Ice Cream Man
Villanova’s Bruce W. Tharp savors his role as a leading expert on the chilly, sweet stuff.
Bruce W. Tharp admits that his Wayne office is “beyond redemption.” It’s no wonder. He’s an academic, a scientist and a practitioner of his craft.
“I love ice cream,” says Tharp. “I have some here for lunch, but I never make a big deal about how fattening it is. Let’s just say I eat it regularly because I’m intellectually curious, and it helps me keep current with my professional capabilities. I do get lots of opportunities.”
In fact, ice cream is Tharp’s passion and his livelihood. That explains the old Tharp’s freezer can in his office. It has two retaining dates—one the year he was born, the other the year he graduated from high school. Nearby sits a pristine Tharp’s menu board in its celluloid cover, a metal Popsicle-stick holder, piles of empty freezer boxes of old and modern ice cream products—Breyers Light 1/2-calorie double-churn and Turkey Hill vanilla bean—and the scattered books and product literature. He picks up a colorful advertisement for IttyBitz, a spinoff of what were originally called Dippin’ Dots, tiny balls of ice cream.
“People are always doing new things with ice cream,” he says.
His Tharp’s Food Technology is a consulting business with a broad range of services that focus mostly on the technical and scientific complexities of the ice cream industry. His clients are manufacturers and suppliers worldwide.
It’s Saturday morning, and Tharp only works a half-day, so there’s no trace of his trademark white lab coat. Wearing a green button-down shirt and a white spring jacket, both stitched with a company logo that pays tribute to his ice cream family’s name, Tharp could be anyone’s grandfather—if only by age. After all, how many grandfathers out there have an ice cream necktie collection?
Tharp lives in Villanova, which almost sounds like vanilla. One flavor he longs for is the wintergreen taste of the teaberry, which is grown only in Pennsylvania’s mountains. But his favorite is chocolate. “A boring one,” he admits.
But not just any chocolate—the kind made by Tharp’s Ice Cream, his family’s onetime business. “I can’t get it anymore, but it’s still my quest,” Tharp says. “It’s my Holy Grail. It was a special recipe my father made from a combination of cocoas.”
Tharp is staunchly proud of his family’s history in the ice cream business. Sharp and inquisitive like a professor and as detailed and precise as a scientist, he has lectured at every academic ice cream short course in the country. He’s lectured on ice cream sensory evaluation at the Smithsonian Institution. He’s chief ice cream judge at the Intercollegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest.
Of late, he’s about to be credited with inventing the world’s first truly sugar-free ice cream product. He’s also going international with his independent short course, and he’s publishing a book.
In March 2006, he was the inaugural recipient of the International Dairy Foods Association’s International Ice Cream Association Lifetime Achievement Award. But even at 77, Tharp is not about to just melt away.
SOME OF BRUCE THARP’S earliest memories are of his family’s ice cream plant in Shamokin, Pa. His grandfather, Casper Abner Tharp, purchased a restaurant and candy store in 1912, then built an ice cream factory. An entrepreneur and county commissioner, he also owned an auto-truck agency, a movie theater and an insurance business. All succumbed to the Great Depression—except the ice cream plant.
Tharp’s father, 1923 Penn State University graduate Wilbur A. Tharp, was born into the business. He died in January 1996. A year later, his son launched his consulting business. While Tharp earned three academic degrees in Penn State’s heralded dairy sciences program in the 1950s, widespread distribution of ice cream was taking off. It makes Tharp chuckle at his family’s motto, “Tharp’s: Sold Everywhere.”
“It was true,” Tharp says. “Everywhere within a 60-mile radius.”
When he first returned to Tharp’s in 1954, the push to distribute product over greater distances was forcing families out of business. Others merged, as Tharp’s did with Sunbury Milk Products—whose brand name was Eagle Farm Dairies—in 1958. That company then merged. Soon “all product identity was lost,” Tharp laments.
Now, Tharp’s Food Technology’s logo is purely nostalgic. It was his wife Meg’s idea to use an ice cream cone in place of the apostrophe.
Tharp’s expertise, then and now, remains stabilization and emulsification. His Ph.D. centered on the process by which milk fat loses its flavor. He discovered new compounds that stabilize milk fat, keeping flavor fresher.
Tharp spent a career managing all technical and scientific activities—including technical marketing—at a company in Broomall first known as Germantown Manufacturing Co., which designed and sold ingredients to the dairy industry. Australian company Davis Gelatin eventually merged with it as Davis-Germantown, then bought out Germantown, becoming Germantown International Limited. “That began my six-continent involvement with ice cream,” Tharp says.
As part of Tharp’s responsibilities with his former employer—now Goodman-Fielder, Australia’s largest food company—he traveled the globe, training others in the fine science of making ice cream. In 1996, the company asked him to retire. He wasn’t ready, so he struck a deal as a part-time consultant.
As such, he continued and expanded his influence, training huge companies like the Swiss-owned Nestle, plus others in Japan, New Zealand, the Philippines, Thailand, Chile, Brazil and El Salvador. He’s also been to Germany, Greece, England, Denmark, Norway and Belgium. He’s made three trips to the Middle East, where countries were interested in producing American-style ice cream. When Iran called, he respectfully said, “If I can help you from here, I will.”
Ice cream is different worldwide. Flavors reflect cultural or ethnical oddities.
In China and the Philippines, says Tharp, corn ice cream is popular. On tropical islands, it’s flavors like mango and papaya. In Southeast Asia, durian—a fruit with a foul odor—is a favorite. “Unless your raised on it, you’ll hate it,” Tharp says.
This fall, for the first time, the Tharp & Young commercial three-day ice cream short course will be offered on foreign soil Sept. 17-21 at the National University of Mexico in Mexico City, then back in Las Vegas Dec. 5-7. Longtime friend and colleague Steve Young lives in Houston. Tharp remains a chief instructor in PSU’s short course, which runs in January.
“You tell people you’re teaching for three days about ice cream,” he says, “and they say, ‘Three days? What takes three days about it?’ Well, ice cream is one of the most complicated creations—foods—in the history of mankind. Milk is a complicated biological fluid. There are thousands of compounds—what they are, how they behave and how they maintain their properties when you add flavorings. Then you freeze it, which adds complications.”
Tharp and Young are also introducing the world’s first completely sugar-free frozen desert. It’s been introduced to the industry and could be marketed by year’s end. Whether it can be called “ice cream” depends on compositional standards for that identity. The basic requirement is a minimum of 10 percent fat and 20 percent milk solids.
The product is sugar-free from the start. Anything similar has thus far been labeled “no sugar added.” In those products, sucrose has been replaced with high-intensity sweeteners. Instead, Tharp and Young are using maltitol, which is 90 percent as sweet as sucrose.
There have been plenty of other behind-the-scenes innovations. The slow-churn process, now owned by Dreyer’s/Edy’s, has led to a diverse group of better-eating lower-fat products. With his old company, Tharp was involved in this process (first discovered in Switzerland by Erich Windhab, a friend of his) in the early- to mid-’90s. Slow-churn produces a more finely structured ice cream due to the smaller ice crystals and smaller air bubbles that result. Despite repeated temperature fluctuation (or heat shock) the product remains smoother and creamier, maintaining a longer shelf life.
“The worst thing that can happen to ice cream is for it to get icy,” Tharp says. “That’s what happens when it goes in and out of the freezer.”
Tharp is also at the forefront of another benchmark ingredient: an ice-structuring protein that keeps ice crystals smaller and prevents new ones from forming on existing ones. The less “damage and abuse,” says Tharp, the smoother the product. “The industry has been preoccupied with this for decades,” he says. “We do all we can to get around [freezer burn].” The ice-structuring protein is now an ingredient in Breyers. In his office, Tharp produces a small plastic vial of the protein. The dried, ground extract is a light shade of cinnamon.
And the evidence continues to mount, affirming Tharp’s status as a full-fledged ice cream doctor—one qualified enough to be writing (with Young) Tharp & Young on Ice Cream: An Encyclopedic Guide to Ice Cream Science and Technology, due out from Lancaster-based DesTech Publishing by year’s end.
“That term (ice cream doctor) has been used when I’m introduced,” Tharp says. “It’s nice to be considered an expert, especially in a field I’m so interested in and excited about. It’s nice to have status in the business.”
And what a pleasurable business.
“Ice cream is a happy product,” Tharp admits. “You don’t find a lot of grouches in the ice cream business—or, at least, you’re less likely to find one.”
Apparently, that even holds true in ice cream laboratories.
“I’m a white-coat guy. On a practical level, I think about everything that’s going on inside ice cream,” says Tharp. “But I also allow myself to enjoy eating it, too.”
For more about Tharp and his work, visit onicecream.com.