Longtime ice-cream lover Albert Straus initiated Straus Creamery's move into organic ice cream. IJ photos/Frankie Frost

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7/17/2003

Cold comfort
By Rick Polito, IJ reporter


ALBERT STRAUS has been taking his work home with him.

By the pint.

"I've always had a thing for ice cream," says the West Marin dairyman, known for high-quality organic milk and cheeses. Now he can scoop into a carton with the family name right on the side. Holding Dutch chocolate, raspberry, and vanilla with bits of organic vanilla beans, the pints started popping up on the shelves of markets like Whole Foods and Good Earth in Fairfax last month.

The ice cream may be new, but Straus' fascination with the frozen treat is older than the creamery he operates. "It was Albert's dream and the reason to go into the dairy business," says sister Vivien Straus, recalling how her brother would plop down with a spoon and a 5-gallon carton of creamy goodness. Albert Straus confesses to the 5-gallon binges, but, he says, he wasn't a kid. "It was actually after college," he admits.

But making ice cream on a large scale is a real trick. Anybody can bring home an electric ice cream maker and crank up a batch of memorable French vanilla, but producing a consistent quality in the hundreds of gallons and making an ice cream that can stand up to transport and temperature swings is a bit more involved.

Faced with a cycle of freezing-thawing-refreezing, most ice-cream mass producers shore up their dessert concoctions with gums, emulsifiers and "stabilizers," Straus says. That's not acceptable for Straus Creamery. Straus didn't want to see anything on the label with more than two syllables. "I don't even know what polysorbate is," he says.

He knew Haagen-Dazs left out the "junk," but he didn't know how they did it. "They don't share any information," he says, adding that their ice cream may be tasty, but "it's not organic."

And then there were the flavors. They had to be organic, too. The Straus family has been raising dairy cows since 1941, but there are no cocoa groves or vanilla vines out back of the Creamery. Everything that goes into the ice cream had to come from a certified organic source. Straus had to find those sources. "It took me a good year to find the cocoas and vanilla," he says.

The equipment is also complicated. It's ice cream, so it has to be refrigerated, and not just refrigerated but "hardened" at 30 degrees below zero. And you can't pour it like milk. The big clanking "auto rotary filler" plopping pintfuls of Dutch chocolate into round cartons is a contraption of science-fair complexity.

There were more than a few challenges.

"I wanted to try to make something that's high quality and simple, no additives, no junk," Straus says. "It took me a year to figure out what works and what doesn't."

But with a little help from a professor of dairy science he knew from his days at California Polytechnic State University, where "ice cream making" is a college-level course, Straus came up with the recipes and a process. Five years after he started buying the equipment and a year after the first test batches, he started making ice cream to sell.

Kim Labao was one of the first "lab rats" and one of the first customers. "They're organic, and they're local," says the owner of Indian Peach Food Co., inside the barnlike Tomales Bay Food in Point Reyes Station.

Labao, who serves the ice cream in her shop, likes the texture. "The chocolate is really smooth and chocolate-y," says Labao, who has childhood memories of watching Albert Straus eat massive quantities of ice cream. "I'd never seen somebody eat that kind of volume of ice cream," she says.

The volume has gone up since then.

The first bulk batches went to restaurants last year. The pints showed up on shelves last month. Straus estimates that the two 500-gallon mixers are stirring up 15,000 to 20,000 pints a week.

For most people that might be enough ice cream, maybe even too much ice cream, but certainly enough to satisfy the craving.

Straus is not most people when it comes to ice cream.

His taste for icebox treats has shown no signs of relenting. Now, with his own brand and the confidence in the 100-percent-organic tag, Straus is making ice cream the cornerstone of his diet. "Ice cream, salad and coffee," he says of his daily menu. "I've lost 20 pounds."

Most days that means a full pint, or more. Having just three flavors to choose from doesn't seem to be a problem. He really likes the Dutch chocolate. "I like anything with chocolate," he says.

And while he never cheats on his own brand, he is open to occasional "comparisons." One of his favorites is Fairfax Scoop, where the ice cream maker uses Straus products as a base. "Sometimes I'll stop in and see what Ray (Martin, the owner) has got mixed up," Straus says.

But mostly it's his own brand. He can go downstairs from the office and grab pints right out of the deep freeze. When he's home, it's even simpler. The typical home stash is around "six pints," he says.

Albert Straus is taking his work home with him.

"It's what's for breakfast," he says.

Contact Rick Polito at polito@ marinij.com.