Nothing sweetens a hot summer day like an ice cream cone, and, in Vermont, there are lots of appealing options. With dairy farms from border to border, an upswing in organic creameries and an obsession with creemees — not to mention two patron saints named Ben and Jerry — the sweet treat is in abundance.
In fact, each year brings a new crop of small-batch, independent ice cream makers churning out flavors from the mundane to the bizarre. With the debut of at least six new brands in the last two years, we thought it was time to undertake an ice cream taste test. Hey, someone had to do it.
We brought in some pint-size tasters to help. Six ice cream critics under the age of 8 trekked dutifully into the office with a parent who works at Seven Days or Kids VT.
We purchased pints of six newish Vermont ice cream brands: Kingdom Creamery of Vermont, Birchgrove Baking, Scout's Honor, the Chubby Muffin, lu.lu! and Craig's Premium Ice Cream. We instructed our panel to judge the taste and texture of each brand's vanilla flavor (when possible) and one other signature flavor, and then jot down their notes or tell their parent what they thought.
Picture 12 pints of ice cream, seven kids, 45 minutes, one cozy room and the decibel level rising with each spoonful. The kids freely offered their candid assessments — ranging from "nom nom nom" to "it's cold" — with only one meltdown along the way.
The little ones definitely had their favorites, though tiny Sailor Hadeka summed up the general ethos while sampling her second vanilla. "I like ice cream!" she declared.
Price: $3.79 per pint (prices may vary)
Number of flavors: five ice cream; six frozen yogurt
What we tasted: Valiant Vanilla; Majestic Maple
The scoop: Though it's made up in the Northeast Kingdom, this ice cream is probably the best distributed of our contenders; Kingdom Creamery pints are sold in a few area Hannafords, general stores, co-ops and even the East Dorset Jiffy Mart. The Michaud family owns the business and the source: milk from the cows on their Clair-A-Den Farm in Hardwick.
Valiant Vanilla: The grown-up tasters were bold in their criticism. Alice found this vanilla thin, lacking in flavor and "not worth my calories." Steve called it "icy" and noted that there were "zero specks of vanilla or anything else." As for the kids, Noah found the vanilla "tasty," while siblings Graham and Ivy both called it "great and creamy." It was Ivy's second favorite overall.
Majestic Maple: Steve called it "smoky and suspicious," while Alice thought it was "very subtle." Manya protested, "I don't like this kind!" But Elsa disagreed: "I like it really good 'cause of its ginger taste," she observed, revealing her penchant for detecting secondary flavors — a future wine taster perhaps? Graham, a devotee of all things maple, chose this flavor as his favorite of the day. "I like sap," he explained.
Verdict: Kingdom Creamery didn't wow the adults of our group, but its straightforward flavors appealed to the majority of our little ones.
Price: $6 per pint
Number of flavors: four or five at any given time
What we tasted: Vanilla; Cookies and Cream
The scoop: Jennifer Toce and John Belding run this cozy capital-city café, where most summer days they augment their brioche and cookie business by churning out pints of ice cream. It comes in flavors that range from vanilla to Vietnamese coffee. Their ice-cream sandwich is a local favorite; think passion-fruit ice cream wedged between coconut cookies.
Vanilla: Carolyn observed that it "tastes very homemade," with a "somewhat funky" vanilla flavor. Alice found the sweetness and texture of the vanilla "just right." Ivy thought the vanilla was "awesome," while Noah swooned, "the best kind. Nom nom nom." Sailor was nonverbal in her assessment, smearing chocolate from another flavor on her tasting sheet.
Cookies and Cream: "Homemade cookies and a smooth base," said Alice, who doesn't normally warm to this flavor. Though a lifetime of consuming chunky Ben & Jerry's flavors had led Steve "to expect the occasional half an Oreo in there somewhere," he was nevertheless sweet on this flavor. "The cookie 'crumbs' in this ice cream are delicious," he said. Ivy seemed pleased by the "vanilla-chocolaty taste," while Elsa simply said "good." Nobody complained about this one.
Verdict: With its vein of pulverized cookie crumbs and balanced, creamy vanilla, the Cookies and Cream was a darling of all ages. An all-around solid showing.
Price: $7.50 per pint; $3.40 for a small cone
Number of flavors: changes daily; six to eight flavors are usually available in the scoop shop
What we tasted: Vanilla; Chocolate
The scoop: Sarina Gulisano and Johnny Vitko turn out small batches of this ice cream at their Sweet Spot café in Waitsfield, using Monument Farms milk and a French-style custard base made from their own eggs. Fruit and herbs from their farm are ingredients in some of the flavors, which can lean toward the eclectic — Tea and Biscuits and Sweet Pea Mint were recently on offer. You can also find their creations at Red Hen Bakery & Café in Middlesex.
Vanilla: The vanilla was a hit with parents, instantly becoming Brooke's favorite version of this flavor. "There's something about it," she gushed. Steve called it "intense. They knocked it out of the park!" Elsa thought the vanilla tasted "a little bit like banana," while Graham found it "absolutely great." Its "creaminess" made it one of his sister Ivy's favorites, too.
Chocolate: Alice called this one "the essence of chocolaty. A higher cacao ratio than any other chocolate I've had, with a pillowy, smooth texture." Noah said, simply, "yum-yum," while Manya cut through the noise: "It's cold," she said. Ivy really loved this chocolate, observing that it was "super chocolaty, not too sweet."
Verdict: There's artistry behind these two seemingly simple flavors. The "intense" vanilla was a group favorite, while the deep, dark chocolate won a few hearts but also overwhelmed a palate or two.
Price: $5 per pint; $2.25 for a small cone
Number of flavors: nine or 10, depending on the day
What we tasted: Vanilla; Strawberry-Basil
The scoop: This easygoing North End café began turning out the cold stuff two years ago, and doles it out by the scoop or the pint. Next on their roster, according to co-owner Benjy Adler, is a "killer mint," made with, well, fresh mint.
Vanilla: Carolyn detected a slightly sour flavor and wondered aloud if it was buttermilk. But, she stressed, "I like it!" Alice called its texture "slightly gummy." Elsa found the texture of the vanilla ice cream "fluffy," while it made Graham "think of muffins," possibly because he read the name on the label. Both Noah and his mom found the vanilla lacking.
Strawberry-Basil: Alice praised the "beautiful flavor," which she thought "conjured pizza." Carolyn agreed: "I don't know if I'm eating pizza or ice cream, but I like it," she said, though she found its brownish hue off putting. Steve called the flavor "a little too weird," with an "odd savory-floral thing." Sailor summed it up thus: "More strawberries, less basil." "It's good, a little," said Noah with a shrug. Both kids and adults observed that this ice cream melted faster than the others.
Verdict: This ice cream's soft texture appealed to younger tongues but put off a few older palates. Though the vanilla was pleasing enough, it didn't elicit as much passion as the Strawberry-Basil — everyone had something to say, good or bad, about that one.
Price: $10 per pint
Number of flavors: There are 66 flavors in lu.lu!'s roster, but only a few are offered at one time.
What we tasted: Vanilla Bean; Magic Mint
The scoop: It isn't hard to spot lu.lu! on Bristol's main drag: A huge metal ice cream cone hangs outside the front door. Inside, owner Martha Mack uses milk from Monument Farms, local eggs from her family's Inn at Baldwin Creek and herbs and fruit from a number of local producers.
Vanilla Bean: Alice thought the vanilla had a "vanilla liqueur" taste that was almost "too intense." But Steve demurred: "There's not a darn thing wrong with this one." Graham had high praise for the vanilla, calling it "perfect." Elsa loved the "little dots of chocolate" in the vanilla bean (which her mother pointed out were actually vanilla flakes). This one was Manya's overall favorite.
Magic Mint: Carolyn remarked that this was like "eating Girl Scout Thin Mints in ice cream form." Alice thought it possessed "one of the best flavor profiles overall." Graham anointed the chocolaty Magic Mint "just perfect" after his first bite. For Manya, it was overkill. "Can't eat more ice cream," she announced.
Verdict: This bean-specked vanilla was a kids' favorite but was a bit too pimped out for the grown-ups. Magic Mint, on the other hand, had it goin' on.
Price: $6 per pint
Number of flavors: 13 standard, plus 12 "made-to-order" flavors
What we tasted: Sea Salt Caramel; Mint Chocolate Chip
The scoop: Fans of Craig Abel-Palmer's ice cream can text their orders and have their pints delivered — or pick them up from the window at his Shelburne home on Saturday afternoons. Neither vanilla nor chocolate are in Abel-Palmer's oeuvre. Think Cranberry Cosmo, Thyme Grapefruit and Ginger Snap.
Sea Salt Caramel: Ken swooned over the "salty" sea-salt caramel. "Love it!" gushed Brooke. Alice wanted more flavor, calling it "overly viscous." Ivy said, "Awesome!" Elsa simply smiled.
Mint Chocolate Chip: This was Carolyn's hands-down favorite: "Like eating mint straight from the garden." Alice called its just-plucked flavor "Supermint!" though she didn't care for the chocolate chips. Steve found it to have "the most natural flavor of all of them." Elsa, oddly, found the Mint Chocolate Chip "too basil-y." Manya disagreed, saying it tasted "like mint." Both Graham and Ivy gave it a thumbs up. "Creamy," they declared in unison.
Verdict: Craig's makes a mean ice cream for grown-ups, and even though some flavors are unusual, the kids might not complain.