How Does Ben & Jerry's Choose New Flavors?

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Jamie McCarthy / Ben & Jerry's / Getty Images

Ben & Jerry's Bonnaroo Buzz Ice Cream at the Ben & Jerry's new flavor party at Bowery Ballroom in New York City.

The cult of Ben & Jerry's is a friendly one, and their Sabbath is new flavor day. With names like "Magic Brownies" and "Imagine Whirled Peace" the flavors of the Vermont-based ice cream company are known for being ... out there. On April 20, Ben & Jerry's introduced its newest flavor, Bonnaroo Buzz. If you've been waiting for "light coffee and malt ice creams with whiskey caramel swirls and English toffee pieces," it's here. If such a flavor had never occurred to you, that's why people like Eric Fredette exist.

Fredette is one of Ben & Jerry's "flavor gurus." (Not feeling the whimsy? Fine. He works in research and development.) It fell to him to create a flavor that could tie in with the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival, held every June in Tennessee. Once a venue primarily for jam bands like Phish (which incidentally has a very popular flavor named after it), Bonnaroo has since become one of the nation's biggest music fests. Ben & Jerry's marketing pros brought him some suggestions, but Fredette arrived at the concoction after doing his own research.

"I found out that Bonnaroo owns the property that the festival is on every year. And it's in Coffee County, Tennessee," Fredette explains. "Heath bar works well with coffee and it's something our shops really want but they don't have ... Whiskey comes from Tennessee, it's whiskey country ... And the flavors of whiskey are the malty, grainy kind of flavors."

Ben & Jerry's introduces new flavors every year, though the number varies. Boston Cream Pie, Peanut Brittle and Pomegranate Sorbet, among several others, made the cut for 2010. Some of those are only available in pints; some, like Bonnaroo Buzz, are only served in Ben & Jerry's shops (at least for now). In addition to full-time flavors, there are the seasonal ones — this year's include Hannah Teter's Maple Blondie, named after the 2006 Olympic gold medalist.

While Bonnaroo Buzz is unabashedly the product of a particular marketing opportunity, many new flavors are developed in accordance with Ben & Jerry's regular flavor-making procedures. The company occasionally runs contests — like last year's Do the World a Flavor — to get a new scoop, but consumer suggestions are consistently reviewed. A form on the Ben & Jerry's website allows everyone to submit their own ideas, and Fredette says that Ben & Jerry's divides a year's worth of consumer mail among its flavor gurus and brand-management staff. Fredette took his highlighter to some 3,000 ideas that arrived last August. The public's desire was clear: "The biggest trend was peanut butter," he says. "They wanted peanut butter with banana, they wanted peanut butter with marshmallow, they wanted peanut butter with chocolate cookies. All kinds of peanut butter."

Of course, that doesn't mean all of next year's flavors will involve peanut butter. According to Fredette, the flavor gurus also read culinary magazines and check out the dessert menus of trendy restaurants in order to come up with a list of more than 100 concepts. Then, he says, marketing whittles it down to about 60, which is when consumer polling steps in to knock it down to about 20 flavors. "We'll actually make those 20, real time, in the kitchen," Fredette says. "We have a little ice cream machine that makes six pints of ice cream, and you can stir in whatever you want. So we make some batches, and we feed it to marketing. You gain a few pounds that time of year — we sometimes have tastings twice a day, a couple of times a week." According to Fredette, of those actually produced in the lab, only a few make it to consumer testing, and the final new flavors come out of that round.

But just because a flavor makes the cut doesn't mean it's here to stay. Cherry Garcia (a "fan-suggested flavor") isn't going anywhere, but Ben & Jerry's "flavor graveyard" holds about 300 flavors, including Sugar Plum, Chocolate Orange Fudge, Ethan Almond and Monkey Wrench. Naturally there are those who are bound to be disappointed by the termination of a personal favorite. Another form on the website is therefore called Resurrect My Favorite Flavor. Wavy Gravy did make a comeback, albeit in limited batch form.

Fredette acknowledges how consumers feel when their favorites are retired, but points out that, "Something has to give way for the next flavor." Of course, certain experiments just aren't good: Fredette says his own Crackerjack-inspired treat was ill-fated: "It turns out popcorn in ice cream turns into this kind of wet cardboard stuff ... That one actually got out on the shelf and then was discontinued quickly."