Posted: December 3, 2015

How the 150-year-old Penn State institution helped build a global industry.


Every year, Bob Roberts, head of Penn State's Ice Cream Short Course, makes a sweatshirt featuring the names of the home states and countries of all the participants. “It's people from all over the world," says Roberts, who is also a professor and head of the food science department. “We've had every state in the country except North Dakota. And, really, every continent besides Antarctica."

While the sweatshirt offers a tangible representation of the wide impact of the Penn State Berkey Creamery—which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year—its influence beyond campus is often overlooked. To students and alumni, the place represents tradition. It's where they took a break from classes in those halcyon days on campus. It's where they head to when they come back for football games or reunions.

But in the world that those short-course attendants return to—a global marketplace of multimillion-dollar corporations and bustling startups—the Creamery is a bastion of ice cream intelligentsia. A storied grandfather of America's most famous frozen treat. A place where fun is born of serious science.

The Creamery's Roots

The roots of the Creamery are humble. Operations began in 1865—just 10 years after Farmers' High School (Penn State's original incarnation) was established—in a building behind where present-day Old Main stands and that it shared with a hayloft and a blacksmith shop. “It was very modest," says Tom Palchak, Berkey Creamery manager. In the early days, the facility would take the milk from a small herd of dairy cows, churn it into butter, and deliver it to the dormitories above Old Main. “It was basically a small dairy plant used to provide food to students at Farmers' High School," says Palchak. “It was practical." Students‚ usually 10 to 15 at a time, according to historical photos, would busy themselves in the Creamery, testing for milkfat content and researching the efficacy of different bottle types. Early research focused on bacteriology, studying the effects that various organisms had on the food. “This eventually gave way to studies on the effect of light and pasteurization," says Palchak.

Photo credit: The Pennsylvania State University Archives

Ice cream didn't become a focus until decades later. When the Creamery's Ice Cream Short Course launched in 1892, the market for the product was limited, due in large part to a lack of widespread freezer technology. Early course attendants were usually confectioners looking to diversify, as their chocolate sales tended to drop off in the summer months, says Arun Kilara, who headed up the short course from 1985 to 1999 and now works as principal of Nutri+Food Business Consultants. “And then they found ice cream was more profitable than confection."

The Rise of Ice Cream

Once refrigeration technology became more widespread in the 1920s and 1930s, the availability of ice cream increased and its price dropped. “It quickly became a commodity," says Palchak. By 1922, the Creamery was producing 10,000 gallons of it annually. Chester Dahle, who took over the short course in 1924, worked extensively on new ice cream formulas—the ingredients and how they should be processed. “Ice cream is an emulsion," says Palchak—a delicate balance of milk, water, ice, flavors, and fats. “Dahle was working on how to keep all that in suspension. He made great efforts in that research."  

As the availability grew, an industry sprung up. By 1929, Americans were consuming nine quarts of ice cream annually; by 1946, it had risen to 20 quarts. During the dairy boom of the 1930s, the Creamery moved to Borland Lab and expanded. “It became a very modern milk-processing plant, with six delivery vehicles," says Palchak. “There were as many as five to six maintenance men at one point."

The Science Behind the Confection

As demand for ice cream increased, Penn State researchers worked on the science that would allow for wider distribution of the product. Key among these innovators was Phil Keeney, former Creamery director and head of the short course from 1955 to 1985. (Keeney's expertise once earned him the nickname “The Emperor of Ice Cream" from People magazine.) “Phil determined the role of emulsifiers in ice cream," says Kilara. “That was pioneering. Before that, no one knew why we needed them." (Emulsifiers help blend the unblendable; in the case of ice cream, the milkfat and water.) Keeney's work on corn syrup solids had a dramatic effect on lengthening the shelf life of ice cream, enabling it to find its way to market freezers in the farthest reaches of the country. “This is important because, by then, the distribution chain was stretching more than before, and the product was being shipped over longer distances," says Kilara.

Phil Keeney, former Creamery director, was known as "The Emperor of Ice Cream." Photo credit: The Pennsylvania State University Archives

During Kilara's tenure in the mid-1980s, consumer demands shifted, and the Creamery focused on the production of low-fat and no-fat products. “We needed changes in technology," says Kilara, who notes that it spurred research into the use of “intense sweeteners" (i.e., sugar substitutes like Equal) and fat mimics. Corporate partnerships with the likes of Weight Watchers allowed their work to quickly go from bench to market. “Products were made under commercial conditions and stored under commercial conditions, so you had a pretty good idea what would happen from the field. This was not only scientific, it was practical." Current short course director Roberts also notes the University's ongoing partnership with the International Dairy Foods Association and its work with the National Ice Cream Mix Association. “If someone is interested in testing a new ingredient, they may ask us," says Roberts. “If they have a new formula that they want to try, we can do that for them."

Educating the Masters

As Happy Valley became a go-to spot for ice cream makers who had questions about formulations and recipes, the short course started seeing participants from the world's biggest brands looking to hone their craft—from Häagen-Daz to Baskin-Robbins to Dreyer's. “I think education has been one of our primary contributions to the industry," says Roberts. “Ice cream is made with very simple ingredients, but not necessarily with the necessary stability and consistency. That requires a lot of science and technology." The rise of Ben & Jerry's—whose founders, Jerry Greenfield and Ben Cohen, famously credit the Creamery's correspondence-course version of the short course in 1978 for helping them perfect their early recipes—spurred a new wave of ice cream entrepreneurs. “The attendants varied with the economic cycle," says Kilara. “When there was industry consolidation and fewer large ice cream manufacturers, more entrepreneurs would start attending the course." During Roberts's tenure, the Creamery launched the Ice Cream 101 Short Course, created specifically for smaller businesses and startups, to meet a growing demand.

The long-term business effect of the Creamery is immeasurable, says Kilara. “I think that the industry, whether they know it or not, is using practices and recommendations that were invented at Penn State," says Kilara. And those who do know about Penn State's history have the Creamery on speed-dial. “They still call Penn State when they run into trouble and ask, 'What can we do about this?'"

Modern Tastes

That “trouble" is usually the result of changing consumer tastes. Recent research, says Roberts, is responding to a consumer desire for high-protein options. “They're mindful of carbohydrates and they're mindful of fats, but they're really interested in that protein—to the point where, in some case, you're really going after something that's more a bodybuilding-type product." During Roberts's early tenure at the Creamery, consumers had moved on from trying to get fat out of the dish—now they wanted the sugar out, too, thanks in large part to the rising popularity of low-carb diets. “My contention is that if we take the fat out and then we take the sugar out, we might as well give you an ice cube, because there's not a whole lot else left," says Roberts with a laugh.

Ice cream of the bodybuilding or body-slimming varieties isn't likely something the early Farmers' High School Creamery students could fathom 150 years ago, but those pioneers paved the way for innovation, says Palchak. “We stand on very broad shoulders," he says. “We enjoy the fruits of their work and their blood, sweat, and tears." Specifically, Palchak says, the nine-year-old Food Science Building and Berkey Creamery. “But we got here because of work in Borland and Patterson and humble beginnings in a small barn. The link is unbroken."

Tom Palchak (right), current Penn State Berkey Creamery manager, works with a student. Photo credit: Jason Jones

—Dan Morrell