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Connoisseur tests Utah ice cream

Industry’s consolidated over 45 years, he says

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John Harrison walks down the frozen foods aisle at Dan's grocery store and points to the products owned by the company for which he works, Dreyer's Ice Cream.

In addition to the Dreyer's Girl Scouts, American Idol, Slow Churned, Dibs and frozen-fruit-pop brands, Harrison's company owns all frozen desserts made by Haagen-Dazs, The Skinny Cow, Starbucks and Nestle.

Locally, Dreyer's bought Snelgrove Ice Cream in 1989 and stopped making the brand a month ago.

Ice cream — like cosmetics, media and telecommunications — has become a highly consolidated industry, says Harrison, 65, a taste tester for Dreyer's who grew up in the ice-cream business.

Harrison — who lives near Oakland, Calif. — describes his job as a cross between wine connoisseur and "circuit-riding preacher." He's had the position for the past 26 years, and it brought him to Dan's in Foothill Village on Wednesday.

"We've got five new flavors this year with American Idol," Harrison tells shopper Kell Wadell, who looks over a Dreyer's display at the grocery store.

Just 45 years ago, when Harrison entered the working world, he said there were about 6,000 ice-cream companies in the U.S. Now there are about 400.

Consolidation came as the cost of business increased. New labeling requirements became an unexpected expense for many ice-cream manufacturers when they had to list nutritional information, Harrison said.

The future of ice cream is in speciality products, Harrison said, pointing to a Haagen-Dazs Reserve Hawaiian Lehua Honey and Sweet Cream flavor. The honey in the ice cream comes from the Big Island, he said.

People's tastes are becoming more discriminating, he added, and they are demanding higher quality.

Harrison said he invented the Cookies 'N Cream flavor in the 1980s, which he proudly describes as the fastest-growing flavor, based on Dreyer's sales.

When working, Harrison wears a lab coat with a pocket, protecting a thermometer and an 18-karat gold spoon — wooden, silver and plastic spoons can interfere with the taste, he says.

Like wine and coffee testers, Harrison spits out his taste samples. While tasting, he's thinking about texture, appearance and the balance of cream and sugar.

Harrison inverts the spoon, turning it upside-down as he eats.

"It's not bad manners to do that, right?" asked shopper Adina Hamick.

"No," Harrison said. "Nor is it bad manners to smack."

Harrison's family has been in the ice-cream business for four generations, beginning in 1880, when his great-grandfather had a homemade candy and ice-cream shop in Manhattan. Harrison grew up in Memphis, Tenn., where his father, grandfather and uncle ran a regional ice-cream brand called High's, which was sold in the 1970s.

Harrison's first job was for Borden ice-cream company. Then he worked for his father, who later in life started Dari-Tech, which made ice-cream flavoring and "stabilizers," which bind the water in ice cream.

Harrison is training the next generation of taste testers. Dreyer's has one taste tester and backup taste tester at each of its six plants.

"Most have a dairy-science or food-science degree," he said. "Four years of taste-testing, you're going to be an expert when you get out."

E-mail: lhancock@desnews.com