Six Northwest ice cream brands put to the taste test

  • By Ron Ramey Herald Writer
  • Thursday, September 9, 2010 5:09pm
  • Life

Ice cream. Please don’t scream just yet.

What makes people crazy about just a frozen concoction of basically milk, cream, eggs, sugar and some fruit or flavoring (and guar gum, carrageenan, soy lecithin — all natural products, by the way — and who knows what, depending on the brand)?

Is Häagen-Dazs better than Ben &Jerry’s or even the supermarket’s cheaper house brand? Is Häagen-Dazs 5 better than the regular H-D? And what’s up with that umlaut, anyhow?

These are pressing questions that I’m sure someone will answer, but at The Herald we decided to concentrate on premium ice cream made in the Northwest and available, more or less, at some grocery store near you. In some cases (Lopez Island Creamery brand), “near you” might mean up to 30 miles away, but it’s out there.

That also means we ignored other fine Northwest ice cream makers such as Olympic Mountain (sold only to restaurants), and any products sold only at the producers’ ice cream shops.

The test subjects

Our taste test included samples of blackberry (native to the Northwest) and vanilla from the following makers, all advertising natural ingredients (except Tillamook):

Snoqualmie Gourmet: Our own Snohomish County ice cream maker in Maltby churns out flavors like Danish Vanilla Bean, the rich chocolaty Mukilteo Mudd, French Lavender (actually made from local lavender), Tennessee Whiskey and others.

Barry and Shahnaz Bettinger bought the small business about 10 years ago and made considerable expansion. Their ice cream is available at a number of grocery stores, including QFC, Central Market, Haggen and PCC. Our samples were bought at QFC, regularly $4.69 per pint.

Whidbey Island Ice Cream Company: Ron and Florence Hecker took over the business when the original owners died recently. Their ice cream is made in Langley and features flavors including White Coffee, Banana (made with fresh bananas), Chocolate Chardonnay, Cardamom and assorted holiday specialties.

Outlets include Sno-Isle Natural Foods Co-op in Everett, Snohomish Bakery, Jay’s Market in Lake Stevens and several IGAs and Red Apple markets in the area. We bought ours at Sno-Isle for $4.69 a pint.

Warning: Don’t rely on the website listed on the cartons. The domain expired during the transition of the business, and someone in Utah bought the site, Hecker said. He is negotiating to get it back. In the meantime, I found it contained incomplete and even inaccurate information.

Lopez Island Creamery: It originated on that island, (Jim and Jan Bruce bought it in 2004) but now is in Anacortes. Flavors include Cherry Amaretto, Luscious Lemon, Chocolate Truffle and seasonal offerings such as Egg Nog and Positively Pumpkin. It’s not yet available in Snohomish County, but owner Jan Bruce said they were hoping to change that. (Sno-Isle Co-op is considering adding it.)

“We do scoop our ice cream at the Evergreen State Fair every year and also at the Everett Sorticulture and Edmonds Arts Festival,” Bruce wrote in an e-mail.

In the meantime, the closest outlets are in Mount Vernon (Skagit Valley Food Co-op and Snow Goose Produce) or Seattle (Whole Foods and Madison Market). We purchased ours at Madison Market for $4.99 a pint.

Julie’s Organic: Named for the CEO’s wife, this is one of two gourmet brands under the aegis of Oregon Ice Cream Co. in Portland. A range of varieties such as Peanut Butter Fudge, Pomegranate Cranberry, Pink Peppermint and others. Available at many supermarkets and food coops, it sold for $3.99 a pint at QFC.

Alden’s: See above, only insert one of the CEO and Julie’s sons for the name. Organic flavors include Chocolate Chocolate Chip, Cookies and Cream and Butter Brittle. The company’s pitch is that it’s a premium ice cream in a family-sized container of 1½ quarts.

Alden’s is pretty much available in the same stores, and we bought ours at the Sno-Isle Co-op for $6.69 ($2.23 per pint).

To throw an “average” ice cream into the mix, we added Tillamook, also made in Oregon and widely available. We paid $3.99 (regularly $5.99) for the 1.75-quart container ($1.14 per pint) at QFC.

The taste test

Our team was made up of six members of The Herald’s features department, sampling vanilla and blackberry flavors from the six ice cream makers in a blind test.

The Whidbey Island brand’s berry flavor was Skagit Triple Berry (blackberry, raspberry and blueberry), since there was no solely blackberry flavor available.

Individuals rated the ice creams 1 (low) to 6 (high), and totals determined the “best,” a completely subjective rating, for sure. An ice cream that rated high on one person’s card might be dead last on another’s.

No one should take the results as a definitive measure of any ice cream’s greatness or mediocrity.

OK, enough suspense, you say. The results:

Whidbey Island Ice Cream Company and Alden’s were tied for the top rating at 24.

Divided by only one point were Tillamook (a surprise at 17), Snoqualmie (16), and Lopez Island (16).

Julie’s was at the bottom (13).

The consensus was that both Whidbey’s and Alden’s berry and vanilla flavors were quite good, although the three-berry combo might have given Whidbey’s an unfair taste advantage over others.

Several people dissed Tillamook’s texture as airy (fluffy?) and its flavors as bland. It also melted faster than any of the others. But some of the panel liked it and gave it high enough ratings to push its total up past better choices (in my opinion).

Snoqualmie took hits on the blackberry flavor as too mild. One judge found it “odd,” and to another it tasted “astringent.” Vanilla fared well on most people’s ratings.

Lopez Island got points on the chunks of real blackberry, but some judges thought the overall flavor of the ice cream was vanilla, and one thought it very good, tasting “like a sundae.” Vanilla was nice and creamy, but for most of the panel not distinctive.

Finally, Julie’s blackberry flavor was deemed too bland, and ditto for the vanilla. Both didn’t have very creamy textures like most of the other brands. One person even called it “waxy.”

To be sure, all of these premium ice creams are good, if you are willing to pay the extra price. And some of them might not be any better than Brand X to your taste buds. Aren’t those luscious and decadent possibilities to explore?

Now you can scream.

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