By Alan Finnecy
While the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts springs forth in Happy Valley like Brigadoon for five magical days each July, the area’s “big three” thrill visitors year round. Beaver Stadium, with its Joe Paterno statue, and the Nittany Lion Shrine near Rec Hall provide ample photo opportunities. The third “required destination” offers a unique taste treat: Penn State Creamery ice cream.
At $2.75 for a towering cone or dish, Creamery ice cream is an affordable luxury, perfect for cooling off on a hot day. And during the Arts Festival, the creamery helps Penn State alumni and visitors alike indulge their passion for their favorite flavors by selling ice cream from a tent near Willard Building, just off the Mall and right on the busy Festival route. Purists, however, will insist on venturing to the creamery’s permanent location on Curtin Road near the natatorium, and just a few blocks west of Beaver Stadium. There, they’ll find 25 to 30 flavors of the more than 150 in the creamery’s repertoire featured at any given time, with about 18 flavors available for cones. Want to take some back to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia? No problem. The Creamery staff will pack half gallons of ice cream in dry ice for the ride home.
Creamery flavors range from the standards—vanilla and chocolate—to the exotic—Santa Fe Banana (banana flavored ice cream with sugar cookies and caramel swirl) and Peanut Butter Marshmallow. There are also the six Hall of Fame Flavors: Cherry Quist, Keeney Beany Chocolate, Alumni Swirl, WPSU Coffee Break, Palmer Mousseum, and Peachy Paterno.
But don’t ask the ice cream scoopers to mix flavors on one cone. Fearing it would slow the line that forms on busy occasions like graduation and football weekends, Creamery officials long ago decreed cones and dishes would be limited to one flavor, a tradition as unique as the Nittany Lion mascot. But rules are made to be broken and one person did receive two flavors on one cone. During a 1996 campus visit, then President Bill Clinton and University President Graham Spanier stopped by the Creamery for a snack. Spanier suggested the President try some Peachy Paterno but recalls that Clinton was also intrigued by Cherry Quist, and a scoop of that was added to his cone as well. Spanier takes the fall for the breach of Creamery etiquette. “It is not true, as rumor has it, that President Clinton insisted on having two flavors,” Spanier explained. “The only reason he had two is that I suggested one, Peachy Paterno, and he was attracted to the second, Cherry Quist.” (Clinton also left with three half gallons—Vanilla, Peachy Paterno, and Raspberry Fudge Torte—packed in dry ice for the flight back to Washington, D.C.
Considering its legendary status with Penn State alumni, local residents, and ice cream fans near and far, the Creamery’s origins were anything but grand. The first creamery opened in 1889 after the Pennsylvania legislature appropriated $7,000 for a modest building. Ice cream was not an offering; butter and cheese was. The Creamery moved to larger quarters in Patterson Building in 1904 and added bottled milk and ice cream to its product line. With the completion of Borland Lab in 1932, the Creamery took up residence in a second floor salesroom where it would remain for nearly 30 years. What many Penn Staters think of as “The Creamery”—the glass-walled building flanked by patios in front of Borland—dispensed ice cream cones, milk, cheese, and other products for 46 years. The latest version, now known as the Berkey Creamery, is a block closer to Beaver Stadium, just down Curtin Road in the new Food Science Building that opened in 2006. The expanded retail space has led to expanded sales. Creamery manager Tom Palchak said sales have increased 25 percent since the new Creamery opened four years ago.
Just how much ice cream does the Creamery sell in a year? The short answer is 2.5 million cones. How they arrive at that number is more complicated. The Creamery salesroom sells about 725,000 ice cream cones per year. That number includes actual cones, ice cream bowls, milkshakes (made with scoops of ice cream) and Dixie cups. The numbers are converted to “cones” as a universal measure. Add in the ice cream served in the dining halls, The Nittany Lion Inn, Bryce Jordan Center, HUB-Robeson Center, other campus eateries, and at the Arts Festival each year and the number of “cones” reaches the 2.5 million mark.
Legendary ice cream has a way of inspiring, well, legends. One of the most pervasive is that Creamery ice cream is not sold away from campus because the fat content is too high to meet FDA standards. Palchak said that is by far the biggest urban legend about the Creamery. The FDA establishes standards-of-identity for all food items in the U.S. For ice cream, there are minimum standards for milk fat and composition but no maximum standard for milk fat content. “So the truth is the exact opposite of the legend,” Palchak said. “We don’t sell the ice cream off campus because that would be competing with companies in the dairy industry.”
One legend that is true is that Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, founders of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, did learn to make ice cream from Penn State. They first took a correspondence course and, later, attended the University’s world famous ice cream short course, held each January. And though their ice cream has reached legendary status itself, Greenfield remains in awe of Penn State’s ice cream prowess. During his presentation at Penn State Altoona last year, he compared the different styles of his products to the Creamery’s. “Penn State Creamery ice cream is legendary and deservedly so,” he said. “Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream isn’t really classic ice cream. Creamery ice cream is.”
Creamery Fun Facts
- Vanilla is the most popular flavor, followed by Chocolate, Butter Pecan, Peachy Paterno, Bittersweet Mint, and Peanut Butter Swirl.
- The least popular flavor ever produced was Carrot Cake, which was discontinued.
- Penn State’s herd of 225 Holsteins provides about half of the 4.5 million pounds of milk that flows through the Creamery’s tanks each year. The rest comes from an independent producer.
- The Creamery does not advertise, relying instead on word-of-mouth. (Pun absolutely intended.)
- About 4,000 cones are sold during a typical football weekend, surpassed only by some commencement weekends and the Arts Festival.
- Penn State’s Berkey Creamery is the largest university creamery in the nation.
- The Creamery inspired the book Ice Cream U: The Story of the Nation’s Most Successful Collegiate Creamery by Lee Stout, a retired Penn State librarian and archivist. The book is sold at the Penn State Bookstore on campus, online at psupress.org, and at the Creamery.
- The first 30 minutes of parking in the garage behind the Creamery is free.
Longtime State College resident and freelance writer Alan Finnecy remembers paying 35 cents for Creamery ice cream cones during the mid 1970s. His favorite flavor is Butter Pecan.