Saturday, April 17, 2010

Gigi Goes to Ben & Jerry's!

This is a special post, for two reasons:

1. It is my 800th post, and I figured that in itself is a big deal.

2. I finally get to tell you guys all about my extra-fantabulous trip to Burlington, Vermont, to visit some little place they make ice cream in. You may have heard of the company -- they are called Ben & Jerry's!

I warn you guys now that this is a LOOOOOONG post, even for me.

About a month and a half ago, I got an email inviting me to come to Vermont and go on a VIP tour of the Ben & Jerry's factory. I have to admit that the first thought I had was that one of my friends was punking me (I do have friends who would do such things) , or maybe that I had died and woken up in blogger heaven. But after calling the very cool Aryn, who is one of B&J's PR Homies (my term, not theirs), it became clear that my friends could stay off my hit list, and that if I had in fact died and gone to blogger heaven...well then, it was really going all out for me.

The amount of time that passed between when I got that first email and when I actually left felt as long as it does for a kid waiting on Christmas Eve; even though I knew it was a relatively short amount of time, it felt like an eon. (Although I was not so patient the day finally did arrive.) Once I arrived in Burlington, Vermont and stepped off the Prop Plane of Death -- seriously, the thing was so old it had propellers and ashtrays! -- I was greeted by this:

Please note that the sign does look better in person than my crappy, off center photo would have you believe. After the airport I arrived at my lovely hotel room where I had some time to chill out before meeting the other bloggers on the trip for dinner.

The first night of the trip Ben & Jerry's treated us to a fantastic dinner at Kitchen Table Bistro. We got to meet the incredibly nice PR team (who very quickly learned that I have tried pretty much every flavor Ben & Jerry's has made since 1994 -- and have rather deeply held opinions on ice cream in general). Dinner also gave us bloggers a chance to get to know each other. I had a great time talking to the writers who bring together sites like On Second Scoop, Grub Grade, Lick My Spoon, Bitchin' Kitchen, Notcot, Serious Eats, LemonDrop, and more. I know I have unintentionally left some people out, and if you are one of them -- please drop me a line and I will link you in. I am old and forgetting things, people, so bear with me.

I was lucky enough to get myself seated with the very cool E who works for Ben & Jerry's Canadian PR, A who is with Bitchin' Kitchen (BTW if you have not seen their website or show you should. In fact, please sign the petition to bring the Bitchin' Kitchen show to the America's Food Network), and Jackson from NotCot. We spent the evening bonding over shared love of vampires, hot waiters (OK, I feel safe to say that Jackson would firmly like to be left out of that part of the conversation), and learning all about the far away and exotic land that is Canada. There was a lot of red wine involved. Fun cultural fact: If we think Canadians end every sentence with "eh," they think we do the same thing with "huh." Just building a bridge of friendship, people! We have to work on closing the cultural gaps that keep us from being one... or something like that. Like I said there was a lot of wine floating around. So, once we had all become new BFFs, we were shuffled back to our hotel and told to be ready bright and early for our Ben & Jerry adventure to begin.

Bright and early as in 8:45 in the morning! Pacific Standard Time body still firmly believed it was actually 5:45 am! (Well it is, but that is how much I love ice cream.) So I dragged my slooshy, still full from last night's dinner self out of bed with a speed seldom seen, and was bright eyed and bushy tailed downstairs in no time. (Normally, to deal with me in the early morning is to seriously tempt fate.)

Once on the shuttle, we made our way to Ben & Jerry's Waterbury, Vermont factory:

(Photo courtesy of Lick My Spoon.)

The Waterbury factory is no longer the biggest in the Ben & Jerry's empire. But it is their first, and was the one that Ben & Jerry themselves actually worked out of. (If you have read or seen any of the numerous documentaries on the history of the company, you probably already know this.) As the company grew and Ben & Jerry needed more and more working space, they clearly needed a factory -- and they also needed a lot more money than they had. The boys found a little-known law on the Vermont books that allowed Vermont-based companies to sell stock to Vermont residents. Clearly, the people of Vermont knew a good thing when they were offered it, as stock was sold, money was brought in, and it set about a chain reaction that has been making the world a better (and tastier) place ever since. This portion of our adventure is open to the public, so if you have ever wanted to see the birthplace of your favorite flavor you can do it -- seven days a week! (Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas, I believe.)

Walking up to the main building, you can see one of the famous "Cowmobiles":

(Hey, that's one of my favorite Canadians in my shot!)

The original Cowmobile was used by Ben & Jerry as they drove themselves across the country in 1986, giving away free samples as a way to market themselves. Gee, a pair of hippies driving cross country in a funky painted VW bus...? The jokes sort of start writing themselves at that point.

Four months into the trip the original bus caught fire and burned to the ground. Ben is famously quoted as saying it looked like the world's largest baked Alaska. But, if Star Trek has taught us nothing else by having killed and then rebirthed The Enterprise in pretty much every movie in the franchise, it's taught us that vehicles may come and go, but the Captains will rise from the ashes, shrug it off, and get another one. Which is what Ben & Jerry did.

Going into the factory, you know from the moment you see the doors, that your life (and thighs) may never be the same...

(Small photo courtesy of Lick My Spoon.)

Once inside, it is even more over the top:

The display below shows some of the current flavors in production for 2010:

Bet you can't guess what happens under that sign!

Yes, that is indeed where the tour starts. Our fearless leader was John.

John has been with the company since the dawn of time. John knows pretty much everything there is to know about Ben & Jerry's, and like every other Ben & Jerry's employee we had talked to or would have talked to, he seems to really love his job. While we all had questions that we wanted to ask of anyone they would let us near, and those questions were as varied a group as we were, there was one universal question we all had -- and that was to ask people what their favorite flavor was. In John's case, it was Dublin Mudslide (I will not be fighting him for it, LOL).

First on a normal tour would be a visit to the milk room. For reasons that have escaped me we ended up skipping that room -- but if you were on the normal tour you would see it. After winding our way up stairs and through corridors all decked out exactly as you would expect a building dedicated to Ben & Jerry's would be, we were taken to the Cow Over the Moon Mooovie Theater to watch a short film on the history of the company. John, ever the jokester despite being in a room of people who may razz him on the internet for it, made us all moo before starting the movie.

My photos of the theater came out pretty bad, so we are going to give a shout out to Sara for sharing hers with us.

Did you spot the cow over the moon or the Big Dipper?

The room also features Holstein chickens which symbolize the Certified Cage-Free Eggs that are used to make the ice cream.

After the mooooovie, it's down another set of halls to a long, glass-lined hallway that looks down onto the production floor. Again, this is a normal part of the tour -- but as a special perk for us bloggers, we were allowed to do something that is normally taboo: we were allowed to jump head first into vats of fresh ice cream and swim amongst the chunks....

NO! While that certainly would have been kind of awesome, no bloggers were allowed to swim in (or touch) any ice cream that may be on your local store shelves as we speak. No, we never even set foot on the actual production floor itself; we stayed behind the glass walls where we could cause only minimal trouble. But what we were allowed to do, which is not normally permitted, was to take photos of the production area and share them with you.

When you first walk into the hallway, the windows are covered by these shutter-like shades that slowly inch their way up like the most beautiful sunrise ever. (I would personally take ice cream over the sun any day.)

(Above photo courtesy of Sara.)

And then you get to behold the production floor!

On any given day, the factory is making two different pint flavors. On the day of our visit, they were making Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough and Stephen Colbert's Americone Dream.

In the above photo, Cookie Dough is being made on the left and Americone Dream on the right (fitting, no?). Those gray buckets you see are nicknamed "pig buckets," and all of the overflow/edible waste goes into them. Back in the day they got their name because in the eco-friendly, tree hugging, planet saving, community loving vibe that was created by Ben & Jerry themselves (and continues to this day, but more on that later), the overflow was given to a local farmer and was fed to his pigs. I said it then and I will say it now: how good must the bacon from pigs fed a steady diet of ice cream have tasted! Today, while the contents of the pig bucket no longer go to actual pigs, it does go to a local composting site where it eventually becomes natural fertilizer.

The above picture shows where the ice cream is actually churned.

And this is where it's extruded into the pints and chunks are added.

This is the machine that holds the swirls -- in today's case, it was caramel for the Americone Dream.

As I said earlier in the post, of all the individual questions we may have had, the universal question was about favorite flavors. And while everyone had one, they always ended the sentence with "off the line." We heard it enough times that we knew there had to be a kick ass reason. But we couldn't stay in the hallway of happiness (my term, not theirs -- but it should be) forever and it was soon on to our next stop: the Flavor Room!

The Flavor Room not only has the distinction of being the part of the tour where you are given samples, but it was also the original test kitchen and Ben and Jerry (well, mostly Ben) worked on flavors long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. Below we see John explaining the history of the room.

Even the ceiling lights are cool at Ben & Jerry's!

We got to sample a very generous scoop of the new Cookies & Milk flavor -- sooooo good! (My official review to come shortly.)

In this room we also learned that Ben & Jerry's and Unilever are working with the FDA to bring to the U.S. a new type of freezer that runs on propane (Hank Hill would be very proud, though he might be uncomfortable with the patchouli vibe) and emits no HFC's. Be on the lookout for these, because you may see one of these freezers making it to a store near you. For the moment there are only around 50 in the entire country, though they are widely used in Europe.

After learning about the new freezers, the history of the room, and getting a little ice cream, we were walked out through memorabilia-lined halls back to the main entrance/gift shop.

There are paintings of the top ten flavors lining the hall. I took a picture of the Chocolate Fudge Brownie because I lost my Ben & Jerry's V-Card with that flavor.

"But Gigi," you may be saying to yourself, "I thought you said you guys were special. Aside from taking some pictures of a few things not normally allowed to be photographed, it sounds like you guys took the standard tour."

Well yes, you would think that. Butt instead of being merely whisked into the gift shop and thanked for our time, we were ushered through a door in the wall -- one cleverly disguised as an ordinary door, in an ordinary wall, but which led us right into the ice cream lined tummy of the factory itself!

Want to know what we saw?

Do you?....

Tune in tomorrow to find out!

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