In the grey, pre-dawn light of a hot July day, the narrow wheels of a truck crunch down a gravel back road in northern Indiana. In post-war 1920’s America, The Valparaiso Home Ice Company’s daily deliveries are returning a sense of normality to life. Blocks of ice for the ice chest, cool bottles of milk, and perhaps a carton of ice cream for after dinner. These simple treats waiting in small tin coolers on porches will make the humid summer days of prohibition-era life in northern Indiana slightly more tolerable.
Fast forward a few decades. The Second World War has ended and an ambitious young man by the name of Herb Brown is ready to pursue a life-long dream. Herb is the son of Swiss immigrants and grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin. He earned his degree in Dairy Science and is knocking around the ice cream business in Chicago as a production manager, but he wants something more. A business of his own. One that will focus on crafting quality ice cream and perhaps provide for future generations of his family. So, in 1947 he moves to the sleepy town of Valparaiso, Indiana to make this dream happen. He buys the small home ice company located there and begins selling his personally developed ice cream varieties as Valpo Velvet Ice Cream.
In the following decades the business grows for Herb and his brother, Gordon, who had joined him in 1949. As the flower power movement starts to blow into nearby Valparaiso University, Herb and Gordon decide to get out of the home ice business all together and focus exclusively on their ice cream. They further commit to this goal in the seventies when they sell off their dairy business. By this time, Valpo Velvet has grown steadily and built a reputation as one of the few remaining hand-crafters of ice cream left in America. They continue to make their product the old-fashioned way in an industry that has shifted it’s focus to automation and sacrificed quality for quantity. Today, Gordon’s sons, Mike and Mark Brown, carry on this tradition and are reintroducing people to what ice cream was like before it was made down to a price.
The Old Ways Live On
Making ice cream at Valpo Velvet requires a strong back, a mind for numbers, and a dedication to craft. Knowing how to repair decades old equipment and keep the complex, ammonia-based, absorption cooler humming doesn’t hurt either. Mike Brown is more than up to the task though. He has a little grey in his short cropped hair these days, but his height and solid build hide his age well. Gentleman and factory worker in one, he is a man with a keen head for business who also isn’t scared of a hard day’s work. When we met him, still scruffy from a rare morning of fishing, his wife, and our tour guide, Cathy Brown, introduced us and swooned, just a little, in doing so. She and her kids work in the ice cream parlor that occupies the front of the building, and Mike and his brother Mark, do their work in the back, which is where our tour began.
In the warehouse, Cathy explains that to keep quality high and costs reasonable, each step in the process is done in-house, by hand. This includes everything from assembling their own containers, to making only small batches of ice cream at a time, to delivering the final product themselves. Mike and Mark watch over every step of the process like hawks and know intuitively when it’s time to move on to the next step in the process. While the warehouse is stacked to the ceiling with cartons and other supplies, what isn’t there is pallets of ingredients. Mike insists that everything be as fresh as possible, so there are few ingredients sitting around, waiting to be used. Instead, there is a single forty eight inch square skid, stacked six feet high with fifty pound bags sugar. This will be used the following day to make their ice cream mix.
These days, all large ice cream makers, and even most small and medium-size outfits, begin with a pre-made ice cream mix they buy from a dairy. The problem is, the quality of that mix can vary, which will, of course, influence the quality of the ice cream. Valpo Velvet’s solution is to make their own by mixing hundreds of gallons cream, from Pleasant View Dairy in Highland, Indiana, and hundreds of pounds sugar into a massive tank. Pleasant View calls Mike ahead of time with the fat content of the cream they will be sending. With this information he can fine tune the other ingredients in each batch with a formula his father developed.
Their production room is small and tiled with white glazed bricks used in dairies and slaughterhouses. It’s cool and clean and there is the faint scent of milk mixing with whiffs of ammonia from the freezer. Besides the ice cream equipment, there is an ancient industrial scale along one wall, and a large wash basin along another with numerous tiny parts from one of the machines laid out on a towel to dry. It’s dark and quiet now, but Cathy says it gets quite loud when everything is up and running.
With his sugar and cream calculations made, Mike begins the process of making ice cream by carrying dozens of fifty pound bags of sugar from the warehouse, and dozens of equally heavy cartons of cream from the walk-in refrigerator, to the mix tank in the production room. It’s a march he and Mark repeat for each batch of ice cream they make, and it’s the same march their father did before them. Once the tank is filled, and the ingredients are happily swirling, the mix is pasteurized by bringing the temperature up to 150° and holding it there for thirty minutes.
Most pasteurization only lasts thirty seconds, but the extra time Valpo Velvet invests is more evidence of their uncompromising stance on doing things the right way. From there, all 500 gallons of the freshly made mix is pumped through a homogenizer. This little machine’s job is to separate the larger globs of fat out and get the mix to a silky smooth texture. If they are making chocolate based ice cream, they will add cocoa to this mix, another step virtually no other ice cream makers still do. Finally, the mix is cooled to 45° and left to set over night. The brothers' day is far from over though. Before heading home, they tear down all the equipment not in use and spend a solid two and a half hours cleaning every nut, washer, pipe, fitting, and surface.
The next day, the two are up early again assembling cartons and checking the temperature in the flavor tank. When everything is ready, they begin passing the mix into the flavor tank which adds flavors, rapidly freezes it, and extrudes it into cartons. Even a seemingly insignificant step in the process, like filling the cartons is still done by hand. They have to be on their toes though, because once the finished ice cream starts coming out, there is no stopping the process. As one person fills containers, they are passed down a table to another person who puts on the lids. From there they are handed through a small door in the refrigerator to another snowsuit clad worker who stacks them upside down in the deep freezer.
Cathy says they typically break down the 1000 gallons of frozen mix into 100 gallon batches of ice cream. Most of that goes into gallon and half-gallon cartons which are then trucked to grocery stores across most of northeast Indiana. One final distinction of Valpo Velvet is that when you buy a gallon, or half-gallon, of their ice cream, you get exactly that. They have not resorted to sly marketing tricks like shrinking their packaging or artificially increasing the amount of air in their product. They encourage people to pick up a true half-gallon of Valpo Velvet, and a “half-gallon” from any of their competitors at the grocery store. The difference in weight is dramatic and more than makes up for slightly higher price.
The outcome of all the heavy lifting, calculations, and attention to detail is richly flavorful ice cream that truly has a unique velvety texture. The first time we were fortunate enough to sample some, we were amazed at it’s density and smoothness. We have had great ice cream all across the midwest, and we have yet to discover any other brand that comes close to Valpo Velvet. “I think it’s the perfect recipe in the way that we have control over all the steps,” Cathy said. Mike knows that he made it completely from scratch, and that Mark took it from the freezer, put it on the truck, and delivered it.
As a result of all their hard work, the Browns have built on an already devoted customer base in Valparaiso. They have also been able to expand their reach into Chicago where you can find their ice cream at Whole Foods. If they compromised on any one step in the process, Valpo Velvet would merely be another very good ice cream. Clearly, those trade-offs will never be made as long as Mike and his family are running Valpo Velvet. They know they aren’t just making ice cream, they are carrying on a family tradition that stretches back ninety years, and are doing so with intent and pride.