You scream, I scream, we all scream for ice cream. Not just any ice cream, either, but small-batch, ultra-premium ice cream. According to the most recent State of the Industry report by Dairy Foods magazine, indulgence, variety and high quality are all trends that have traction and have helped to build a new category of artisanal ice cream. But just how did ice cream become so upscale and wildly creative? A perfect storm of many factors, including greater demand for unconventional flavors and ingredients, rising disposable income, and the explosion of social media marketing, has helped to propel high-quality ice cream into a phenomenon that often has led to lines around the block at ice cream shops and pints heading north of $10.
One early pioneer, Humphry Slocombe, tapped into the psychological power of frozen treats. “Ice cream is always an affordable luxury and connected with emotions,” Humphry Slocombe co-founder and marketing director Sean Vahey said. He points out that whether we ate ice cream when we were sick or at a birthday party as children, we never let go of how it makes us feel. Equally powerful is Humphry Slocombe’s combination of social media presence (with over 200,000 followers on Twitter), partnerships in the both the culinary and entertainment world, especially theatrical productions including Broadway productions and Cirque du Soleil, use of high quality and often locally sourced ingredients, and the constant introduction of novel new flavors.
“Ice cream is always an affordable luxury and connected with emotions,”
- Sean Vahey.
The farm-to-table movement also took hold at ice cream shops such as Smitten, which offers ice cream made to order through its patented liquid nitrogen ice cream machines, often featuring seasonal flavors with the freshest fruit of the moment. Salt & Straw also broke boundaries with a similar ethos of new flavors and local, seasonal ingredients and partnerships, but its name also hints at an element that sets the modern ice cream purveyors apart from the rest of the pack: salt. Savory elements add sophistication to a treat that is traditionally exclusively sweet. Salt & Pepper ice cream from Humphry Slocombe, Salted Malted Chocolate Chip Dough from Salt & Straw, and Salted Butterscotch from Tinpot Creamery are just a few of the more overtly salted flavors, but a hint of salt is often the flavor enhancer that while subtle, often makes ultra-premium ice cream flavors pop. Demand for this type of ice cream has been so great, it’s not unusual to find ultra-premium scoop shops across the street from one another.
Another strong trend in ice cream has been Asian ingredients and ice cream styles. While green tea ice cream has long been a favorite at Japanese restaurants, there’s been an explosion of matcha ice cream options in the past few years. The Japanese dessert mochi ice cream was the fastest-growing category in the ice cream market as of 2018, according to FoodDive. More recently, additional Asian styles of ice cream have taken hold, including rolled ice cream from Thailand, powder or snow ice cream from Taiwan and bingsu, a Korean style of sundae made from shaved ice, sweetened condensed milk, and fruit, typically topped with ice cream. Other styles of ice cream include tropical ingredients such as purple yam and pandan from the Philippines, Mexican style paletas or popsicles and Indian style ice creams including the dense and creamy kulfi and falooda, a kind of milk-based ice cream float made with rose syrup.
Recently there have been twists on the way ice cream has traditionally been served, too. Beyond the requisite sugar cones and waffle cones, you’ll find Asian egg waffles or Belgian waffles being used; one ice cream shop, CREAM, even turns cones literally on their side, transforming them into “tacos” to hold ice cream. And in many of today’s sweet shops, the wafer cookies of old-fashioned ice cream sandwiches have been replaced by the likes of glazed donuts and French macarons. What these twists all have in common? High-quality ice cream and handcrafted confections that are made to order.
While ice cream is an indulgence, it’s not always an unhealthy one. Another trend mentioned in the Dairy Foods report is “formulations that fit with current lifestyles and eating habits.” In short, that means plant-based ice creams, frozen desserts made using probiotics, unrefined sugars, and alternative sweeteners like monk fruit, and ice cream made from dairy alternatives such as coconut milk or oat milk.
Interested in trying some of the ice cream styles mentioned above? Try ordering from one of the merchants below.
Dairy and non-dairy based Nieves-style ice cream from Michoacán, Mexico, plus Mexican paletas (popsicles).
Specializing in ice cream sandwiches made with brownies, chocolate chip cookies or snickerdoodles.
Classic ice cream cones and cups, plus floats, sundaes, and a banana split.
Fresno High Roeding
Traditional Indian ice cream kulfi, in mango or pistachio with almonds and cardamom.
Southeast Asian-inspired ice cream desserts, like a fried wrapped banana served with a scoop of ice cream.