Each year in January, Penn State hosts the Ice Cream Short Course at The Nittany Lion Inn. More than 100 students from all over the world flock to central Pennsylvania to absorb the expert knowledge of Dr. Bob Roberts and his team. Some of the students are from recognizable names in the industry, such as Baskin-Robbins and Ben and Jerry’s, while others are entrepreneurs, representing smaller, family-owned businesses.
Now in its 126th year, the course has graduated thousands, and those graduates frequently send their employees or colleagues back to Penn State to take the course as well. So, what’s made this annual short course so successful?
According to Roberts, there are a variety of facets factoring into the course’s success.
“We teach a very practical and applied course in ice cream manufacturing,” he said. “We cover, as we say, from cow to cone, so people understand how what happens with the cows affects the product, how milk affects the product, we talk about all the ingredients, all the processes, put that all together, to make this finished product — ice cream.”
In other words, he said, laughing, they’re taking the fun out of ice cream.
“I think one of the other reasons we’ve been successful is that we’ve evolved to meet the ongoing needs of the industry. We’re aware of current technologies, both in the ingredients and the manufacturing equipment ...,” Roberts said. “We take the responsibility of making ice cream seriously. Sometimes people think it’s funny that we’re ‘Ice Cream U’ or that ice cream is that complicated a subject, but the fact of the matter is, ice cream encapsulates all of food science and technology in one product. It involves formulation, sourcing, manufacturing, batching, pasteurizing, homogenization, separation and all of the techniques that are used in diary product processing.”
Since Roberts took over the course in 1999, trends in the ice cream industry have come and gone, but those have been easily addressed as well.
“When I took (the course) over in the late 1990s, it was (the trend to) get the fat out, (to make) low-fat ice cream. We looked at ways to process (ice cream) to reduce fat, what ingredients you could use to reduce fat, how you could make a reduced-fat product. That was the focus,” he said. “A little bit later on, it was Atkins and South Beach and low-sugar diets. Now, we’ve seen trends toward all-natural. People want to know why ingredients are in a product … we’ve seen a lot of work in clean labels. This year, we’re adding an hour and a half on non-dairy products, because over the last five or six years I’ve seen a tremendous interest in the growth of non-dairy frozen desserts.”
One change Roberts did bring to the course was the addition of Ice Cream 101. Created for entrepreneurs and small-business owners with little or no ice cream manufacturing experience, it runs for three days and scales down the information offered in the traditional short course to meet the needs of smaller operations.
Regardless of which course he’s teaching, though, Roberts find the most rewarding aspect of his job is simply the people he gets to teach. During the short course, each participant is asked to define their “ice cream dream,” and whether they’re looking to advance in their career at a larger manufacturing plant or just open an ice cream operation of their own, Roberts said it’s particularly rewarding to help them try to achieve that dream.
It seems Roberts has certainly managed to achieve his own. A son of a milkman, he started out in a laboratory at the University of Vermont working on dairy science-related problems in high school, then working for HP Hood in college. Finding his passion for the research side of dairy, he earned his Bachelor of Science in dairy technology, Master of Science in diary science and doctorate in food science, working primarily in dairy microbiology. When the opportunity arose in ’99 to take responsibility for the Penn State Ice Cream Short Course, he said sure and hasn’t looked back since.
Of course, with all that talk about ice cream, a little eating is in order. When Roberts visits Penn State Berkey Creamery, his flavor of choice is Keeney Beany.
Holly Riddle is a freelance food, travel and lifestyle writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.