way to request doing a flavor. Supposedly Snoop Dogg really, really wants his own flavor. (Can you blame him?!) I don't know how that would turn out, but I vow to be the first to review it should it happen. (Gigi has a surprising amount of Snoop on her iPod.) Oh, and sometimes bloggers lobby tirelessly for their own flavor to be made...c'mon, guys, you know you want to! We could donate to Lupus Foundation of America.

Finally, in case you're wondering where my team's ice cream come in compared to the other two teams: The On Second Scoop team did a lemon flavor inspired by a lemon drop that was really good. The Lick My Spoon team did a flavor they called a Choc-Work Orange, which was an orange vanilla base with chocolate cookies, brownie chunks, and a fudge swirl. (I did not get to taste it, but given my love of orange/chocolate, I am sure I would have loved it.) But in the end there can be only one...

Yeah, we nailed it! But it was a close call with the other two.

Marketing also gave us a special gift -- custom made pints to remember our trip by:


Tomorrow: How did Ben & Jerry end up working for The Man?

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