Photos by Adam Detour
Everyone has an ice-cream story—not just brain freezes, but some memory of eating ice cream with a special person. Perhaps it’s a hot fudge sundae shared with a favorite grandparent when you were a child, or that time a friend brought you ice cream to soothe your heartache after your first breakup. Ice cream isn’t just a universally favorite food, it is a series of rituals and celebrations frozen in time.
Yet, according to the National Institute of Health, two-thirds of the global population can’t eat ice cream without getting sick because they are lactose intolerant, and among them are an estimated 30–50 million Americans. Because the condition tends to run genetically and along ethnic lines, the fastest-growing populations in the U.S. are also the groups most likely to suffer from lactose intolerance: 75% of African and Indian Americans and 90% of Asian Americans don’t produce enough lactase, the digestive enzyme that breaks down lactose, which is the sugar in dairy products. Not all of these people are born with the condition; an estimated 60% of all adults stop producing lactase as they mature. This is a problem in a culture that relies heavily on dairy products for key nutrients and, in the case of ice cream, for enriching life experiences.
When Katy Flannery realized at the age of 18 that she was no longer able to enjoy ice cream, she felt she was missing out on important social experiences. In her words, “Ice cream for me is nostalgic, emotional.” She goes on to explain that often, rather than miss out on a special outing with family or friends, she would join in and eat the ice cream, knowing that afterwards she would have to disappear to cope with her symptoms.
Katy was determined to find a way to enjoy ice cream again. Armed with two years of organic chemistry from her time at nursing school, she turned to her home ice cream maker to develop a base that would include ingredients like milk, cream and eggs that give ice cream its tongue-coating feel. Katy continued to experiment until she finally got to a process that virtually eliminated lactose from the finished product. Like other ice creams in the category, she added lactase into the recipe for an enzyme boost to break down the lactose, but unlike other lactose-free frozen desserts, her result is a rich, high-end ice cream with no added gums or corn syrup.
Then it was time to experiment with natural flavors. “We wanted it to be a luxurious ice cream, every bit as enjoyable as other premium brands—the kind of ice cream you could proudly bring as a gift to someone’s home,” says Katy. “Vanilla is the hardest—it takes a lot of experimentation, but we use a double-fold Madagascar bourbon vanilla [made with twice the vanilla beans] because it has the richness of flavor we are looking for.”
Katy eventually teamed up with her college friend, Gwen Burlingame, and these two fresh-faced entrepreneurs churned up pints and pints of ice cream in Boston’s Commonwealth Kitchen. They enlisted friends and family to help with production and packaging. They managed their own distribution from a freezer strapped to the bed of an old pickup truck. The two founders laugh as they recount imposing scrupulously sterile medical-grade preparation practices on their helpers. There was the boyfriend who volunteered for a Saturday morning labeling party only to be informed that his germy coffee mug would not be allowed in the kitchen.
The team earned early distribution at local independent stores and finally scored a spot in regional Whole Foods and Roche Brothers stores under the original company name, Minus The Moo. When asked about the recent name change to Beckon, Katy admits the first name was a mistake. She says, “Minus The Moo missed the mark because it was perceived as being just another ice cream substitute, not the rich dairy ice cream we were making.” In the last several years, there has been a strong trend towards milk substitutes, with an ongoing debate about what can be called “milk.” Nut- and soy-based milk-like liquids have gained substantial popularity in recent years, but the taste is decidedly not the same as cow’s milk, and the products made with these ingredients are, in Katy’s mind, an inadequate substitute for the rich, premium ice cream she craved.
“The name change was painful, but now that we have made the switch, I feel better about it. With Beckon, we are calling you back to real ice cream.”
Beckon is now a team of three women (all Villanova University graduates) working full time out of their office in Allston. So far this year, they have produced 44,000 pints. ’The ingredient list is refreshingly short and simple. The vanilla ice cream contains cream, milk (vitamin D3), non-GMO pure cane sugar, egg yolks, vanilla extract, salt and lactase. The milk is hormone-free and sourced from 100% farmer-owned co-ops in the Northeast—an important distinction as dairy farmers continue to feel the squeeze of a four-year price dip that has many farms operating below break-even. All other ingredients are sourced as locally as possible.
Today, Beckon ice cream comes in five flavors: Espresso, Chocolate, Mint Chip, Sea Salt Chocolate Chip and Vanilla. The team is testing new flavors this fall and will introduce two new options in 2019. Pints are available online and at Roche Brothers, Whole Foods and independent grocers and stores from Maine to Virginia.
Having spent her career as a marketing consultant working with Boston-area entrepreneurs, Alison Moore writes about creative food endeavors in the Greater Boston area. Alison is an ardent cook who enjoys entertaining family and friends at the home she shares with her husband in Wayland, MA.