Photos courtesy of Alleyway Ice Cream
The mastermind behind Ulster County’s Alleyway Ice Cream serves artisanal flavors from the tiniest shop in the Hudson Valley.
There’s an art to ice cream-making. Not the sickly sweet stuff of chain stores and supermarket aisles, quality ice cream is a diamond in the rough. With the addition of coveted ingredients like locally sourced buttermilk, pure vanilla beans, and just-picked fruit, the confection becomes nothing less than edible artistry that only requires one lick to know it’s the real deal.
Yet when it comes to developing such unparalleled ice cream, the burdens of time and the temptations of shortcuts quickly weed out the creamery artists from the rest. After all, crafting the cool treat is a multi-day process from start to finish. It requires cooking and chilling times, top-notch ingredients, and massive amounts of freezer space, not to mention an endless stream of creativity to design new, exciting flavors that tempt passersby and lure locals to pursue summer’s most iconic sweet.
With so many steps to make one seemingly simple cone (or cup, because you know you have a preference), we couldn’t help but wonder how one becomes an ice cream maker in the first place. To find out, we connected with Julian Hom, the founder of Alleyway Ice Cream, a bitty shop housed in an alleyway in Saugerties (hence the name) that crafts flavors as “classic” as Belgian chocolate and Madagascar vanilla, and as original as Monkey Bread, Strawberry Pop-Tart, and Black Sesame Caramel.
Hom is always open to testing out new flavors as well, and recently dropped a Wildfire scoop with wintergreen, habanero, and smoked almonds. Here’s how the Saugerties maker, who’s also a talented photographer, pursued a childhood passion and reconnected with his creativity in the Hudson Valley.
Step One: Recognize the spark
Hom grew up in Woodstock, and so did his parents, and their parents before them.
“I’m actually a fourth-generation Woodstocker,” he explains. “My great-grandmother was an artist who moved to Woodstock to be around other artists.”
As a child in the heart of one of the most creative locations in the Hudson Valley, Hom channeled the energy of the region and began to cultivate his passion for photography. At the same time, however, he also latched onto ice cream when his parents gifted him Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Ice Cream & Dessert Book. Hooked from the start, Hom followed the simple recipes to produce his very first scoops of ice cream. Then, emboldened by his success, he began to collect more ice cream manuals and experiment with his own flavors.
Step Two: Scoop it up
Although Hom knew he enjoyed making ice cream, he also loved photography. He chose to pursue the latter as a career and found himself working away from home as a photographer’s assistant in New York City. He relished the craft of it, but he couldn’t shake memories of his other sweet passion.
So he kept on churning.
“Every day after work, I went home and made ice cream,” he admits. “One day, I realized I liked making ice cream more than photography, and I eventually decided that I wanted to open and ice cream shop. That’s when I got the idea for Alleyway.” To satisfy the need for what he calls “interesting ice cream” in the region, Hom packed up shop and returned to the Hudson Valley and, more specifically, to Saugerties.
Step Three: Try and fail…and try again
From the start, Hom envisioned a sidewalk ice cream cart from which he could vend handcrafted concoctions to the residents and visitors of Saugerties. He planned to make his flavors during the week and sell them on the weekend. Concept in hand, he even went so far as to purchase a cart and all the materials required to run it.
Then he discovered that the village’s zoning regulations wouldn’t allow him to operate.
“I learned a very valuable lesson,” he says of his initial foray into entrepreneurship in 2017. Fortunately, he was able to bounce back quickly with a little help from his father, Michael, who owns Bluestone Coffee Roasting Company in town. After brainstorming locations, the pair settled upon an 80-square-foot supply closet across the street from Bluestone. With a little ingenuity, they converted it into what Hom declares “must be the tiniest ice cream shop in the world.”
Step Four: Churn. Scoop. Repeat.
Once set up inside the closet, which is hidden down an alley on Partition Street, Hom got to work to churn out the artisanal flavors for which his shop is known. During operating season, which runs from April to November, he begins his day around 7 a.m. with a cup of coffee. After that, his first order of business is to plan out all the ice cream he needs for the week. List in hand, he starts at the top and works his way through it, one flavor at a time.
“If I’m making Madagascar Vanilla ice cream, I’ll measure the milk, cream, and sugar, split the vanilla beans, combine, and then cook. If it’s Buttermilk Strawberry, I start by roasting the strawberries,” he explains, adding that the roasting step is essential to make the berries even more delicious.
Overall, each batch is a three-day process that requires a five-hour cook time and 12 to 24 hours of refrigeration. The extended refrigeration period is essential, since it allows the flavors to mature and meld with one another. Once chilled sufficiently, each batch is ready for churning in the batch freezer.
“The biggest batch freezers make 40 quarts of ice cream at a time, [but] the biggest one we could fit in the ice cream shop makes only four quarts at a time,” he says. While the size constraint puts a damper on production quantity, it also ensures that each batch is 100-percent perfect, every time.
Step Five: Seek flavor inspiration
Since the shop operates seasonally, Hom makes the most of his downtime by traveling across the globe to experience the flavors of international cultures. Along the way, he inevitably comes across unique notes and ingredient pairings worthy of replication at the shop.
“When I was in Thailand, I had so many different dishes, but they were almost all made with fish sauce. Also, for breakfast every morning, I had mango and sticky rice,” he recalls. Both flavors stuck in his mind, so, upon returning home, he worked to transform them into ice cream.
“One of the flavors became a huge success and one did not,” he notes. “I don’t think I need to mention which is which.”
Step Six: Never stop learning (and churning)
As happy as Hom is to showcase his best ideas at Alleyway, he also relishes the chance to learn new ways to craft what he sees as a science experiment.
“I’m more or less self-taught,” he declares. He makes a point to read every ice cream-related book and website he can find and take meticulous notes to remember intriguing concepts and techniques. Then, when it comes time to test something new, he tweaks and alters everything.
“I experiment with the amount of sugar, fat, and flavor for every single ice cream,” he says. “With vanilla alone, I’ve tried dozens of variants. I’ll add and subtract the amount of each ingredient in one-percent increments until the ice cream is perfect.”
Speaking of that vanilla, he’s tested varieties from Mexico, Indonesia, Madagascar, Tahiti, and India, since, like grapes for wine, beans echo the notes of the region in which they grow. The process has been expensive, since individual beans run up to $20 each, but Hom wouldn’t want it any other way. After all, if it wasn’t for that experimentation, he never would’ve hit upon Alleyway’s Madagascar Vanilla, which he deems one of the best in the world.
Of course, he also makes a point to learn outside of Alleyway as well. In January, he attended the Ice Cream Short Course at Penn State. The weeklong session, which has operated for more than 125 years, is an unofficial prerequisite in the industry and has attracted everyone from Ben and Jerry to Jeni Britton Bauer of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams. Hom chose to participate in order to see how his self-taught methods stacked up against professional processes.
“There was so much to learn,” he enthuses, “but I was relieved to find out that my self-discovered ice cream-making process is very similar to those of ice cream makers I admire.”
Step Seven: Embrace imagination
Hom is on his A-game for 2019 and already has his flavors mapped out for the season. Now, he’s excited to welcome visitors who seek out Alleyway after coming across the sky-high scoops on Instagram or who happen to pass by during a spontaneous day trip to Saugerties. Whichever way they get there, everyone is welcomed with open arms and ample scoops.
For anyone who daydreams about crafting ice cream of their own, Hom has one critical bit of advice.
“Try everything,” he stresses. “Try good ice cream. Try bad ice cream. Try the food you like. Try the food you don’t like.” As he explains it, eating ice cream is, at its best, an immersive experience that taps into all five senses to deliver maximum enjoyment. With this in mind, the colorful, kooky, and off-the-wall are all welcome when it comes to developing a flavor that delivers that “wow” reaction.
“Use your imagination to make crazy ideas and then use whatever tools you have to make it real,” he says. “And don’t forget to exercise.”