The Rising Price of Ice Cream

The other day, I paid $4 for 6 oz. of ice cream made by local purveryor Fifty Licks.  I had been wanting to try their ice cream for a long while and as someone who makes their own (and takes it very seriously) and is bored by/disklikes most commercial ice cream makers (read: I haven’t bought a store brand in something like 2.5 years), I didn’t think anything of the price tag, which would equal out to roughly $11 a pint — fairly steep for ice cream.

But in all honesty, I would have paid twice that for Fifty Lick’s Caramel Apple ice cream (totally misleading but that’s maple-bacon ice cream!). It was a humbling experience.

You’re hit with a rich flavor of buttery, salty caramel immediately on the tongue, holding back a raft of lush, sweet apple flavors, with a touch of tartness lingering in the aftertaste. It was creamy, complex, soft, decadent, interesting and completely worth the price.

Such is the case for well-crafted small-batch ice cream. It’s expensive for a reason. Something the New York Times doesn’t really understand in their piece about the rising cost of ice cream, which is really nothing more than their reporter calling a bunch of ice cream makers and asking why their ice cream cost so much. It’s all effect and no cause writing.

But ice cream really isn’t all that different from craft cheese making or craft spirits, or craft beer or small-batch coffee roasters.  You pay more for the expertise and care that someone took to create something that will blow your taste buds away. 

Here are a few of the highlights:

The world of high-end ice cream is small, and marbled with squabbles and secrets, making it difficult to pin down exactly what is in the stuff. Those who add milk powder scoff at those who use guar gum (a common stabilizer that is considered “natural” by the F.D.A.). Those who stick to a basic flavor palette dismiss the makers of Whiskey Brickle and Rosemary-Goat’s Milk. The ones who use only fresh ingredients sneer at the pre-mixed crowd.

If you’re making small-batch ice cream, the only ingredients, aside from the flavorings, should be milk, heavy cream, eggs, sugar and agave nectar (for stability).  That’s it.  No milk powder, guar gum, mixes, or pre-mixes. 

Dairy technology has advanced to a point that consumers often can’t tell the difference. Expensive ice cream is often described as “artisanal” or “housemade,” but neither term has a meaningful definition as relates to ice cream. An “artisanal” gelato shop might only be adding water to a dry mix somewhere on the premises. (If you really want to know, it pays to ask.)

This is actually a problem with American corporate food culture and not just systemic to ice cream.    Businesses throw around terms like “organic”, “green”, “artisanal”, “homemade”, etc. without any repercussions or understandings of what those terms imply.  It’s a fairly repulsive marketing technique. 

Which brings me to the next interesting point. 

“Sadly, I think the marketing is just as important as the product,” said Benjamin Van Leeuwen, an owner of Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream, a New York company that has expanded its fleet of butter-yellow ice cream trucks to five after just two years in business, and recently opened a scoop shop in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. (A small serving is $3.60, plus tax.) “The Victorian look of our Web site, the botanical drawings and especially the color of our trucks seemed to make a huge difference,” he said.

Still, about the only reason the article provides for why ice cream is expensive, or rather, why well-made ice cream is more expensive than the $5 half-gallon of generic stuff, is this:

“Commercial ice cream is the dumping ground of the dairy industry,” he said. The residue at the bottom of the vats after the milk and cream are drained off, he said, is dried and then reconstituted into the components of cheap ice cream: milk fat, whey and dry milk powder. Like all the artisans interviewed, Mr. Leeson said that in the supermarket freezer case, it is virtually impossible for small brands to compete with Häagen-Dazs and Ben & Jerry’s, both of which are backed by the marketing power and distribution systems of global food giants (Nestlé and Unilever, respectively).

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