The Babcock Hall Dairy Store on Linden Drive is packed at noon with campus regulars and visitors alike. While offerings include tasty sandwiches and celebrated cheese, there’s no doubt about the main attraction for dessert. For Babcock ice cream devotees this is mecca, the mother lode, and they are here to get their fill.
Student servers offer bountiful scoops in crispy cones and cups—creamy hillocks of such trademark flavors as Union Utopia, a rich vanilla shot with peanut butter, caramel and fudge; Berry Alvarez, swirls of blueberry, raspberry and strawberry on a tender pink field; and Badger Blast, a dense chocolate studded with dark chocolate flakes and whorls of fudge.
It is love at first lick, bliss at first bite. Enthusiasts might not know why Babcock ice cream tastes so good; they only know it does, and that it stands apart from all the others.
Pull back the camera from the Dairy Store set, and the hustle and bustle of a backstage is revealed. This is the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, and it’s actually the main show: a fluorescent, thrumming, brick red-and-pistachio-tiled production facility with a Willy Wonka maze of piping and vats. Here a team of staff experts and student assistants churn out milk, cheese and the famous Babcock ice cream.
Often they have an audience—food science students training for their careers, industry professionals who’ve paid to learn from the best, alumni or special university guests eager to see an icon in the making. The steady stream of participants doesn’t bother staffers at all. They know that Babcock Hall is “51 percent instruction, 49 percent production,” according to plant manager Bill Klein, and their main purpose is to serve those who want to learn.
And if visitors are lucky, head ice cream maker Tim Haas might give them a treat. Every morning Haas assumes his position at a freezer hose dispensing what is, at this moment, the freshest ice cream on earth. He deftly swivels the giant nozzle, filling three-gallon tubs in about 40 seconds and tiny cartons even faster. This ice cream is destined for the blast freezer—except for the few folks on hand who get to try some right away.
That spoonful earns a moment of silence. It is smooth, rich, enveloping—warmer than ice cream typically is served, with a creamy goodness that demands complete attention. We are transported.
Small wonder that Haas will eat ice cream no other way—and that he keeps some spoons and paper cups handy for coworkers who share that sentiment. Part of what makes it so good, he explains, is that the original ice crystals inside it have never melted and refrozen, which is exactly what happens in your home freezer.
That bit of science, and much more learned during a Babcock tour, illuminates the value of both the great Babcock flavor—and of having a dairy plant on campus. The Dairy Plant and Dairy Store combined are a $2 million annual operation, and Babcock ice cream is a modest scoop of that— 75,000 to 100,000 gallons are made each year, bringing in some $700,000. (To offer perspective: many ice cream producers kick out 100,000 gallons in a single day.) Babcock produces only enough ice cream to offer at 18 or so on-campus sites plus a tiny handful of off-campus retailers.
The dairy plant brings in enough revenue to be self-supporting; profit is not its purpose. Rather, Babcock has a higher goal—to make the best products it possibly can, for the benefit of the university and the state, and to research, business and industry around the world.
How it pursues that mission makes for a delicious story.
There might be a thousand ways to make ice cream, but Babcock introduced its preferred formula when the plant and store opened in 1951—and, although new flavors are constantly being created, it hasn’t wavered from that basic recipe.
“As far as we’re concerned, there’s a huge value in keeping it the same,” says Bill Klein. “People love to come back after 30 years—and I guarantee they spent four years eating Babcock ice cream—and have it again. They love knowing it’s the same product.”
But nostalgia isn’t the only draw. Science is foremost at play here. As CALS/UW-Extension professor and food science department chair Scott Rankin puts it, “It’s wonderful for a reason.”
It all starts with fresh, high-quality cream from a hyperlocal source—the university herd one block away. These cows produce about 3,000 pounds of milk a day. Babcock needs between 10,000 and 15,000, so additional milk is brought in from a handful of local farms. Standard Babcock ice cream starts with a base mix of 12 percent milk fat and 10.7 percent “milk solids not fat,” components of milk including protein, carbohydrates, water-soluble vitamins and minerals.
With other ingredients, too, quality comes first. Babcock uses real cane sugar rather than corn syrup; corn syrup, although cheaper, affects flavor and texture. Babcock also uses gelatin stabilizer, a rarity in the industry because it is an animal byproduct, twice as expensive and not as shelf stable—but with Babcock’s relatively small batch and quick turnaround, that’s not a problem, and Klein believes it produces a cleaner taste.
All Babcock ice cream starts with the same base, a blend that tastes like fresh, sweet cream. It gets vat-warmed to about 110 degrees, run quickly through the pasteurizer at 185 degrees and then on to a cold storage vessel for aging, always moving so that it stays cooled at around 34 degrees. Babcock lets the base age overnight, much longer than the industry standard of four hours, to allow all ingredients to fully hydrate and the milk fat to crystallize, which results in a richer, more viscous mix. Meanwhile, samples are run through a rigorous flight of tests in the onsite quality control lab.
The next day the fun begins as the base is customized into dozens of flavors. Haas and his colleagues lean over giant vats like chemists over cauldrons, pouring high-grade vanilla, caramel, chocolate syrup and other liquid flavors from enormous beakers, stirring them into the base mix with an oar-like spatula. Liquid flavors are added before the mix enters the freezer. Solid ingredients, known as inclusions—hunks of cookie dough and buttery yellow cake, slivers of bittersweet chocolate, creamy chunks of peanut butter—are added at the end of the freezing process with a grinder attachment, just before the ice cream is packaged.
Once the liquid flavors have been added, it’s time to freeze. The mix is pumped into a barrel surrounded by Freon, cooling it to 21 degrees as it spins. Inside the freezer, air is introduced, known as “overrun.” (Because air, a needed ingredient, also is free, it can be a cheap way to increase volume. An average discount supermarket brand has 100 percent overrun; standard Babcock has 80 percent.)
As the mix spins, ice crystals, air cells, fat globules and proteins are all bonded together in a delicate balance. The spinning—20 razor sharp steel blades scraping at 200 rpm—exemplifies one of the most crucial developments in ice cream making to date, helped in part by decades of research by food science professor Rich Hartel, an expert on ice crystal formation.
If the ice crystals get too big during spinning, the ice cream will taste crunchy. If you want creamy, smooth-tasting ice cream, you need the smallest ice crystals possible. The trick is keeping those original ice crystals intact and tiny. The rapidly spinning steel blades make for the tiniest ice crystals because they scrape ice from the barrel rather than ice from ice. The end result is a product surprisingly low in fat yet still creamy and rich, with a heartier shelf life.
“I call home freezers ‘torture chambers,’” jokes Bob Bradley, a food science professor emeritus—because home consumption of ice cream generally involves so much removal and refreezing (not to mention a lot of door-opening in general), each time causing ice crystals to melt and reform bigger.
Bradley is one of Babcock’s chief flavor experts, but the enterprise does not rest on his palate alone. The plant uses both trained and random consumer taste panels to blind-test flavors under development (see sidebar for past hits and misses). Trained testers are asked pointed questions about such qualities as mouth feel, balance of ingredient blends and background flavor. For the random consumer tasters, the goal is essentially a thumbs up or thumbs down because when a formula is spot-on, not many words are needed. When the consumer tasters are left speechless, Bradley says, “That’s what you want.”
All of the factors that go into Babcock—fresh, high quality ingredients, state-of-the-art processing, painstaking attention to flavor—work together to create the best ice cream possible, which Bradley says is the entire point.
“We are called upon by industry to assist them,” says Bradley. “We have to show people how it’s done—and we do it right.”
The experts at Babcock are indeed called upon by industry, and they rise to that call on a regular basis. “Every couple of weeks we have a company coming in,” says Bill Klein. “We never advertise and the phone just rings.”
Babcock essentially operates as a glass house, offering its substantial knowledge and equipment to established industry professionals and start-up entrepreneurs alike. For a fee, companies can visit Babcock and take advantage of a customized curriculum. There are also a number of UW-Extension short courses. They include one targeted to large scale manufacturers—the Ice Cream Makers Short Course—and another, the Batch Freezer Short Course, intended for small batch artisans, or “Ben and Jerry wannabes,” according to Scott Rankin.
“People come from literally all over the planet because we’re not trying to sell anything other than the best science-based education possible,” says Rankin. “Campus is uniquely positioned to do what nobody else can. We’re not in it for the money. We’re not a political entity. We’re not trying to push an agenda. It’s a unique, valuable experience.”
That experience is prized by industry professionals.
“The short course is really about, ‘How does the science meet practicality?’” says Bill Meagher, owner of Lakeside Creamery in Deep Creek Lake, Maryland. Meagher started his ice cream business in 1995, and not long after that he met Rankin, who was then at the University of Maryland. Together they developed the beginnings of the Batch Freezer Short Course that Rankin brought to Madison in 2001.
“A lot of equipment companies put on seminars about how to make ice cream using their equipment,” says Meagher. “I heard they were all good, but they’re there to sell you something. What I said is, ‘Let’s sell how to make great ice cream.’ Scott was so enthusiastic about it—yes, let’s do that, let’s teach for the good of teaching.”
Today Meagher visits Babcock Hall once or twice a year to work with Rankin and Bradley on developing new flavors and mixes based on the latest technology, something that gives his ice cream a competitive edge back home.
“I’m always searching, always trying to make it better,” says Meagher. “Trying to make it taste better, creamier, last longer.”
Babcock Hall experts will also customize a workshop at a company’s request, as they have for the Neenah-based Galloway Company, Wisconsin’s largest manufacturer of frozen dessert mixes for three generations.
“There are things we’re going to find out from the practical end of the field, and things they know from the academic,” says CEO Ted Galloway. “You put it together and boy, you may have something good.”
Throughout the years the Galloway Company has called on Babcock Hall countless times to help develop products. When there’s a specific goal—better understanding the subtleties between sweetened condensed milk formulas, or the intricacies of the different processes between various dairy dessert mixes, or the interactions in milk proteins—such experts as Scott Rankin, Bob Bradley, or, in past years, Joe von Elbe, will develop and present the appropriate curriculum. Sometimes they’ll present their work at Babcock, but often they’ll bring it to company headquarters.
“It’s extremely valuable not only to better understand—but also to be able to ask questions as we’re going through the process that you wouldn’t normally want to ask if you were in a room with a bunch of competitors,” says Galloway.
Beyond access to state-of-the-art instruction, another value Babcock offers is the opportunity to experiment with and run small batches, which would be very expensive for producers to do in their own plants.
The benefits run both ways, Rankin notes. Babcock gleans knowledge from the specific, real-world questions industry brings—and the entire state benefits from the research and development provided by Babcock. It all adds up to a substantial body of knowledge and a creative, dynamic atmosphere.
“It’s unusual to have a plant of this caliber and quality at a university,” says Rankin, noting that only about 10 U.S. universities even have ice cream plants on site. “It provides a perspective and a background that is just invaluable. It’s like learning about a car by driving versus only in a classroom.”
That could be why food science enrollment has nearly tripled in the last 10 years. Many of the basic classes are standing room only, and “we literally can’t fit everybody in Babcock Hall anymore,” says Rankin.
Food science students, who routinely win national product development competitions, are eminently marketable in an industry that respects Babcock Hall so much.
“Our graduates are highly, highly recruited. Employers know they’ve gone through an exceptional science-based, scholarship exercise that is complemented with applied, hands-on opportunities,” says Rankin. “We start getting calls in January from companies looking to hire. The biggest problem that our seniors have is, which of these three jobs am I going to take?”
Of all the students to utilize Babcock Hall each year—ranging from undergrads taking a sanitation or pasteurization course to Ph.D. students conducting advanced research—15 or so are employed as staff each year. They work alongside Tim Haas as the ice cream is frozen and packaged, generally putting in two to three hours a day. The one who gleans the most experience is the summer intern, most recently a junior food science student named Trent Kearns, who spent a two-to-three-week rotation in each area of the plant.
Kearns had read in food engineering about the behavior of Newtonian versus non-Newtonian fluids moving through piping, but he didn’t fully understand it until he had a close-up view of the pasteurizing process at Babcock. That’s just one example of what proved to be a rich educational experience. “I learned so much about standard operating procedures, quality control and legal guidelines, sanitation requirements, and the overall protocol,” he says. “The material you learn in the classroom doesn’t carry the same weight.”
The demand placed on Babcock by students, researchers and industry alike points to a looming question: after 60 years of heavy use, the plant is showing its age. A capital campaign is underway for a serious upgrade to the facility, which also serves as home to the Center for Dairy Research, a program that has been crucial to the advancement of Wisconsin cheese.
“Babcock Dairy is in dire need of renovation. Nearly every foundation and utility is 60-plus years old,” says Rankin. “We’d like to keep the manufacturing and educational heritage of Babcock Dairy alive and well for the next 60 years.”
Making Babcock ice cream might not be mostly about the money—but it’s invaluable to the university nevertheless. If UW–Madison is the gateway to the Dairy State, Babcock ice cream is its tasty ambassador. Few would dispute that as a University of Wisconsin icon, Babcock ice cream ranks right up there with the Memorial Union Terrace and Badger sports.
“Babcock ice cream strikes an immediate nostalgic chord for alums and opens the gate to a treasure trove of UW memories,” says Deb Nelson, senior director of U.S. chapters and volunteer training for the Wisconsin Alumni Association (WAA). “I hardly ever attend an alumni event where someone doesn’t mention Babcock ice cream. The ice cream in and of itself is awesome, but when it also reminds people of a time and place that had an incredible impact on their lives, that just makes it all the better.”
The alumni association doesn’t shy from luring potential supporters with ice cream. For example, when an alumnus from Arizona was thinking about starting a new chapter, WAA was able to send Babcock’s special flavor, “Mad Grad Medley,” out to Sedona to help seal the deal—and it did, Nelson says.
Babcock created Mad Grad Medley—Door County cherries and chocolate flakes in a bed of creamy vanilla—to help celebrate WAA’s 150th anniversary in 2011. It was served with fanfare and received with blissful appreciation at alumni chapter events throughout the year.
Because nothing says UW like Babcock. “Part of why people love it is the same reason they love the Badgers,” says Bill Klein. “It’s their team, it’s their operation, it’s what they support. This is their college town—and Babcock ice cream is made here and no place else.”
This story was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Grow magazine.