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The Creamery's 'Keeney Beany' and the Prof Who Gave It His Name

by on September 08, 2016 5:00 AM

Happy Valley’s happiest place?  That’s easy. It’s Berkey Creamery, a source for all kinds of dairy products, not to mention bagels, fruit, snacks and sodas. But, of course, if you mention “The Creamery,” anyone with half a taste bud will think “ice cream.”

I scream, you scream, we all scream for…the Creamery.  And even with another magnificent source of ice cream right under our noses — yes, Meyer Dairy — I’m pretty sure that no one will fuss over my allegiance to Berkey Creamery.  

So, if I really want to start an argument, maybe I should state my case for the best overall flavor at the Creamery. No, not the old standbys of chocolate or vanilla — even though they are the top sellers at Berkey. Not my boyhood favorite of Bittersweet Mint. Not the sentimental favorite of Peachy Paterno or such new sensations as Alumni Swirl or Birthday Bash.

Keeney Beany Chocolate is the one. It’s the flavor that you simply must check out, especially if you’re a chocolate lover.  No, it’s not the ultimate in chocolaty euphoria. That would be the Creamery’s Death by Chocolate — a triple chocolate that starts with chocolate ice cream and adds chocolate flakes and a fudge swirl. 

A TRIP TO THE ER?

But if you’re like me, you’re not ready to die just yet, so let’s just go with a double chocolate approach. Keeney Beany begins with chocolate ice cream and chocolate chips; then it adds crushed vanilla bean. If Death by Chocolate might put you in the grave, I figure Keeney Beany will only send you to the ER — with a big slobbery smile on your face.

Keeney Beany is a luscious chocolate that has earned its spot on the marquee of top Creamery flavors.  For me, it also has a unique personal appeal. It’s named for Dr. Phil Keeney, a retired Penn State faculty member who was once known as “the Emperor of Ice Cream” and who is an old family friend.

I was raised in a household that, for many decades, attended State College’s Grace Lutheran Church — the same church that Dr. Keeney still attends. His late wife, Elsie, was a dear friend of my mom. And when he earned his Ph.D. in Dairy Science from Penn State, one of his professors was my mother’s dad, Dr. Martin W. Lisse. If my grandfather were alive today, he would be 125-years-old, so it takes an elderly person like 91-year old Phil Keeney to provide an academic link to him.

Phil Keeney's career included research on ice cream production. (Photo provided by PSU College of Agricultural Sciences)

AN ACCOMPLISHED FLAVOR

Now all of that personal stuff might not mean a hill of beans to you — vanilla or cocoa. But clearly, Keeney Beany is an impressive flavor that is outshone only by the accomplishments of the professor who gave it his name.  

As for the flavor...

  • Introduced in 1985, the flavor keeps growing in popularity. The Creamery now sells more than 5,000 half gallons of Keeney Beany each year.

  • Keeney Beany is one of only 12 extra-popular Creamery flavors — out of more than 110 total flavors — that are produced throughout the year. Can you guess the other 11? (See the bottom of this story for the list of all 12.)

  • It’s also one of five “Hall of Fame” flavors that are named for prominent PSU figures or, in one case, a PSU institution. WPSU Coffee Break — coffee ice cream with chocolate chips — carries the name of Penn State's award-winning public television channel. As for the others, Cherry Quist contains sweet black cherries that are mixed into black cherry ice cream, and it is named for the late Dr. John Almquist, a distinguished Dairy Science professor. Russ Digs Roseberry contains strawberry ice cream, black raspberry sauce, red raspberry sauce and chocolate flakes, and it is named for Russ Rose, the veteran coach of the women’s volleyball team that has captured seven NCAA national titles. And, of course, Peachy Paterno is named for Joe Paterno, the Nittany Lions’ football legend who won more games than any NCAA FBS coach in history and who contributed greatly to Penn State’s academic growth. (All of those individuals spent decades on campus, so perhaps a certain wrestling coach won’t be honored for a while. But with five national titles in the last six years, I think he’s earned his own flavor.  How about “Pecan Sandy-Son”?)

  • A portion of proceeds from half gallon purchases of Keeney Beany go to an endowment that is named for Dr. Keeney. Begun with a $1 million anonymous gift and heading toward a goal of $3 million, the fund is designed to support food science research, teaching and extension.

Some 26 years after his official retirement, Dr. Keeney was still teaching at the 2011 Ice Cream Short Course. (Photo provided by Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences)

A DECORATED PROFESSOR

As for the man, it would be hard to imagine a more decorated university professor:

  • Keeney served full-time on Penn State’s faculty from 1955 to 1985, doing ground-breaking research on ice cream production and on the chemistry of the cocoa bean. His work was noted in such major media outlets as The New York Times, The Today Show and People magazine. He was one of those who conceived the 1980 birth of the Food Science Department, and he served as the department’s first head.  

  • Keeney also directed the Penn State Ice Cream Short Course throughout his career. During those 30 years, he helped to teach the ins and outs of flavoring, refrigeration, freezing and hardening to 1,800 professionals from every ice cream producer you could name. Included among them was Ben & Jerry’s co-founder, Ben Cohen, who took the course in his company’s early years.  “I guess we helped them some,” says Dr. Keeney in his typical understated fashion. “They’ve been fairly successful.”

  • The son of a Penn State graduate in dairy husbandry, Keeney has passed on the family’s dairy tradition to his son, Philip II. The younger Keeney, a PSU grad in Food Science, is plant manager for Hershey Creamery Co., the Harrisburg-based producer of Hershey Ice Cream.

With all those achievements, it’s no wonder that a promising chocolate ice cream flavor was named for Phil Keeney at the time of his retirement in 1985. “He was a luminary figure in ice cream, “says Dr. Bob Roberts, current head of the Food Science department and the Ice Cream Short Course. “He was clearly very important in Food Science and the Creamery. And the fact that Keeney Beaney is ice cream with chocolate was not lost on us.”  

Says Keeney, “Thank goodness it ended up a good flavor.”

Keeney still enjoys an occasional visit to Berkey Creamery. (Photo by Bill Horlacher) 

HIS PERSONAL QUALITIES

Yes, he’s a “luminary” or even an “emperor.” But if you really want to know Dr. Phil Keeney, you must look beyond his commendations and awards. According to Jim Brown, the interim manager of the Creamery, Dr. Keeney is a team player. “Even into his late 80s and 90s,” says Brown, “he’s always been interested in how the Creamery is doing. Not just Keeney Beany ice cream, but the Creamery overall.”

Roberts makes a similar observation. “Phil has a way of connecting with people that is really impressive,” he says. “Talking with him is like talking to a walking encyclopedia of the ice cream industry—he knows everybody.”

And then there’s the famous Keeney humor. “He’s very witty — that’s Phil,” says Brown. “You have to know him so you realize he’s not pummeling you too badly. He always says he likes my hairdo (Brown has no hair because he shaves his head). Anywhere he can put a dig into you, he will. And it’s all in fun.”

My own experience suggests that Dr. Keeney rarely loses in a humorous exchange. Told that his doctor is extremely pleased by Keeney’s health at age 91, I couldn’t resist asking him, “Is that because of all the ice cream you’ve had over the years?” Keeney’s response was immediate. “Probably…together with the beer and whiskey.”   

When talking about Elsie — his wife of 53 years who died in 2011 — Phil recalled the impression she created as a young agricultural extension specialist in the 1950s. “She used to make her own clothes, you know, and she was a pretty good looking chick as it was. And this wasn’t the usual perception of an extension agent.“

If he wants to reflect back on his successes, Phil Keeney has a lot of options. For one, he talks about the formation of the Food Science Department. “We had a reorganization in the College of Agriculture where they put together food processing elements, poultry, animal science, dairy science and a little bit of biochemistry.” Although he stresses that a group of Penn State people put their heads together to create Food Science, he’s pleased to have been one of them. “I think my role in helping to form that department and getting it started was an achievement that I’m kind of proud of.”

As for the Creamery, Keeney still remembers a time in 1950s when an ice cream cone cost 5 cents and the price needed to be raised. “We needed to do a little better job,” he says, “and that would require putting a little more butter fat into it and doing some other things. And to cover the increased cost we’d have to start charging 7 cents. Well, soon the salesroom people rebelled against that — handling all those pennies.  So we raised the price to 10 cents with great fear that we’d get complaints for doubling the price of the cone. There was never a word said. So, wow, we got away with that…”

And to think that Berkey Creamery now processes about 6 million pounds of raw milk per year and sells some of the best milk, cheese and ice cream that any of us have ever tasted.  Says Keeney, “It’s a testament to the fact that if you have a pretty good product and it’s presented in an interesting way, you might be successful with it.  You might not, too.   You just never know in these things.”

 

P.S. -- Here is an alphabetical list of the Creamery’s top 12 flavors, the ones that are produced throughout the year:  Bittersweet Mint, Butter Pecan, Chocolate, Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, Coconut Chip, Cookies & Cream, Death by Chocolate, Keeney Beany Chocolate, Peachy Paterno, Strawberry, Vanilla and WPSU Coffee Break.

Top photo: Dr. Phil Keeney enjoys the chocolaty taste of Keeney Beany ice cream.  (Photo by Bill Horlacher)



Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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