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The Man with The Million-Dollar Taste Buds

Q-and-A with master ice cream taster John Harrison

Everyone has a dream job in mind, but rarely do any of us get a chance to live out the fantasy. Master ice cream taster John Harrison is an exception, though. On an average day, Harrison samples about 60 packages of ice cream for Edy's Grand Ice Cream (known as Dreyer's west of Colorado). The company finds his services so valuable that they've insured his taste buds for a cool million bucks (that's $100 per taste bud). Harrison estimates that during his 30 years in the business, he's sampled from almost 200 million gallons of ice cream. Too much of a good thing? No, Harrison says, pointing out that "it's a tough job, but somebody has to do it."

What qualifies you to be an ice cream taster?
I grew up in the ice cream business―it's one of those generational hand-me-downs. My great-grandfather had two ice cream and candy parlors in New York in 1880. My grandfather started the first dairy co-op in the state of Tennessee, and my father owned an ice cream ingredient factory in Atlanta.

What's an average workday like for you?
It takes about four to five hours every morning to work through ice cream from the previous day. We do 20 different flavors a day, three samples for each flavor―one from the beginning, middle, and end of a production cycle―so I have 60 packages waiting for me every morning to taste before any product has been shipped out.

What's the taste testing protocol?
I taste with my eyes initially, so if it doesn't look appetizing, forget the rest of it. Then I let the ice cream temper about 10 to 12 degrees to maximize the flavor and get the full top note, bouquet, and aroma, and to avoid what the young people call brain freeze. For tasting, I use a gold-plated spoon because wood and plastic have a slight resin aftertaste, and I need to avoid anything that could clog my taste buds. I swirl the ice cream around in my mouth to coat all the taste receptacles, and then I spit it out.

What's your favorite flavor for hot summer months?
Definitely sherbet and sorbet products. Whole-fruit sorbets―mango, peach, strawberry, mandarin orange-passionfruit, and coconut―are delightful, healthful summertime treats. I like to add a little light vanilla ice cream to get a good dairy cream/fruit acid contrast.

How do light ice creams compare to regular?
Light ice creams should be well rounded without a heavy cream taste. That way they're more refreshing and have a lighter texture than regular ice cream.

Do there seem to be regional flavor preferences?
Absolutely. New Englanders like coffee-based flavors, while California and the western states are more into chocolate variations. Favorites among those in the South and Midwest include butter pecan and strawberry. Vanilla is still the best-seller throughout the country, though.

Do you ever get tired of eating ice cream?
I'm like a 60-year-old kid, because I still love ice cream. Sure, I've gained some weight in the 20 years I've been with the company, but who would trust a skinny ice cream tester?