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Posted on Wed, Jul 31, 2013 : 11:11 a.m.

The artisan ice creams of Washtenaw County

By Kim Bayer

It's a little-known fact that America's former sweet tooth in chief and number one jelly bean super fan, Ronald Reagan, was also a champion of ice cream. In 1984 he declared July "national ice cream month" and the third Sunday in July "national ice cream day," saying these observances should include "appropriate ceremonies and activities."

Taking Reagan's immortal words to heart, I decided to host a summer ice cream taste-off with pints from three new small-batch ice cream artisans, including Go! Ice Cream from Ypsilanti and Hello! Ice Cream and Sweet Dirt, both in Ann Arbor.

One unforeseen bit of wisdom gleaned from this experience is that if you want to make an impression on your friends as a host of epic greatness, invite them for an ice cream tasting in July. Our esteemed (and excited) panel of tasters included: a chef, two farmers, a visitor from Europe, and an Ypsilanti native. The night we got together on my patio for the tasting it was 85 degrees outside and humid — a perfect night to attack the 15 pints of ice cream I had ordered in advance.

Cliff's Notes version on favorites: Out of 15 pints that we tried, two were completely demolished:
• Hello!'s Chocolate Espresso Stout
• Sweet Dirt's Brown Butter

Top Favorites overall included:

Hello! Ice Cream:
Chocolate Espresso Stout: "Love! everything: flavor, smell, mouthfeel. Going back for seconds!" "Very complex, great smooth mouthfeel." "Nice body, trio of coffee, beer and chocolate balanced."
Salted Caramel: "Perfect in flavor and smoothness." "Nice texture and flavor balance."

Go! Ice Cream:
Bruleed Banana: "Creamy and complex." "The brulee works nicely with banana." "Nice caramelized sensation."
Chocolate Sorbet: "Chocolate is intense, hints of bitterness, and powdery mouthfeel." "Fantastic chocolate intensity. A little grainy. Mix with fruit."

Sweet Dirt:
Buttermilk with Cherry Preserves: "Awesome buttermilk comes through and compliments the cherry." "Tastes like cherry cheesecake. Very intense." "It stands alone as a dessert."
Buttermilk with Strawberry Preserves: "Great contrast between ice cream and strawberry preserves. Unique and delicious."
Brown Butter: "Wonderful salty sweet - almost caramel. Very smooth." "Great caramel flavor and texture."

My surprise favorites included:
Go!'s Peanut Butter Cookie Dough: A peanut butter party in a pint. I loved the fantastic peanut aroma, the creamy texture and the chunky boulders of peanut cookie dough — perhaps because it reminded me of my favorite cereal from childhood: Peanut Butter Crunch.
Hello!'s Vanilla: Fragrant with vanilla, wonderful creamy texture, and loved the tiny crunch of vanilla bean seeds.
Go!'s Key Lime: Excellent tart and floral key lime flavor, real bits of key lime zest, a little icy but super refreshing and not too sweet.

The group's least favorites included:
• Hello!'s Banana: An odd gray-ish color with a hint of bitterness that tasted like they used green bananas.
• Go!'s Mom's Strawberry: Comments included, "I expected more from the balsamic and rhubarb." "I don't taste strawberry enough." "A bit icy."
• Sweet Dirt's Lavender Honey: Perhaps had steeped the lavender too long, because this one inspired comments like: "Too floral, but the honey flavor is good." "It's interesting, but maybe the lavender is too strong." "Um, er, this is too much."

The Ice Cream Artisans
All three have started up their businesses as of this summer, and products are currently only available at farmers markets, special events, and by ordering in advance. They each have websites, some with Facebook and Twitter presence also.

Sweet Dirt owner Melissa Richards is the superstar pastry chef at Grange Kitchen and Bar who focuses on seasonal fruits and what she calls "unlikely" flavors (like herbs, popcorn, bacon). Her ingredients are sourced from great local farms like Frog Holler, Tantre, Wolfe Orchard, etc. She uses Michigan-based Guernsey and Calder dairy products, and compostable paper cups for her packaging. Her cute wooden spoons have "Sweet Dirt" etched into them.
Style of ice cream: French-style custard based.
Price: Individual cups: $4. Pints: $12.
Find her: At the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market Wednesday and Saturdays from 8 a.m.-2p.m. (and at Grange Kitchen and Bar Monday - Saturday)

Hello! Ice Cream wins the prize for most adorable lime-sherbet-green vintage ice cream truck (named Ingrid) and matching ice cream cart. They make a wide range of gelato-based treats (which owner Margaret Schankler calls "Italian ice cream") and will cater your event with their truck or cart. Their pints are packed in re-usable glass Mason jars, and they'll give you back a $.25 deposit if you return them.
Style of ice cream: Italian gelato, "with less air and fat than typical American ice cream and is served in a softer state."
Price: Individual 4 oz. cups: $3.75. Pints: $12
Find them: Ann Arbor Farmers Market and Eastern Market on Saturdays (when they're not busy catering an event).

Go! Ice Cream's innovative Ypsilanti-based vendor delivers by bike to your door within a four-mile radius. The 12-ounce plastic containers have the cheery Go! Ice Cream sticker and was the only one with a label listing all ingredients. Props to Go! Ice Cream for that. Go! has a great website that lets them take ice cream orders online (order before noon on Thursdays for delivery between 6-9 p.m. on Thursdays, or pick up at the Ypsi Depot Town Farmers Market from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays).
Style of ice cream: Owner Rob Hess says "It’s a custard, I don’t use eggs in it, but I cook it and thicken it like a custard. Even the sorbets get cooked first. It takes longer, it’s more expensive to make, but it is worth it."
Price: 12-ounce size: $9.
Find them: Ypsilanti Depot Town Farmers Market on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m.


Although our tasting wasn't very official, I did read up a little on how the pros evaluate ice creams. Of course they consider the visual appeal, aroma, and overall flavor. But one thing that surprised me about official tastings was how you are supposed to turn the spoon over to deposit the ice cream directly on your tongue. We tried this technique but it was so awkward that we quickly gave up, like the amateurs that we are.

Things I did pay attention to, though, were "tempering" the ice cream by letting it soften out of the freezer for several minutes, and the importance of the ice cream's texture: the mouthfeel, the creaminess v. iciness, the "chew," and whether it was crumbly and brittle, soggy and heavy, or just right.

Among the three brands, it was often the texture that most differentiated their products. I tried to order a plain vanilla flavor from each to compare apples to apples so to speak, but the only flavor I was able to get from all three was strawberry.

"Mom's Strawberry" from Go!' included rhubarb and balsamic vinegar which should have really punched up the flavor. But Mom's Strawberry was surprisingly bland and icy compared to the others.

Sweet Dirt's version was buttermilk ice cream with strawberry preserves, and it was the opposite of Go!'s. It had over-the-top rich creaminess with mouth-punching sweetness and concentrated strawberry flavor from the preserves. I loved it, but it was (inexplicably) a little too much for some of our tasters, one of whom noted that "Sweet Dirt really pushes the envelope on the creaminess."

Like Goldilocks, several on our panel found Hello!'s strawberry ice cream just right. Their birthday-party-pink version had good strawberry flavor and medium-rich ice cream body. It was delicious and just what you would expect if you ordered strawberry ice cream.

My advice is that if you happen upon any of these vendors' carts, you should immediately go and buy some of their delicious hand-made ice creams. The relative expense of these small-batch artisan treats (still less than a single cocktail) will probably keep you from eating too much, and they are satisfying on many levels of the "quality v. quantity" continuum. You can feel good about indulging since they don't contain industrial food-like substances or create the externalized costs of industrial scale. Instead, all of them are using dairy from Michigan's Guernsey and Calder Dairy Farms and fruits from local growers.

All are making delicious and inventive flavors, and each of these new local businesses has something special to recommend it. Plus, if you really want your friends to love you, you can host an ice cream tasting to see for yourself.

Interviews with the artisans

Melissa Richards / Sweet Dirt

- How did you decide to start an ice cream business?
I got great feedback from my regulars at Grange Kitchen & Bar regarding my modern plated desserts, frozen novelties, and especially the ice creams and sorbets. I decided to sell the ice creams, sorbets, and eventually granitas from a food cart alongside the very farmers I source my food from.

- What did friends and family have to say about the decision?
All positive.

- What's your mission/goal for your business?
To raise awareness of local ingredients and to excite people about them in the form of frozen treats.

- What do you want your customers to experience with your ice cream?
A new and tasty flavor and the satisfaction of knowing the local origin of the ingredients. I find it exciting that customers will get sorrel ice cream, but they have never eaten sorrel on its own yet or even know what it looks like. I am educating some customers about local ingredients. The nice thing is I can send them over to the Tantre Farm or Frog Holler Organic Farm stand and tell them to look at the raw sorrel first.

- How do you describe the style and/or technique of making your ice cream?
Custard-base / French-style.

- Do you plan to open an ice cream store? How about distribute to local stores?
Not as of yet. Just started June 8 and I am keeping my full time pastry chef position. I would like to open a small restaurant in the future. I went to culinary school and more recently switched to pastry.

- What (brands) dairy products do you use?
I currently use Guernsey and Calder. Open to others as they become available.

- What percentage fat do you intend for your ice cream?
Depends what flavor I am making and whether I use alcohol, etc.

- What local and seasonal ingredients do you use?
I use all local and seasonal ingredients with the exception of cane sugar, salt, and the occasional use of lemon juice. I work backwards/shop for my ingredients first, choose my flavors or flavor combinations later.

- What should potential customers know about what makes your products special?
1) I use ingredients from local farms straight up. I think saying food is "locally-sourced" is becoming trendy. Many food businesses will buy from a local store and say it is local food. Or, they will say that they use local ingredients "when it is available". As as example, they will make raspberry ice cream year round and only use local raspberries when it is raspberry season. With me, I will only make raspberry ice cream if I can source enough raspberries from local farms. I may freeze and preserve some in the form of jam or pickles for a later time, but they will be local. Or, I have used fruit from Locavorious if I really want to do a special dessert in the dead of winter.

2) I use unlikely ingredients. For example, in the past couple weeks, I made sage, toasted coriander, rose geranium, and lime basil (a type of basil) ice creams, as well as parsley and lovage granita.

Margaret Schankler / Hello! Ice Cream

- How did you decide to start an ice cream business?
I had just wrapped up a children's retail business that I ran for 13 years. For my next venture, I wanted to do something fun that would make people happy. The idea of a vintage ice cream truck came to mind. I started looking for one and didn't look back!

- What did friends and family have to say about the decision?
I have a very supportive husband and daughter, and they want me to do what makes me happy. So they just said, "Cool, go for it!"

- What's your mission/goal for your business?
To have fun, make people smile, and enjoy my work. Hopefully it will grow into something that can employ many others and contribute to the local economy.

- What do you want your customers to experience with your ice cream?
I want them to be wowed by the deep flavor and silky smooth texture. The best feeling is when somebody says, "Oh my god, this is the best thing I have ever eaten." So that is my goal. I try to make each batch better than the last. I believe you can never stop perfecting something.

- How do you describe the style and/or technique of making your ice cream?
I make what I call Italian-style ice cream. It is technically gelato, which means it has less air and fat than typical American ice cream and is served in a softer state.

- Do you plan to open an ice cream store? How about distribute to local stores?
I don't plan to have a store unless I am approached by a partner who would want to take that on. I would love to be able to sell wholesale to local stores, but the licensing is complicated and expensive. For now, I am licensed to do catering and sell direct to the public only.

- What (brands) dairy products do you use?
I use Michigan milk and cream from Guernsey, Country Dairy or Calder.

- What percentage fat do you intend for your ice cream?
Most of my recipes come in at about 8 percent fat. Fruit gelato can be as low as 5 percent. Sorbets have no fat at all. No recipe of mine has more than 12 percent fat. Premium American ice creams typically have 18-22 percent fat or more.

- What local and seasonal ingredients do you use?
Local dairy products (above) and fresh fruit such as strawberries, raspberries, rhubarb, blueberries, and of course Michigan cherries.

- What should potential customers know about what makes your products special?
They are made fresh, just for them with quality ingredients. I work hard to make every batch the very best it can be.

- Where/when is your ice cream available?
I try to be at the Kerrytown and Eastern market on Saturdays, but I have had so many catering requests that it has been difficult to get to the markets consistently. People can sign up for our email list, Facebook page or Twitter feed to keep informed on where we will be. Most of our work at the moment is catering weddings, parties, and corporate events.

Robb Hess / Go! Ice Cream

- How did you decide to start an ice cream business?
Ice cream sort of decided for me. I was making ice cream as a hobby, a stress-reliever from my other activities, and soon I fell in love with the chemistry of ice cream and all of the factors that affect all the different components of a truly great ice cream experience. I was making so much ice cream that I had to start giving it away, so I took it into the office for my co-workers. Word spread and folks started contacting me about making some for their friends, or asking if I did birthday parties, etc. Really, I started the business just so I could do fulfill those requests legally and let the hobby grow in the ways it seemed to want to.

- What did friends and family have to say about the decision?
Do you deliver and how soon can I get it? Seriously. They have all been wonderfully supportive and encouraging and helpful. I have never before experienced such a tremendous outpouring of support. From my parents coming to the kitchen to wash dishes, to friends connecting me with folks in the food business, this whole process of starting a business has made me realize what I truly lucky person I am to have such great people in my life. When my wife and I decided to buy an industrial ice cream churn that cost just south of 10k, I kind of half-suspected our family friends to surprise us with an intervention or something. But no, it seemed to make total sense to them, maybe even more than it did to me!

- What's your mission/goal for your business?
I want to build something. I want to make a place that puts good, inspiring things out there in the world. That might seem a little weird for a 38-year-old dude riding around on a tricycle selling ice cream, but I look at these institutions around Ypsilanti, like Corner Brewery, Beezy’s, Sidetrack, and I think about the sense of community they help to foster. Some of the best times of my life have been spent at those places and it has caused me to reflect on how an establishment like that really helps create character for a city, really helps the citizens interact and create community and share things. I also think about places like Zingerman’s and the effect that place has had on not only the Ann Arbor area and the way that we think about the food we put in our bodies, but also the effect it has had on a national level, being at the front of the change in the way we see food that has happened over the last 15 or 20 years. I think about myself when I was a kid, and how cool it would have been for me to discover that vanilla is a seedpod that has been harvested and dried and that you can put it in food and it tastes amazing, or how cool I would have thought it was to know that you can make caramel just by burning sugar. Those are a lot of big, disparate thoughts, but I think food is a far more powerful experience than we give it credit for, and I would like to be part of helping people have positive, inspiring, revelatory experiences with it.

- What do you want your customers to experience with your ice cream?
I’ve had customers come close to tears after tasting my ice creams. Not kidding. I’ve had them hug me and tell me stories about their childhood. I’ve been high fived, threatened with bodily harm (in a good way) I have had all manners of reactions, and I have yet to have someone spit it out, or spit it back at me, thankfully. I would like every customer to have that big emotional reaction to their first bite. I would like them to enjoy it so much that they don’t feel bad about having dessert. I would like them to realize it is a good thing to allow yourself to enjoy the sweet things in life. I would like them to know that someone spent a lot of time and thought a lot about what went in to their pint.

- How do you describe the style and/or technique of making your ice cream?
It’s a custard, I don’t use eggs in it, but I cook it and thicken it like a custard. Even the sorbets get cooked first. It takes longer, it’s more expensive to make, but it is worth it.

- Do you plan to open an ice cream store? How about distribute to local stores?
I would like to do both of these, for sure. I am in talks with some local stores about selling my products there, but it really is a matter of scale for me right now. I want to keep the operation small for a while. There is lots of excitement and interest in helping me grow the operation, but we live in a state where it is cold many months of the year, and I want to see what the public interest is like in, say, January, and how I will react to that before I start adding a lot of overhead.

- What (brands) dairy products do you use?
Calder and Guernsey.

- What percentage fat do you intend for your ice cream?
Right around 14 percent.

- What local and seasonal ingredients do you use?
Whatever is available! That’s part of the beauty of the local food community. Just last weekend, before the crowds really started to pour into our stand at the Ypsilanti Farmer’s Market, I went around to the other vendors and bought all kinds of stuff. Bacon for an upcoming batch of brown sugar bacon ice cream, blueberries from the Zilke Farm, the most gorgeous tart cherries for a cherry sorbet, I even bought a sweet and spicy pretzel mix from Spicy Mike’s that I am going to use to top some chocolate sorbet sundaes this weekend! I am also talking to the fine folks at Triple Tree Farms about growing special varieties of mint for my fresh mint cacao nib ice cream.

- What should potential customers know about what makes your products special?
I offer bold takes on classic ice cream and adventurous new flavors, my products are hyper-local and very clean — no stabilizers, emulsifiers, etc. — and who else is going to make your ice creams for you on Sunday and then deliver it to your door, by bike, on Thursday night?

Kim Bayer is a freelance writer and culinary researcher. Email her at kimbayer at gmail dot com.



Sat, Aug 10, 2013 : 11:30 a.m.

To the owners: Are any of these ice creams made from almond milk or coconut milk? I can't eat cow's milk ice cream. I would buy some if they didn't that that ingrediant.

Walter Mondale

Fri, Aug 2, 2013 : 12:36 a.m.

Nothin' like a good ol' Butter Brickle.

Usual Suspect

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 3:43 a.m.

If you put the word "artisan" in front to it (ice cream, bread, etc) does it taste better?


Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 12:10 a.m.

Would you please run an article about making delicious homemade ice cream?

Vivienne Armentrout

Wed, Jul 31, 2013 : 8:57 p.m.

Thanks, Kim. This is a great review and very informative.

Jack Gladney

Wed, Jul 31, 2013 : 7:21 p.m.

Reagan liked ice cream? Great. Now I have to boycott that too.

Basic Bob

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 3:01 a.m.

He made ketchup a vegetable.

John of Saline

Thu, Aug 1, 2013 : 1:47 a.m.

Not everything is political. Really. It's true.