With Labor Day almost here, it’s time to savor every last sea-salt-scented, late summer Maine second. One treat worth exploring before the season rolls up its lush, green carpet: the growing selection of dairy-free desserts at local ice cream shops.

If you don’t eat dairy and haven’t been to an ice cream stand in a while, you may be surprised to learn that more and more feature dairy-free frozen treats. Most are technically sorbets made with fruit, sugar, water and stabilizers.

These nondairy sorbets come in both expected and exotic flavors, such as lemon-blueberry (Wild Cow Creamery in Bangor), strawberry-kiwi (Sweet Frog in Belfast), cherry-vanilla (Arundel Ice Cream Shop in Arundel), ginger-beet (Mt. Desert Island Ice Cream in Bar Harbor and Portland), Bellini (Lulu’s Ice Cream & Gelato in Rockland) and malbec & berries (Rococo Artisan Ice Cream in Kennepunkport).

In the Greater Portland area, the reigning king of dairy-free ice cream is Gelato Fiasco. Owners Josh Davis and Bruno Tropeano opened in 2007 with a shop in Brunswick, featuring sorbettos (Italian for sorbet) among the milk-based gelatos. Three years ago, they opened a second shop in the Old Port in Portland, which typically features about 10 sorbetto flavors each day.

“We knew from the beginning that it was important for customers to know our sorbetto is dairy-free,” Davis said, adding that the sorbetto inclusions, such as chocolate chips, are vegan. “We knew it would be a selling point.” Since then, Davis said, the Gelato Fiasco team has “expanded the sorbetto offerings and become more aware of what an important group of customers we attract by having them.”

DAIRY-FREE TREND

An April report released by consumer research firm Mintel says health concerns continue to dog the stagnant ice cream market. In response, ice cream makers have added “better for you” options, including nondairy sorbets. “One segment where purchases have increased, however, is nondairy frozen treats, with nearly 45 percent of consumers saying they are buying more,” the report says.

Consumer demand for dairy-free ice cream is visible throughout the market. Ben & Jerry’s announced in June a vegan flavor was under development and would be released next year. Blue Bunny, one of the nation’s largest ice cream manufacturers, is test marketing four almond milk-based flavors.

A Blue Bunny representative told Culture Map Dallas that “nondairy alternatives are huge, whether it’s a sensitivity or with more people becoming vegan.”

Closer to home, the artisan side of this nondairy trend is on display in Boston at all-vegan FoMu (pronounced: faux-moo), which uses coconut milk as its base.

At Captain Sam’s Ice Cream shop on Commercial Street in Portland, owner Karen Morgan has tried making dairy-free ice creams using almond milk and coconut milk but found it to be too expensive. Instead, she’s returned to making sorbets after a two-year gap.

“The first summer, I was very new and learning how to make things, and my pricing for sorbets wasn’t great and I barely broke even,” said Morgan. “The second and third summer, I was so busy trying to keep up I didn’t make sorbets. But we had enough people that said, ‘We wish you had it’ that it made me go back and create sorbets again.”

This summer, the shop typically has one or two sorbets available at any time. Morgan said while summer visitors tend to be mostly kids and young families, the fall brings bus tours, cruise ships and an older clientele. “More older people can’t have dairy so I’ll increase the number of sorbets for the fall,” she said.

Jeff Shain, who heads the much larger Shain’s of Maine – which produced 8,000 gallons of ice cream the week we spoke – typically stocks two sorbets in his shop and offers up to four wholesale.

He points out the dairy-free slice of the market is small, but crucial, since without it a family outing to the ice cream stand can be vetoed because “auntie can’t have lactose.”

Shain says he is experimenting with coconut milk and almond milk, but so far the proper texture eludes him.

SORBETTO SECRETS

Back in the Gelato Fiasco kitchen, Davis said the team is always experimenting with new sorbetto flavors and recipes. He said the secret to achieving a creamy rather than an icy sorbetto is to maintain the right balance of sugar and water so “the perfect amount of water remains unfrozen.”

“What that means is you have to know how much sugar is coming to the dessert from the fruit,” Davis said. “For instance, strawberries from Maine in June have way more sugar than a strawberry we can buy in January.”

“It’s not a magic trick, it’s the perfect balance,” he said. “That’s why gelato recipes are given in proportion.”

According to Davis, the creamy texture of the Gelato Fiasco sorbetto fools many people. Davis said he’s had multiple chefs accuse him of failing to leave a dairy-free option.

“The chef calls back and says, ‘We asked for a dairy-free option,’ ” Davis said. “We assure them, ‘It’s dark chocolate noir. Yes, it’s dairy-free.’ They say, ‘No way. It’s too creamy.’ ”

“I think some of our best flavors, honestly, are our dairy-free flavors,” Davis said, adding that the company has benefited from the experience of vegan employees over the years. Still, one flavor request remains elusive.

“The most requested dairy-free thing we’ve never been able to pull off is a dairy-free vanilla,” Davis said. “We’ve tried a whole bunch of recipes, but it ends up being a coconut vanilla or almond vanilla that doesn’t freeze right.”

For now, customers who avoid dairy will have to settle for more adventurous Gelato Fiasco flavors, such as Vacationland Summer Ale and pomegranate dark chocolate chunk. Even without vanilla, people who love ice cream but don’t eat milk have never had more choices at the local ice cream store.

Avery Yale Kamila is a freelance food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at:

[email protected]

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

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