A taste of life at Ben & Jerry’s is just a few hours away

For ice cream fans, this is trip to Mecca
Visitors to Ben & Jerry's ice cream plant in Waterbury, Vermont, are able to see the ice cream-making process.
Visitors to Ben & Jerry's ice cream plant in Waterbury, Vermont, are able to see the ice cream-making process.

I’m not from here. I’m a transplant from one of those large square-shaped states in the middle of the country. While there is much to see and do among the amber waves of grain, one of the best things about living here is the proximity to very cool things.

In the Midwest, it is not easy or even possible in some cases to step foot in multiple state capitals in a day. Visiting certain parts of a neighboring state can land you in another time zone. And obviously you can forget about squishing your toes in the sand of a coastal beach without going through a few tanks of gas.

Here, however, we are within spitting distance of amazing bits of history, endless outdoor recreational options and some of the best food and beverage destinations in the country.

In addition to being new here, I must also confess that I love food. All food. Any food. I just ate a stale donut to spare it the indignity of being thrown away. Also, I love donuts.

As any good mother will, I have passed my love of all things edible to my children. It was no surprise then, that as my daughter and husband were brainstorming weekend activities, they landed on taking a trip (nay, pilgrimage) to the Ben & Jerry’s factory in Waterbury, Vermont.

Sidebar: my daughter is a bit of an ice cream fiend. Following is telephone conversation we had not long ago. In this scene, I am at work and she has just gotten home from school.


“Hi Mom. We’re out of ice cream. Will you get some on your way home?”

“I don’t need to stop at the store today. There are other things there for snack.”

(Silence, followed by general pleading.)

“Honey, just eat something else. Ice cream is not a human right.”

“It should be.”

So perhaps our trek to Waterbury was as much a first-world humanitarian mission as a fun, family activity.

Courtesy Ben & Jerry’s.

A trip to the super-premium ice cream Mecca is an easy three-hour trip one way. The factory grounds and tour appeal to both kids and kids at heart. It is easy to spend just a day or linger a little longer and explore the state capitol building in Montpelier or other foodie-oriented sites like Green Mountain Coffee, Cabot cheese and Cold Hollow Cider Mill.

We left our home in Schenectady at 9 a.m. and took the Northway to Exit 20 where we made our way east then north through western Vermont. We arrived at the Waterbury exit a little after noon.

While on the road, we lost cell reception in a few places. As a result, the kids removed their earbuds from their skulls and we enjoyed many miles of conversation and laughter as we all took in the vistas and views of the Vermont mountains, countryside and hamlets.

After a detour into Montpelier for lunch at Down Home Kitchen – a locavore’s dream serving southern-style fare elevated by the use of unexpected but thoughtful sauces and locally-sourced ingredients – we headed back to Waterbury.

The factory entrance is a quick left off the main road and is well-marked.  Parking is plentiful on the property’s two gravel lots.

Courtesy Ben & Jerry’s.

We made our way straight to the ticket counter and $16 later, the four of us were booked for a tour and had around 30 minutes to kill. If you happen to have kids age 12 or under, they’re free.

It was drizzly and dreary the day we visited so we stayed inside while we waited for our tour to begin. The main entrance room is a brightly colored, properly branded and open-concept space that includes both the ticket counter and (conveniently) the gift shop.

The gift shop is full of quirky and cheeky items, coffee mugs, as well as the requisite apparel including tie-dyed t-shirts.

Check out the display of ice cream scoops, some dating back a hundred years or so or peruse the visual history of the company. There are many displays like this – pints of all the ice cream flavors behind glass and brightly colored placards announcing the company’s mission and vision.  

The scoop shop is attached to the main building as well and is a veritable tractor beam, drawing visitors to the snaking line and up to the ordering window. We (somehow) exercised self-control and opted to wait to the end to indulge in the frozen goodness.   

When our tour time was called, we gathered with a dozen or so other hippie ice cream enthusiasts and, after checking our tickets to make sure we were on the right tour, our chipper guide began her spiel.

Spoiler alert: ice cream factory tours in general are not very exciting for a couple of reasons. First of all, mass production necessitates that ingredients are largely out of sight. Milk and cream travel en mass through stainless steel pipes and are mixed and cooked in covered stainless steel vats after which time they travel again in stainless steel pipes to chill. You get the idea.

The second reason ice cream factory tours themselves are not a riveting experience is that the process of making ice cream is not particularly riveting – mix, cook, chill. There is no open, bubbling mash tank like at a distillery or an endless stone cavern stacked floor to ceiling with oak barrels like at a winery.

Courtesy Ben & Jerry’s.

Regardless of the process, Ben & Jerry’s does make the most of the 30 minute tour. It begins with a peek through a window at a holding tank. It’s giant and shiny. Next up is a 15 minute movie that tells the Ben & Jerry’s story including the history of the product and the company’s social responsibility efforts.

Following the movie, the tour moves to a glass-enclosed observation room where the guide explains the ice cream making process, directing visitors’ attention to numbered signs mounted to various equipment on the factory floor.

The guide takes questions then directs visitors down stairs for the reason we’re all here in the first place – free samples. Once we had whet our appetites with the few tablespoons of free ice cream, we made a beeline for the scoop shop and ordered cones of our own.

Nerdy ice cream sidebar: Ben & Jerry’s is considered “superpremium” ice cream. That is not only a marketing ploy, but also a quality designation recognized by the International Dairy Foods Association and defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.

During the process of making ice cream, air is pushed into the mix. The more air that is incorporated into the final product, the higher the rate of overrun. In order for a product to be legally labeled “ice cream,” it must weigh at least 4.5 pounds per gallon.

“Economy” ice cream meets the minimum standard for overrun and is the lowest quality of ice cream commercially available. It is also the least expensive. It has the highest rate of overrun (contains the most air legally allowed) and tends to be light, fluffy and crystallizes quickly.

As you work your way up through quality designations – regular, premium, superpremium – the fat content increases, as does the quality of ingredients, and the overrun rate decreases so that when you arrive at superpremium, you are eating a spoonful of dense, creamy, luxurious, this-is-so-much-better-than-my-ex-boyfriend heaven.

Our last stop on those hallowed grounds of frozen dairy delight was the Flavor Graveyard. It is the final resting place for flavors that fell out of favor. Some lasted years, like the Oatmeal Cookie Chunk (2004 – 2012) and others only a season or two, like Festivus.

At this point, we piled in the car and headed home. If however, you find yourself in an ice cream coma and can’t or don’t want to make the trip home, there’s plenty to do in and around Burlington.

The Vermont Teddy Bear company offers 30 minute tours for a nominal $4 per person (again, age 12 and under are free). The factory is located at 6655 Shelburne Road, Shelburne, Vt. vermontteddybear.com

Take in fresh air at Shelburne Farms and enjoy a petting zoo and check out cheese making demonstrations. The farm is located at 1611 Harbor Road, Shelburne, shelburnefarms.org.

If you need something to wash down the ice cream, head to the Citizen Cider tasting room (316 Pine Street, Burlington, citizencider.com) or Magic Hat Brewing Company (5 Bartlett Bay Road, South Burlington, magichat.net)

A trip to the Ben & Jerry’s factory is well-worth the price of admission, particularly if you believe ice cream to be a human right, or you just love ice cream. The factory and tour serve up a balance of whimsy and social consciousness, a la mode, of course.

Categories: Food, Life and Arts

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