WATERBURY, Vt.--You wouldn't think that half a million people a year would trek to this tiny town in the middle of the Green Mountain state, but then again, you might not know that this is mecca for ice cream fans.
This, of course, is where the original--and still operating--Ben & Jerry's production plant is located and where about 250,000 pints of the confection still come off the line every day.
Back in 1978, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield served the first scoops of their soon-to-be famous ice cream from a small shop in a gas station in nearby Burlington, Vt. More than 30 years later, their little concern is now owned by the multinational conglomerate Unilever. Yet, this still feels like a family-run, or at least small and private, operation. There may be thousands of people coming through each day to see how the ice cream is made, and dessert may flow from here to countries around the world, but this is still just a small Vermont factory where those quarter-million pints a day come from a single room about the size of a basketball court.
From my earliest days of planning Road Trip 2010--or at least as soon as I knew it would take me through the Northeast--it was a no-brainer that I would have to come here and see how Ben & Jerry's makes its ice cream. And now, with the trip nearly at an end, I made it. And what did I learn? That making ice cream is a pretty simple process.
At the plant here, according to the plant's tour manager, Chris Wilkins, only two flavors out of the 20 that are made here are in production at any given time. Those two flavors are chosen based on market demand, and the schedule is set weeks ahead. For each flavor, there is a minimum run of 16 hours and a maximum run of about 48 hours. More typically, flavors are produced for about 24 hours.
Upon arrival, Wilkins told me that the company doesn't allow photographs of the production floor, so I can't show you exactly what goes on there. That's because, he said, the company is protective of some of its more advanced equipment, machinery that allows it, he said, to pull of some ice cream making magic that its competitors haven't yet figured out. He wouldn't say what those methods were.
Ben & Jerry's has another production plant in St. Albans, not that far from Waterbury. That plant is bigger than this one--about a third of the company's total output is made here.
Still, this is a big-league operation, as the quarter-million pints a day figure should indicate. And it all begins with a set of huge, two-story tanks that sit just outside the facility. Labeled with their ingredients--"sugar," "milk," and "cream," the tanks store those base ingredients until they are needed in the plant.
On the left side (from the perspective of a viewing window above the production floor) of the room, those base ingredients, plus egg, are mixed together, pasteurized, and homogenized. Then, flavors like vanilla, or extracts, or fruit juices are added. At this point, the temperature is 36 degrees Fahrenheit, and the mix is "like a milk shake," Wilkins said.
From here, the mix is pumped to freezers, where the temperature is dropped to 22 degrees. It is now more like a soft serve. The reason for this step is that the next stop in the production process is to add chunks--chocolate chips, cherries, mint, and so on--and if it was still 36 degrees, those chunks would simply sink. "It would be like throwing a Heath bar into a glass of milk," Wilkins said. "At 22 degrees, it blends."
After the chunks are added, any swirls--like caramel--are pumped in (after being cooled) from 55-gallon barrels. And then it's time to fill the "cups," as the pint containers are known.
And that's the process. Wilkins said visitors are always surprised at how simple it is, and I have to agree. I expected a much more complex system, but the truth is, ice cream is a pretty basic food, and it doesn't require a giant facility to make it. Even if you're turning out 250,000 pints a day.
After being filled, the pints are sent off on a conveyor belt, two at a time, about two pints a second. They start out right side up, but a nifty little trick on the belts flips them onto their lids, something that is done for the efficiency of sending them into the deep freezing room with their center of gravity lower than would be the case if they were still right side up.
In the freezing room, the ice cream's temperature is dropped to minus 40 degrees, and it is stored until shipping time.
Soon, those pints will be making someone somewhere happy.
At Ben & Jerry's, even under Unilever's ownership, it appears that being green and socially conscious is important. That manifests in a number of ways, including charitable giving and using mostly local ingredients. But it also is evident in a system of recycling that Wilkins explained: from the production floor, all the solid waste--mainly spoiled containers--is sent off to certain Vermont farms that have methane bio-digesters that convert the waste into electricity that is then fed back into the grid. Local energy consumers can pay a little bit more for this "cow power," and, for example, the Long Trail Brewing Co. is run 100 percent on this type of electricity.
Another way that Ben & Jerry's works to keep things green is to try to treat the waste water that comes out of the plant. Because much of that water is filled with fat from ice cream, it couldn't be sent into the local water treatment system. But the plant maintains a treatment lagoon where all the water is pumped, allowing the fat to settle over time.
This means that the water can then be sent on to the town's system, and a couple of times a year, the leftover solid fat is pumped out of the lagoon and sent on to local farmers, who use it for their own purposes. All the while, a small family of ducks lives happily on the lagoon, probably Ben & Jerry's best customers.
Because many of the company's flavors contain nuts, the production room must be completely cleaned out after each run is finished. These change-overs take about six hours, Wilkins said, during which everything is flushed out and sanitized. That allows flavors that have no nuts to be sold to people with nut allergies.
Wilkins explained that these cleanings are scheduled carefully because of how long they take and the fact that the floor must be completely shut down for them. But that's all part of the system the company has for making sure that the right amounts of each flavor are coming off the line as they are needed.
And it's clear that a lot of ice cream is needed. Ben & Jerry's may not be the world's biggest ice cream brand, but it certainly is among the global favorites. And as simple as the production process is, it's also rather mesmerizing. If you find yourself in Vermont any time soon, I'd happily recommend you work your way to Waterbury. Just don't go on a weekend if you want to see the ice cream being made. They don't do that on Saturday or Sunday.
For the next two weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.
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