Sweet Science Ice Cream's good chemistry
At first blush, a cup of tea and a scoop of ice cream don't have much in common, but at Verdant Tea Tasting Room & Tea Bar in Seward the two are living together in perfect harmony.
Since mid-July, Verdant has become the official production site and exclusive storefront of Sweet Science Ice Cream, a small artisan company behind some the best ice cream in the Twin Cities. Already known for elegant but intense flavors like pear-Reisling sorbet, soft salted caramel, roasted banana sherbet, and subtle olive oil ice cream, Sweet Science's owner Ashlee Olds is now drawing flavor inspiration from her product's new home.
"It was really fun to develop a chai tea ice cream, but it was also a challenge," says Olds, who uses a chai blend Verdant Tea created especially for her. David Duckler, president and co-owner of Verdant Tea, and his wife, Lily, make this unique blend from Chinese tea leaves and about 23 other components. "We had to remake the chai specifically for this ice cream because the way flavors work in water is very different than how they work in fat," Duckler explains.
The two also recently created a matcha green tea milkshake made from Laoshung village green tea leaves air shipped from a 15-acre farm in China. "It arrives here five days after it's picked, and we stone grind it here on the premises," says Duckler.
"Then we blend that with the Sweet Science vanilla base and a little ice to make it extra refreshing even for a hot day," Olds jumps in. "It's pretty cool for both of us to be able to deliver both of our products in a way we were never able to before."
Prior to teaming up with Verdant, Sweet Science held monthly tasting events in what Olds describes as "a sort of desolate warehouse" on Pierce Butler. The tastings had become a secret society for ice cream fanatics, so Olds felt she needed to look outside the cloak-and-dagger model to reach a larger audience.
"People knew where to go to find me, but I felt like my limited distribution was holding me back," says Olds. "Basically I needed to be more available somewhere that was more convenient to more customers."
As for how Olds ended up working with Duckler, the connection was more foodie kismet than business plan. Verdant Tea and Sweet Science were both separately invited to speak at the Heavy Table's annual North Coast Nosh pre-Nosh event.
"We were seated next to each other and realized that our food philosophies were really the same," says Duckler. "We both love taste and texture and aroma and sweetness, and that's something present in both tea and ice cream."
A couple of caffeinated and sugared-up meetings later, the two were officially in business together and starting to figure out how to combine their respective products.
Taking on new partnerships was not at all a foreign concept to Duckler. He started Verdant as an online company and quickly transformed it into a full-blown community center with morning meditation and Qijong, a small but satisfactory farm-to-table menu by Birchwood Cafe, honey from the Beez Kneez, and truffles and handmade bars by the Real Deal Chocolate. Come late September he'll be partnering with chef Nate Uri to do an evening menu of soba noodles, dumplings, and other Asian street food inspired by Uri's travels to Japan, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. He'll also be making the micro-brewed kombucha that Verdant will have on tap — a first for the Twin Cities.
As fun as it is for the two to dream up new concoctions and savor the end results, the middle part of the process is painstaking, careful, and for Olds, very scientific. "You have to know what is inherent in each of these ingredients, what they are programmed to do on their own, and how they react when they're combined."
A chemist's precision is key, but what really elevates Sweet Science ice cream is the purity of flavor, a direct result of Olds's meticulous ingredient sourcing. "I make what I consider to be the healthiest, cleanest possible version of ice cream out there. So that means no stabilizers, no high fructose corn syrup, no preservatives — nothing that's not real, whole ingredients."
Not only does Olds focus on whole, simple base ingredients, such as the organic dairy products from Castle Rock in Osseo, Wisconsin, and sugar from Wholesome Sweeteners in Texas, she teams up with local companies and purveyors whenever possible for her seasonal flavors. The spices come from Penzey's; she uses olive oil and balsamic vinegars from Vinaigrette on Xerxes; she makes her stout oat crunch with Fulton's Worthy Adversary, her one and only flavor that isn't entirely gluten-free; and her exceptional end-of-summer sweet corn blueberry is made with hand-picked fruit from a farm in Wisconsin.
As exacting as she is, Olds admits that there is a certain amount of trial and error involved in getting the right combinations, but the details of that process are kept under wraps. She speaks obliquely of the secret to her rhubarb cinnamon almond, which will be available in April, and offers a masterful layering of creamy and crunchy textures with tart, spicy, and sweet undertones.
"That one started out as a hibiscus frozen yogurt, actually," says Olds. "I worked on it a lot with my assistant, Mary Howard, who has a degree in food science, and we did a lot of tinkering with it. We got the cinnamon in there, and I liked the woodiness and how it played with the rhubarb but didn't overpower it."
This fall, some of Sweet Science's greatest hits will return to the lineup, including the caramel-apple cider crisp made with organic Honeycrisp apple cider, and one of Olds's personal favorites, the custard-laced pecan pie made with a rich cognac-vanilla base. In the meantime, she's already got her eye toward warmer weather, working on a peach cobbler flavor as well as a summer camping standby.
"We want to do a s'mores ice cream," she says. "But one that stays true to our style, so that means hand-torching our own homemade marshmallows, using gluten-free graham crackers, the whole nine."
For a budding local business, the temptation to prize volume over quality is always present. But Olds and Duckler aren't interested.
"My goal has always been to make a really thoughtful product," says Olds. "I don't take any shortcuts, even if there is room for them."
Duckler's motivation comes from what he says is a combination of accountability and positivity. "It definitely takes a leap and you have to be a little stupid to look at the number and think it's still going to work. But I promised these family farmers I would share their tea, and their stories, and traditions, and at the same time I'm meeting a need in my hometown. If you are willing to put in the time, people will take care of you."
Both Olds and Duckler, and their respective products, are shining examples of what happens when craft meets passion and process is held in the highest regard. These reverently ground and brewed teas and superb, small-batch ice creams are worth seeking out.
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