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 achance to live out the fantasy. Master ice cream taster JohnHarrison is an exception, though. On an average day, Harrisonsamples about 60 packages of ice cream for Edy's Grand Ice Cream(known as Dreyer's west of Colorado). The company finds hisservices so valuable that they've insured his taste buds for a coolmillion bucks (that's $100 per taste bud). Harrison estimates thatduring his 30 years in the business, he's sampled from almost 200million gallons of ice cream. Too much of a good thing? No,Harrison says, pointing out that "it's a tough job, but somebodyhas to do it."
What qualifies you to be an ice cream taster?
I grew up in the ice cream business―it's one of thosegenerational hand-me-downs. My great-grandfather had two ice creamand candy parlors in New York in 1880. My grandfather started thefirst dairy co-op in the state of Tennessee, and my father owned anice cream ingredient factory in Atlanta.
What's an average workday like for you?
It takes about four to five hours every morning to workthrough ice cream from the previous day. We do 20 different flavorsa day, three samples for each flavor―one from the beginning,middle, and end of a production cycle―so I have 60 packageswaiting for me every morning to taste before any product has beenshipped out.
What's the taste testing protocol?
I taste with my eyes initially, so if it doesn't lookappetizing, forget the rest of it. Then I let the ice cream temperabout 10 to 12 degrees to maximize the flavor and get the full topnote, bouquet, and aroma, and to avoid what the young people callbrain freeze. For tasting, I use a gold-plated spoon because woodand plastic have a slight resin aftertaste, and I need to avoidanything that could clog my taste buds. I swirl the ice creamaround in my mouth to coat all the taste receptacles, and then Ispit it out.
What's your favorite flavor for hot summer months?
Definitely sherbet and sorbet products. Whole-fruitsorbets―mango, peach, strawberry, mandarinorange-passionfruit, and coconut―are delightful, healthfulsummertime treats. I like to add a little light vanilla ice creamto 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 creamtaste. That way they're more refreshing and have a lighter texturethan regular ice cream.
Do there seem to be regional flavor preferences?
Absolutely. New Englanders like coffee-based flavors, whileCalifornia and the western states are more into chocolatevariations. Favorites among those in the South and Midwest includebutter pecan and strawberry. Vanilla is still the best-sellerthroughout 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 thecompany, but who would trust a skinny ice cream tester?