Chickpea-reliant dessert company Little Bean, the latest project from Portland culinary dream team Micah Camden and Matt Lynch (Super Deluxe, Boxer Ramen), is going to be a big deal. It’s pretty obvious — venture capital is sniffing around and grocery stores are champing at the bit. It’s hard to tell why until you taste it — Creamy, luscious, and melty like regular ice cream, Little Bean is completely dairy and nut free, with five ingredients and playful flavors.
Little Bean has been handing out free samples since early August with its little cart, soon to be paired with a larger, old-school ice cream truck Camden calls the “big bean.” In both beans, flavors like chipotle chocolate and strawberry Sichuan are ready to be scooped; by late October, eight flavors will be available at a Pearl District shop, including a vanilla with a little help from Dewar’s 12-Year Scotch, a cherry chai with a house spice blend, and a grassy matcha mint. But Little Bean is about more than just ice cream: Camden is on the chickpea campaign, spreading the good news with protein-packed pastries, cookies, and other desserts.
On a grey Thursday, Camden is lounging outside his commissary kitchen on SE 3rd in a sweatshirt, not quite cracking a smile but clearly excited. The space is packed, from a small, blue-and-white ice cream cart on a trailer to racks upon racks of cookies and Twinkie-looking pastries. At a table sits a set of six pints of ice cream, dripping as they normally would. As Camden digs a spoon in, it dives with the grace of what you’d expect in a freshly-packed pint of Haagen-Dazs — maybe a little meltier, but they’ve been sitting out, after all. That texture comes from chickpea milk, a discovery of Camden’s after months and months of tests. “I’ve never spent as much money on R&D as I have on this,” he says. “I’m not getting into the ice cream business; I’m getting into the education game.”
When Camden turned 38, he started to notice he couldn’t eat the way he had for years, pounding a pint of ice cream after dinner and “feeling like shit for days.” A cofounder of beloved brands like Blue Star Donuts and Little Big Burger, he has no history of proselytizing plant-based diets; still, he knew he needed to cut back on dairy and gluten. He also had plenty of issues with the dairy-free market at the moment: Almond and other nut milks didn’t freeze correctly, coconut milk’s flavor was hard to hide, and soy “will never escape the stigma of Monsanto,” in his words. So he found chickpeas — high in protein and fiber, with a high enough starch for dreamy texture sans stabilizers. Then he realized they could be a lot more than just ice cream, with benefits for both diners and the planet.
“It’s for the allergens and it’s for the environment,” he says. “Anything they can do with soy, I can do with chickpeas.” His chickpeas come from Washington, which cuts down on their travel time, and overall, chickpeas are a low-impact crop: They can grow in a drought and serve as a natural fertilizer. Plus, he can bring the nut-free folks to the dairy-free party, with all the protein you get from nuts.
But Camden’s love of chickpeas translates to inventive dairy-free and gluten-free desserts that don’t exactly taste that way. The byproduct of chickpea milk — essentially what’s left over after the chickpeas get a good squeeze — turns into a flour substitute for absurdly moist cookies, topped with a sprinkle of flaky salt. “Most places that have gluten-free bakeries, it’s just sugar-on-sugar-on-sugar. I never want to do that,” he says. The balance of sweetness and savory flavors is key to Camden — His Oreo comes with an oil-cured black olive cookie filled with a calamansi citrus cream, for instance. The shop will also serve lattes made with chickpea milk — the story will be completely dairy and gluten-free inside.
Camden says he plans to have pints in grocery stores around Portland as well, so get ready — chickpeas might be taking over sooner than you think, and maybe that’s a really good thing. For now, the Little Bean Instagram is the place to find the little blue-and-white cart, giving out free tastes until the shop opens this fall. “We’re going to be out all summer long,” he says. “We’re just letting people know there’s something out there other than shitty almond-milk ice cream.”