STEVE JACKSON, Editor In Chief
It’s a beautiful morning in Rockton. I’ve just ridden my bike into town and now I’m sitting at a red picnic table outside of Dairyhaus, the hometown ice cream parlor. I’ve been to Dairyhaus before—it’s the best ice cream within biking distance of Beloit—but today is a bit different. Today I’m meeting with the owners to learn a bit about the business, and highlight the season opening on Friday, March 30th. And okay, maybe I’m hoping to get a taste of ice cream while I’m at it.
Dairyhaus has been Rockton’s hometown ice cream parlor for 29 years. It is now owned and operated by mother and son team Annie and Brent Murray. A few minutes after I get there, Brent arrives. There’s no mistaking him—he’s Dairyhaus themed. Perched in the driver’s seat of a red convertible Jeep, he wears a red polo with Dairyhaus emblazoned on the chest, and red sneakers to match.
Annie bought Dairyhaus 17 years ago. “My sister and I were getting older, and Mom was looking to do something new,” says Brent.
Annie worked about 12 hours a day during those early years. Her husband would bring her picnic lunches on some days. They’d sit and eat for a while at the red picnic tables on the patio, then it was back to work. It was hard, but it was worth it. “I just knew this is where I’m supposed to be,” says Annie. “It was instant.”
Growing up, Brent and his little sister Kelly helped their mom at the shop during the summer season. “Kelly could barely see over the counter when we first opened,” says Brent. Brent worked every summer at Dairyhaus until age 18, when he left home to attend Northern Illinois University for a degree in English. “Obviously it has nothing to do with running an ice cream shop, but I think the experience was worthwhile,” he says.
After graduating, Brent started down a career path in retail management at Best Buy. “About four years ago, I had to asses, did I want to do the Best Buy run or did I want to take part in the family business?” He chose the latter. For four years now, Annie and Brent have co-owned and managed Dairyhaus. “Looking back, it was a fantastic decision,” says Brent. “To be able to sit there and create the product with the raw goods, and then see the smiles on the kids’ faces…it’s crazy!”
Brent has no culinary training, but he loves experimenting with new flavors—and he’s good at it. This season, he’s introducing a tiramisu flavor, a mix of mascarpone, chocolate coffee ice cream and ladyfingers. He also plans to use produce from Beloit’s farmers market this summer. “We’re going to get some real fresh, local stuff in our ice cream.”
Next year’s Beloit College first-years will get to partake in the creative process as well. Dairyhaus is catering an orientation event and unveiling a new flavor, and new students will get to choose the name.
Despite many years at Dairyhaus, ice cream still hasn’t lost its charm for Brent. “I found out three years ago that I’m lactose intolerant…but it hasn’t even stopped me,” he says. “I love our ice cream. I’m a bit of a food dork—I watch all those TV shows and stuff like that—and I think it’s really important to taste your product before it goes out.”
Today, Annie and Brent will make about 12 buckets of ice cream. The two of them have been spending most of their waking hours together for the last few days, whipping up batches in the tiny back kitchen.
“Today is a chocolate day,” Annie says with a smile, pouring a bucket of thick cream and sugar into the bulky Taylor batch freezer in the corner of the kitchen. This is the first step in the process: mixing the main flavor with the cream. She measures out gobs of unsweetened baking chocolate and plops it in after the cream. She cranks the dial on the front to about 15 minutes, and the freezer emits a deep mechanical hum as the ingredients are flurried together.
“We use premium 14 percent butterfat cream,” explains Brent. Most ice creams only use 10 percent cream. The amount of fat in ice cream has a great influence on its texture and creaminess. Fast food ice cream and shakes—the kind you’d find at McDonald’s—usually have 2 percent cream, which is why it’s all dubbed “soft-serve.”
When the Taylor finishes mixing, Annie opens the spout on the front of the freezer, releasing a thick rope of chocolate ice cream. For some flavors, this is the point for mixing in extras like fresh fruit, cookie dough or caramel—all by hand. “That’s why I’m so strong,” says Annie, flexing her bicep as the chocolate flows into the bucket.
Without a word, Brent swoops in with three disposable spoons and scoops a bite-sized dollop out of the bucket for each of us. I put my camera in my pocket, and wedge my steno pad under my arm. This may be the freshest ice cream I ever taste. It needs my full attention. It’s smooth, rich, and…simple. It’s delicious. Maybe it’s in my head, but I feel like I can taste that extra four percent butter fat. I try to savor it, but my spoon is clean after one taste.
After the quality assurance taste test, it’s on to the next step: “The Beast.” The Beast is a silver, monolithic freezer that towers near the kitchen’s back door. It can take a bucket of ice cream down to negative 25 degrees in one hour. Getting it so cold so quickly prevents crystallization, says Brent. He slips on a pair of mismatched gardening gloves and begins moving buckets from The Beast to the outdoor freezers, clearing space for the incoming batch.
Once the ice cream reaches negative 25 degrees, it has to get back up to zero degrees before it’s ready to serve. The whole process—from the Taylor freezer to a customer’s cone—takes about 48 hours. “It’s about as quick as it possibly can be,” says Brent. Thanks to the small size of the shop and the level of business, supply and demand mesh perfectly, with fresh batches hitting the front freezer about every two days.
Annie and Brent are currently working out a transition, with Brent absorbing more responsibility and Annie taking more time off from the business. Eventually, Annie hopes to retire to Arizona, where she and her husband often go on vacation. Annie and Brent don’t know exactly when the transition will take place—and they’re in no rush. For now, they’ll keep enjoying themselves, playing in the tiny back kitchen and making customers happy one homemade scoop at a time.