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Harrison begins his workday at 7:30 a.m., when his taste buds are in their most objective state. He then spends four to five hours testing around 20 different flavors of ice cream at different stages of production (three samples per flavor/60 samples per day).
“[I]t’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it,” Harrison explains to Cooking Light.
Some additional functions of Harrison’s role have included handing out ice cream samples at supermarkets around the country during ice cream season, which spans from March to September, and serving as a national spokesperson for ice cream, which is the most popular dessert in the U.S.
Ray Karam, another taster with 30-plus years under his belt, as well as an impressive background in food science, has an even more creative role in the industry. As the “tastemaster” for Cold Stone Creamery, Karam is responsible for exhausting the the depths of his imagination in order to create creamy, off-the-wall ice cream concoctions that take molecular gastronomy to new heights.
“I get my inspiration from wherever,” Karam tells The Food Channel. “I’ve done nacho cheese ice cream, beer ice cream, pickles and ice cream in honor of pregnant co-worker.”
While there are certain experiments that didn’t fly (“Coke and popcorn – don’t try to put them together into ice cream! They turn very bitter”) some of his winning credits include Green Apple Gummy Bear Sorbet, which required incorporating “a stabilizer to allow the sorbet to actually be gummy,” according to The Food Channel.
In 2009, Karam somehow invented a JELL-O-based ice cream that “melts” into pudding rather than a puddle of cream.
“I used our sweet cream in place of the milk requirement and scaled it up to our larger batch sizes,” he explains.
“Lo and behold, once we froze it you get this classic JELL-O pudding flavor, and along with it you get this pudding chew to it that’s outstanding. A double whammy! The cool thing about this is when it melts it doesn’t go back to liquid, it goes back to pudding.”
Skills and Qualifications
In addition to a limitless imagination, necessary tools of the ice cream trade include patience, healthy taste buds, and a discerning palate, as tasters are expected to evaluate the nuances of each flavor as objectively as possible in order to ensure quality control. To do this, Harrison opts for tea over coffee each morning in order to neutralize his palate, and even goes so far as to use a gold-plated spoon to avoid the resin aftertaste caused by wood and plastic utensils. “I need to avoid anything that could clog my taste buds,” he says.
Harrison has proven his palate to be so indispensable, in fact, that Dreyer’s insured his taste buds for $1,000,000. Besides his clearly ingenious invention skills (Harrison is responsible for inventing “cookies-and-cream,” according to the Seattle P-I), the high price tag on Harrison’s buds is presumably due to the detailed artistry of his sampling methods.
“I taste with my eyes initially, so if it doesn’t look appetizing, forget the rest of it,” he explains. “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. …I swirl the ice cream around in my mouth to coat all the taste receptacles, and then I spit it out.”
Drawbacks and Occupational Hazards
Brain freeze and potential weight gain, among other things. “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?” Harrison points out.
According to Gehring, another potential drawback is the need to abstain from certain non-ice cream foods.
“Serious ice cream tasters don’t allow themselves to eat anything spicy within twenty-four hours of a taste test,” she writes.
For Harrison, a taxing aspect of the job can also be frequent travel. Though based in sunny California, which seems like a great state for an ice cream taster, he is required travel up to six months of the year to fulfill marketing responsibilities.
With the right training and educational background, a food scientist can earn an average salary of approximately $60,000 a year, according to PayScale data, and ice cream taster salaries can range anywhere between $40,000 and $100,000 a year, according to Extraordinary Jobs in the Food Industry.
In addition to actually getting to say, “I eat ice cream” in response to someone at a cocktail party asking you what you for a living, a common noteworthy perk of the job is an unlimited supply of ice cream.
Unsurprisingly, ice cream testing gigs are in high demand. Harrison grew up in the biz and is essentially ice cream royalty: “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.”
Before landing his current gig at Coldstone, Ray Karam had roles at both Carnation and Nestle, beginning as a microbiology technician before progressing Quality Control and as an Assistant Production Manager positions. Persistence is part of what sealed the deal at Coldstone.
“I pestered them into giving me a job because they didn’t have anybody like me,” he tells The Food Channel. “I was a customer before I worked here – there was one in my neighborhood. I loved the idea that you can go in and customize; you aren’t limited to the grocery store flavors.”
For those who without a familial entree into the dairy business or the courage to simply demand the job, the standard route to becoming a tester is to earn a bachelor’s of science degree in dairy science or food science.
Specific focuses might include chemistry, business, marketing, brand management, and/or product development. (Harrison studied chemistry at Memphis State University, and Karam has a graduate degree in food science).
A formal background in food science is key, according to Harrison. “You’ll learn about ice cream from a nose standpoint,” as he explains in Extraordinary Jobs in the Food Industry, “the appearance, and the texture. Whether something is right or wrong. I know in seconds.”
For someone looking to taste-test the waters (pun intended), or approach ice cream testing as a hobby rather than a full-on career, some manufacturers offer opportunities to serve as novice testers.
For example, ice cream manufacturer Wells invites run-of-the-mill ice cream consumers (in other words, everyone in America), to sign up to be an occasional taste tester, particularly people within driving distance of Le Mars, Iowa. Sessions last around an hour and testers get a minimum of $20 in exchange for their taste buds and their time. You can sign up easily online, here.
How to Get the Job
Secure an apprenticeship with an ice cream manufacturer. If you work hard and play your cards right, a foot in the door, even as only a lowly scoop washer could lead to a role among the ice cream elite.
- Work in an ice-cream parlor (or even a dairy farm) to gain real-life experience in dairy, taste-testing, and business.
- Once you’ve actually snagged the job, keeping your palate in tip top shape is key. Avoid smoking, getting sick, eating spicy foods, or doing anything else that might impact the objectivity and sensitivity of your taste buds.
Dream Jobs are for Dreamers for a Reason
According to Harrison, the most valuable advice of all is, “Sample, sample, sample!” “It’s great to have aspirations, dream, visions,” he notes in Extraordinary Jobs. “Everybody has said for decades I’ve got the best Willy Wonka job in America.”
That being said, Harrison’s taste buds will go into retirement someday, and when they do, the industry will need fresh talent.
“I’m gonna have to hang up the bow tie and gold spoon,” he laments. “We’re not through with our star flavors. There are still others on the horizon and the next generation is going to be those creative people who bring that out.”