When students and teachers from the half dozen schools along Stevens Avenue in Portland’s Deering neighborhood need an ice cream break, they don’t hit Dairy Queen. Instead, those in the know file into the Black Cat Cafe. In the back of this neighborhood coffee shop, some of the latest and tastiest ice cream flavors are churned out daily.
Coffee and Donuts, Honey and Sea Salt, Cardamom and Matcha Green Tea ice creams are all the creations of cafe co-owner Jenny Siler, a small-batch maker extraordinaire.
Her hook, besides creative flavor combinations, is using honey as a sweetener and experimenting small. When we stopped in last week she was making a gallon and a half of Ginger, a spicy, creamy frozen delight.
“The key is getting the texture right,” said Siler, pouring crystallized ginger into a gelato machine as her husband, Keith Dunlap, served lattes to customers a few steps away. “Sweeteners have a lot to do with it. Honey is a magic ingredient.”
Her year-old company Little Bee Honey Ice Cream creates batches for local restaurants such as Woodford F&B, and Siler drops off sample pints of Mexican Chocolate to places like Terlingua, hoping to keep the local culinary spirit strong. Her Coffee and Donut ice cream, a mashup of The Holy Donut’s chocolate sea salt donuts and Speckled Ax coffee, are a Portland collaboration made in foodie heaven.
Like microbreweries, these small creameries are nimble operations that reflect a shift in the marketplace towards craft products made locally with care. Consumers with increasingly sophisticated tastes are no longer blindly grabbing tubs from the grocer’s freezer without checking where it’s made and what’s in it.
And it’s not just Maine’s unofficial culinary capital that’s experiencing an influx of small-batch ice cream makers, though. Across the state, it’s catching on.
Hampden’s Wild Cow Creamery, an ice cream trailer with a supermarket shelf presence, has done so well that they are looking at nearby towns to open a brick-and-mortar store. And in Monroe, Stone Fox Farm Creamery enters its seventh year with gusto.
“Our season is just beginning and the pints are flying off the shelves,” said Stone Fox Farm co-owner Kathy Chamberlain, who makes trendy flavors like caramel sea salt with dairy from cows milking nearby.
Though it’s a well-known fact that “Mainers eat ice cream year-round,” and the state is one of the country ’s top ice cream-eating regions, there’s more behind the rise of small-batch makers. Like the farm movement, it’s local, fresh and transparent.
“I think we are certainly riding on the coattails of the locavore movement, between wanting to know who makes the ice cream and wanting to meet them, wanting to talk to that person and hear their story,” said Chamberlain, who ditched livestock farming, sold her horses, cows and pigs and turned to ice cream. Along with her husband, Bruce, she keeps a hand in haying, but their focus is now ice cream.
Stone Fox Farm Creamery has four full-time employees, and can be found in 60 stores and scoop shops from Maine to Massachusetts.
“It’s been a long journey,” Chamberlain said. “We are trying and we work hard.”
In Hampden, Sarah Wilder and Ryan Cowan of Wild Cow Creamery make one and a half gallons of homemade ice cream at a time in their sunroom-turned ice cream studio. Sales at their food truck stand on the Bangor Waterfront (which opens in mid-May) are brisk. Wholesome flavors like Orange Cranberry Walnut attract customers who are hip to what they consume, cones, cups and all.
“People are really starting to notice what’s in their ice cream. If you make it commercially there are lots of problems. Things like stabilizers. It seems like ice cream, but things are added for a longer shelf life,” said Wilder, who was drawn to ice cream making for the science behind the technique. “When you are making small-batch ice cream, you are using ingredients that you can find in your kitchen like milk, sugar, eggs. It can be more delicate.”
Top sellers like Lemon Heaven start with the above, plus the zest and juice of fresh lemons.
“People love it. It’s like lemonade or creamy lemon meringue pie,” said Wilder, a Belfast native. “It’s very refreshing in the summer.”
This summer Wilder introduces two new flavors: Carrot Cake and Hummingbird Cake. The latter is inspired by the tropical dessert made with pineapple, coconut, lots of spices, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove.
“I like turning regular desserts into ice cream,” Wilder said.
For inspiration, Wilder and Cowan go on ice cream adventures to taste test. From across New England to New York City, they haven’t been bowled over yet.
“Maine’s small batch rivals the stuff we tasted,” said Wilder. “Maine has a lot of wonderful ice cream producers that are just as good.”
Soon she hopes there will be a small-batch ice cream trail, just like there is a beer trail. The idea would be to “promote tours of Maine, hitting the best ice cream makers who do it all small batch.”