Mission: Delicious

What makes Babcock ice cream so good to eat—and so good for science, students and industry?

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.