Vanilla Ice Cream: A Local Taste Test

Alma Guzman
Alma Guzman / Heavy Table

Forget, for a moment, the calories, fat, and sugar. Sometimes all that matters is indulging your senses. And on warm summer evenings, Minnesotans flock to their local ice cream parlors for a taste bud-thrilling scoop of the old standby cookies and cream, the trendy salted caramel, or the daring durian. But for many ice cream lovers, the best way to gauge a parlor’s skill is to sample its purest flavor: vanilla.

In search of the best vanilla, the Heavy Table conducted a blind taste test on seven vanilla ice creams. Tasting the ice cream were five very willing panelists, assisted by two administrators who ensured a complete blind tasting. To further enforce impartiality, we conducted the test in silence and sipped lemon water between tastings.

We sampled the most basic vanilla flavor from six local establishments, plus one from the grocery store for good measure. We rated them on four criteria — intensity of flavor, balance of sweetness, mouthfeel, and aftertaste – on a scale from 0 (inedible) to 4 (perfection) for a possible score of 16.

Alma Guzman
Alma Guzman / Heavy Table

Here’s how they stacked up, from worst to best.

Pumphouse Creamery


Intensity of flavor 1.1
Balance of sweetness 1.5
Mouthfeel 1.3
Aftertaste 0.7
Total 4.6

Completely different in taste from the other vanillas, this ice cream was too odd for most panelists’ palates, and many thought it yielded an especially off-putting flavor and strange aftertaste. One panelist commented that the ice cream tasted like butter and was “inedible. I love ice cream but I don’t want to eat this at all.” On the plus side, the ice cream received some adequate marks on the balance of sweetness and mouthfeel.

Crema Cafe

Vanilla Bean

Intensity of flavor 2.1
Balance of sweetness 2.5
Mouthfeel 2.5
Aftertaste 1.7
Total 8.8

While one panelist commented that this vanilla’s flavor was “super good,” the others noted mostly negatives. Two observed an unpleasant icy mouthfeel and a chemical-like aftertaste. They said it lacked creaminess and “coated the mouth in a strange way.” Two other panelists mentioned an absence of sweetness: “It’s not sweet at all, actually. I’m surprised. Could be a bit sweeter.”

Kemps Ice Cream


Intensity of flavor 2.1
Balance of sweetness 1.9
Mouthfeel 2.5
Aftertaste 2.4
Total 8.9

Scores were mixed for the store brand vanilla – three rated it low, labeling it “too sweet, a bit artificial, and too mild” and “not too creamy with a muddled flavor that gets washed out.” Meanwhile, two panelists praised the “good balance of vanilla and sugar” and called it a good, though typical, choice.

Izzy’s Ice Cream


Intensity of flavor 2.2
Balance of sweetness 2.4
Mouthfeel 2.1
Aftertaste 2.5
Total 9.2

This vanilla also brought mixed reactions. Some panelists complained of an icy, slightly crystalline mouthfeel, while others encountered no iciness and found the texture acceptable, even pleasant. One panelist praised the balance of sweetness as “not too sweet, not too bland.” Everyone noticed the too-bold, honey-like flavor that one panelist said “stands out too much.” The panelists agreed that the aftertaste was better than the initial flavor, with the vanilla coming through after the sweetness subsided.

Alma Guzman
Alma Guzman / Heavy Table

Sebastian Joe’s


Intensity of flavor 2.5
Balance of sweetness 2.8
Mouthfeel 2.3
Aftertaste 2.4
Total 10
Alma Guzman
Alma Guzman / Heavy Table

Earning praise for its genuine vanilla flavor and pleasing balance of sweetness, this vanilla was liked by many. One panelist commented that it “tastes like real vanilla”; another said that “the sweetness and vanilla flavor are really well done.” But one panelist gave low marks for the lingering flavor: “There is a cloying, sweet aftertaste, even though it’s not initially sweet.”

Edina Creamery

Vanilla Bean

Intensity of flavor 2.7
Balance of sweetness 2.6
Mouthfeel 2.8
Aftertaste 2.5
Total 10.6

All panelists had something good to say about this vanilla. Its overall flavor and intensity of flavor were praised, and everyone cited its extremely smooth, creamy mouthfeel — though one panelist mentioned it was nearly too creamy. Two tasters commented that the ice cream “could be sweeter”; others thought it was sufficiently sweet.

Grand Ole Creamery

Sweet Cream

Intensity of flavor 3.0
Balance of sweetness 2.8
Mouthfeel 3.3
Aftertaste 3.3
Total 12.4

Scoring high on all four criteria, this was the clear winner. As one panelist commented, “It does everything well without going over the top.” The balance of sweetness was called “nearly perfect,” the aftertaste was called “pleasing” and “clean,” and all agreed the mouthfeel was pleasantly creamy. Most panelists praised the vanilla flavor, although one thought it was “a bit too strong.” The ice cream also received a compliment any parlor owner would love to hear: “It makes me want to go back for more.”

On this particular summer evening, one vanilla came out on top. But the debate over the best ice cream is far from settled. Indeed, even we were split on the results: Some panelists were excited to discover their favorite vanilla, while others — regardless of the taste test scores — remained devoted to the ice cream at their old familiar parlor.

Alma Guzman
Alma Guzman / Heavy Table


  1. HungryinSW

    I’ve spent many evenings waiting in line at the GOC and it’s always well worth it. I think it’s even worth the drive from SW even though almost every other competitor is closer to me.

  2. e

    Huh. I worked at Edina Creamery long ago, and it has since changed owners and management, but when it initially opened, they were using the same base and mix as Grand Ole Creamery. Maybe they made a supplier switch, but if they haven’t, I wonder what other factors would make the same ingredients taste better or worse? (I know very little about ice cream making.)

  3. Rich G

    I never really buy the assertion that vanilla ice cream is the best gauge of an ice cream brand’s skill. Crema Cafe, for example, seems to focus more on its sorbets and its feature flavor — Crema. The same goes for Sebastian Joe’s. Vanilla just isn’t a focus for those folks. Though to be fair, I find Pumphouse Creamery to be really overrated in general.

    But personally — give me salted caramel or black cherry squid ink over vanilla any day of the week.

  4. Liz

    Thank you for this scientific research! The key to the perfect turtle sundae (my life’s quest) is good vanilla ice cream.

  5. betz

    As a vanilla fanatic, I couldn’t agree more with your premise. Vanilla is the true test of any ice cream maker. Throw in enough candy, syrup or fruit and any ice cream becomes palatable, case in point- COLD STONE!

    That being said, you missed the mark in selecting a grocery store brand. Try Breyer’s Natural Vanilla Bean. It’s one of the few grocery brands I’ve found that doesn’t contain high fructose corn syrup and therefore has the purest and cleanest finish and would be a closer match to the others you sampled. I’d love to see how your testers rate it against all the others!

  6. jane

    Rich G: yes! Salted caramel. My new fave.

    I don’t eat ice cream much, so when I do, I would never choose vanilla. Unless I’m getting a crunch cone at DQ. It’s not ice cream and probably not vanilla either, but the crunch part is great.

  7. k

    This is really interesting, but I agree that you really can’t gauge the quality of an ice cream parlor overall by its vanilla alone.

    I respect Grand Ole Creamery, and think it’s one of the better shops, but to be honest, I stopped going there because its vanilla is basically the _only_ reason to go there. If you’re happy with very standard flavors, and don’t want anything else, Grand Ole Creamery is a great place. However, I’m looking for more than just vanilla–I don’t want the same flavor every time I go.

    I also feel like the devil is in the details with this sort of thing. I work with survey research, and it’s too easy to for me to imagine problems with this. “Blind” can mean different things in different settings. Was the order randomized for different individuals, for example?

    @e: Actually, the way it is frozen can make a difference in mouthfeel and taste. Generally, ice cream is usually perceived as better the more quickly it is frozen, because fewer ice crystals are created. I suppose GOC could use the same base as EC and it come out different because they use a freezing process that cools more rapidly. Your comment makes me wonder, though.

  8. Barbara Falconer Newhall

    I look for the aftertaste. Does it have a greasy feel (suggesting fake “creamy” ingredients)? Or does it melt away and leave no gummy stuff on the tongue?
    My dad was a Michigan dairy man and got to do ice cream taste tests regularly. He claimed that only a very few flavors actually made good ice cream: Good old chocolate, strawberry — and vanilla were the mainstays.

  9. sandy

    I still love my Haagen-Dazs. Trader Joe’s ice cream is also pretty good – kind of caramelly-tasting. I’m not a fan of Kemp’s or Breyer’s.

    Locally, I haven’t had all of those mentioned here, but I do like Sebatian Joe’s and Crema; I was not impressed with Pumphouse because it was full of ice crystals and had a strange aftertaste. I’m interested in trying Grand Ole Creamery but have not gotten to it yet.

  10. xHOBOCOREx

    “I stopped going there because its vanilla is basically the _only_ reason to go there.”

    Really? I’ve never been even remotely tempted to get vanilla at GOC because of all of their fantastic flavors. Their chocolate/coffee mixture is simply devine, especially in shake form!

  11. Mary

    “Forget, for a moment…” that this article focuses on ice cream tastes. Take that moment to savor the crisp, warm yet succinct writing style of this author. Nicely done, Emily Nystrom.

  12. John Gettler

    There is one problem here. The winner is not vanilla ice cream. Grand Ole Creamary’s Sweet Cream does not have vanilla flavoring in the recipe, according to the girl who scooped my ice cream. It is only the taste of cream and sugar. They do have a French Vanilla. No matter you scoop it, the Sweet Cream won the highest praise.

  13. Debbie Edwards

    Positively the best Ice Cream in the Twin Cities is Sebastian Joe’s!!!!!! I get my dose at Tommy’s Tonka Trolley in Excelsior …right at the Port of Excelsior. They usually have at least a dozen Sebastian Joe’s flavors at one time (but they rotate some of the flavors daily), but the their newest flavor, “Nicollet Avenue Pothole” is to die for if you’re a chocolate lover. The ice cream up the street from the Trolley now tastes like Kemps ice cream from Cub Foods … at the best.

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