Brian Smith of Fort Greene started selling his Ample Hills made-from-scratch artisanal ice cream from a pushcart at Celebrate Brooklyn last year, and many a bandshell concertgoer found themselves a little startled at just how good the stuff was. Devotees of his wildly imaginative and well-executed flavors kept coming back for more, so Brian decided to take things to the next level.
He’s busy putting the finishing touches on a brand new Ample Hills ice cream parlor (and actual dairy plant) that’s set to open on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights in April. We met with him last week to find out what sets Ample Hills apart.
Brian, tell us about Ample Hills. What do you do differently, and what’s the whole dairy plant masquerading as an ice cream parlor thing all about?
So 95% of ice cream makers and shops buy pre-made dairy mix that they then just add flavors to. An ice cream mix is basically milk, cream, sugar and eggs (if you use eggs). What we’ll be doing differently is actually making our own mix, our own base, completely from scratch in the actual shop.
Because of that, we’re actually going to be classified by the Department of Agriculture as a dairy plant. We’re the only ice cream shop anywhere in Manhattan or Brooklyn doing it completely from scratch this way.
So why does that matter? Aside from being cool, of course…Does it affect the flavor?
It matters for a few different reasons. First is freshness. Making our own ice cream, including the base mix, from scratch allows us to make the freshest possible ice cream anywhere other than if they made it on the farm. We get milk and cream and eggs that are no more than a day or two old. I get it, pasteurize it at the shop, make it into ice cream, and put it out in the case…all within a few days of it coming out of the cow.
A lot of the pre-made bagged mixes that most ice cream makers use are frozen or dehydrated, so we’ll definitely have the freshest ice cream you can get.
Maybe even more important than freshness is flavor and texture. Because we make our own base mix in-house, we can tailor our base to each specific flavor. We can create our own ratios of cream and sweetness in the base to work specifically with each of our flavors.
For example, I make a Maple Bacon ice cream, and I use all-natural maple syrup and candied bacon. Maple Syrup is almost entirely water. If I simply add that to a pre-made mix, I’m going to get a very icy consistency, so if I were using a pre-made mix, I’d probably have to use a pre-made flavor syrup in order to get a consistency that people would like. By starting from scratch I can use real, local grade B maple syrup and still end up with a really creamy consistency by adjusting the base mix to compensate for all the water we’re adding in the maple syrup – basically, I add more cream to the base mix.
Same would go for my Salt Caramel flavor. When I’m adding the caramel, I’m adding tons of sugar to the ice cream. By making it from scratch I can adjust the amount of sugar in the base mix to compensate for all the sugar in the caramel I’m adding. Someone using a pre-made mix can’t do that.
We’re doing 24 flavors, so I can do 24 base mixes if we need to.
So our approach – making it all from scratch is important from a freshness and flavor perspective, and I think it’s also important from an artisanal perspective. I want to make ice cream from scratch, with the freshest natural ingredients I can find. If I’m using a pre-made mix, it’s like I’m starting the race halfway to the finish line. It’s just not really a purely artisanal product if you make it that way.
The other thing that’s unique about Ample Hills will be that the whole ice cream making process will be totally on display to the public. We have a big window on the kitchen with a step up for kids, and we have signs posted explaining exactly what’s happening at each stage…what each machine is doing. I want kids, and adults, to be able to see and understand exactly how the stuff is made – what’s happening at each stage in the process. I think that’s important. I want to bring the same sort of attention to detail and transparency to ice cream that’s occurred with coffee and chocolate over the past few years.
Tell me about your ingredients. Where do you get your milk and cream?
We’ve been getting our milk and cream from Battenkill Valley Creamery, and we’ll definitely continue using their milk, but I’m not sure they’ll have enough cream for us. If that’s the case we’ll work with Hudson Valley Fresh or Natural by Nature for cream. We’ll only ever work with small local natural dairies. A lot of smaller farms can’t afford to be certified organic, but we only use milk and cream from small farms using organic practices. We get our eggs from Feather Ridge Farm – a small local farm with cage free chickens.
Of course, making everything from scratch, sourcing ingredients from small local farmers, and using all-natural and housemade ingredients whenever possible means that our ice cream is by far the most expensive to make in the city. But we’re hoping to keep the retail price down by selling lots of it!
Tell us about your fund-raising campaign.
As often happens, everything has cost a lot more than we anticipated, so we’re hoping to raise a little money to offset some of those cost overruns.
We set up a campaign on a website called Indie GoGo. It’s like pre-paying for ice cream. If someone donates $10 now, they’ll get a gift certificate for $10 worth of ice cream to use at the shop.
I like the name. How did you come up with it?
I’ve always loved Walt Whitman. In his poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, which he wrote in 1856, he has a line, “I too lived. Brooklyn of ample hills was mine.” The poem is all about connections between people across time…how similar all our hopes and dreams are, and how much we have in common. I just loved the line and the poem, so we decided to call our shop Ample Hills Creamery.
And when do you open your doors?
In April. April 19 is the date we’re locked into. There’s a lot of hard work still to do, but we’ll get there!