Bold, Simple Ingredients Drive Boston’s Small Batch Ice Cream Craze

By Barbara L. Vergetis Lundin, Assistant Editor

Instagram, @jplicks

Instagram, @jplicks

When it comes to the epitome of artisanal ice cream, it could just be Gracie’s Grapefruit Black Pepper Sorbet or J.P. Licks’ Orange Irish Sorbet spiked with Irish whiskey and Chardonnay. In fact, at one time, J.P. Licks was named DigBoston’s "Best” for its El Diablo, a heavily cayenne-pepper-laced cinnamon chocolate and "Pukiest" for its Bloody Virgin Mary sorbet.

The key is using simple, high-quality, local ingredients with intense, bold flavors a quart or two at a time.

“I love simple things when it comes to food. I’d take Haagen-Dazs® any day to Ben & Jerry’s. Haagen-Dazs® is simple ice cream while B&J’s is so full of junk I don’t know what I’m eating,” said Vince Petryk, owner and co-founder of Boston’s J.P. Licks. “One of our simplest and most wonderful flavors is Fresh Peach…pitted, pureed, fresh whole peaches marinated in dark brown sugar overnight and then added to an equal amount of our sweet cream base. It’s delicious, available just three months a year and, after for nine months, tastes that much better since we only use American peaches.”

Despite the many anecdotes that claim Bostonians consume more ice cream per capita than any other city in the United States, it's difficult for shops to get established here, due to challenges like ever-increasing rents for so-called “A” locations, lack of good help, and rising minimum wages.

“I see very small retail stores (due to rent) and some large ‘artisanal’ ice cream chains trying to invade us,” Petryk said. “I opened 35 years ago at the end of the last ‘artisanal’ plague and since then there’s been TCBY, Cold Stone Creamery, Pinkberry, and a few dozen self-serve yogurt franchises. I think it’s time for the return of homemade ice cream with a new name ‘artisanal.’”

Many people think ice cream is fun and easy because, Petryk sarcastically notes, “it’s not really a food business.” Those same people tend to forget “challenging.”

“That’s the attitude that leads so many people to ice cream franchises or starting their own shop and then many more than half are out of business in two years,” he said. “If they’re smart, they’ll pick a town that doesn’t have any shops and they’ll get by. This is a seasonal business. Even in the city with a high density of population, we stay open year-round but still lose money five months a year.”

Instagram, @icecreamgracies

Instagram, @icecreamgracies

Despite the warning, the Boston area  is seeing an “explosion” in small batch, gourmet ice cream. Take, for example, New City Microcreamery in Hudson, who CBS Boston describes as a “futuristic ice cream experience.” CBS reveals that the Microcreamery specializes in “locally-sourced, small batch flavors that get a quick-freeze from liquid nitrogen.”

“I think more of the smaller companies will continue selling at farmers markets, etc., before taking the plunge into a retail storefront,” said Aaron Cohen, owner of Gracie's Ice Cream in Boston. “We're about a mile from two of the best known ice cream shops in the U.S., Christina's and Toscanini's, and, this year, two new homemade ice cream shops are opening within a mile of us. There are, of course, outliers, and this isn't a slight to ice cream shops back then, but I think the last 10 years have seen an explosion in gourmet ice cream being made a quart at a time. In this area, I can think of five tiny, tiny companies who make ice cream like this and then deliver it, usually by the same woman making the ice cream.”

So, the small batch ice cream trend isn’t going away any time soon. Consumers will always long for the nostalgia associated with the treat of their younger days — and ice cream will continue to advance as palates evolve and awareness of recipe sourcing increases.

“People will continue playing around with the classics,” Cohen noted, “adding something to a vanilla or chocolate flavor, while also pushing the boundaries further on savory vegetal and herbal ice creams.”