May 26, 2015
It’s a dream job for any ice cream lover—to become a part of the elite squad of Flavor Gurus on Ben & Jerry’s research and development (R&D) team. A mix of food scientists and culinary artists, they’re tasked with brainstorming, developing and perfecting every new taste.
Meet Kirsten, Eric, Chris and Peter. With a collective 44 years at Ben & Jerry’s and nearly 100 total years working within the food industry, they literally live for pushing the boundaries of our pints and scoops. Recently, we had a chance to pull them away from the R&D kitchen long enough to learn a bit more about the trials and tribulations of inventing new ice cream flavors.
IT ALL BEGAN WITH A DREAM
Every Guru agrees, a lifelong love of food is what led them here. As Eric puts it, “I like playing with food, and they pay me. It's awesome!” But maybe the best story goes to Peter: “I wrote in my job application about how, as an R&D person, I would buy an RV, travel to ethnic neighborhoods around the country, translate desserts into ice cream, and then send the recipes back to Vermont. All I wanted was a chauffeur and a new pair of sneakers. I never got the chauffeur or the RV, but I did get the sneakers.”
THEY FIND INSPIRATION IN THE STRANGEST PLACES
Ice cream inspiration is everywhere—whether it’s flipping through magazines or scrolling through social media. Eric says, "Sometimes it’s a color, a cool name, or most likely, a cool ingredient or combo on a menu.” And he adds, "Packaging, oddly enough, like a shampoo bottle or stick of deodorant, can inspire a cool new twist.” Peter was recently inspired by a YouTube video on how tennis balls are made.
ICE CREAM’S CRYSTAL BALL
Savory flavors intrigue all 4 Gurus. As Kirsten puts it, “We think of ice cream as sweet, but what if it could become part of a warm, savory dish?” Peter adds spicy to the mix and thinks that in the U.S. there will be “more authentic ethnic flavors, curries, that kind of stuff.” Eric thinks a trend towards super-indulgence with an artisanal flair is going to grow, much like Vermont’s craft beer movement.
RANCH DIP ICE CREAM?
Of all the ideas the Flavor Gurus come up with, 99% never make it to market. Chris says, “We've tried it all, and we've tried some really bad stuff, but I think ranch dip is the worst I've heard of.” For Kirsten, it’s the kale chip guy who wanted to collaborate on a flavor. Sorry, but no thanks. Peter says, “Making bizarre things that occasionally become flavors is what we do.”
THEY FAIL…A LOT
200 ideas on paper typically dwindle to about 20 that actually get made. Of those, only a handful ever makes it to the public. Even still, some of those are destined for Ben & Jerry’s Flavor Graveyard. For the Gurus, that’s just part of the process. Peter spent 2.5 years on one product before it got killed. Wavy Gravy went through 235 variations, and even then, co-founder Ben Cohen said, “No, this isn’t quite right.”
THEY ALSO GET LOTS AND LOTS OF FAN MAIL
To the tune of approximately 13,000 flavor suggestions annually. But for all the rave reviews, they also get hate mail, too. You see, Ben & Jerry’s fans are a rare breed and act as the ultimate form of quality control. Eric points out, “Our fans are good, they know their favorite flavor, and if we change something as simple as the vanilla supplier and it’s not a perfect match, we hear about it and then fix it.”
INFERIOR INGREDIENTS JUST WON’T DO
When it comes to flavors, just about anything is possible. Ingredients, however, are another story. If it’s not natural or processed naturally, it’s not an option. One of the Gurus’ greatest challenges was converting 100 or so ingredients to non-GMO-sourced. Working with suppliers, they had to taste, test and prove every single replacement. “It was basically like creating 100 new flavors in a year and a half,” says Chris.
Whether it’s the sweetness or chunk level, cultural differences abound. Chris explains that in Japan, products must be pristine. “A cup with an eighth inch scratch is rejected.” And wasabi or seafood-inspired sweets are perfectly acceptable. Peter recalls how Cherry Garcia was discontinued in Europe because it just wasn’t selling. Was it the name, the type of cherries, or some weird vendetta against Jerry Garcia? It will forever be a mystery.
THERE’S A REASON THE FLAVORS ARE SO RICH
Little known fact: co-founder Ben Cohen has almost no sense of smell. If he couldn’t taste it, he’d just add more flavor until he could. Peter recalls a particularly challenging project he worked on with Ben to develop a rose-flavored ice cream. “He kept saying it didn’t taste strong enough. So I kept adding more rose until you could taste the thorns. Ben’s response…‘not enough rose!’ Finally, we taste tested it at the Scoop Shop. One person’s response summed it up, “This tastes like my grandmother’s armpits.” Says Peter: “We pretty much stayed away from rose after that.”
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