I tried out the $550 ice maker that creates chewable frozen ‘nuggets’ and has thousands of fans

  • The Opal nugget ice maker raised $2.7 million on Indiegogo back in 2015.
  • The machine makes a special kind of ice that has its own fan base.
  • I tried out the Opal ice maker at home and enjoyed it, but its high tag will likely be a turn off to many people.


How seriously do you take your ice?

Almost exactly three years ago, a pitch for a specialized ice maker raised $2.7 million on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo. Before we can understand what motivated more than 6,000 individual backers to throw that kind of money at an ice machine, we need to examine the specialized nugget ice that it makes.

Rather than simply freeze water into a shape, nugget ice makers like the Opal scrape flakes away from the inside of a chilled stainless steel cylinder and extrude it through a round hole.

The end result is a bunch of chewable ice “nuggets” that give this ice its name.

Opal ice makerThis method of ice manufacture dates back to 1981, an innovation by Scotsman Ice Systems that “changed the history of ice forever.” You’ll recognize it in drinks everywhere, from upscale cocktail bars to fast food drive-in chain Sonic. To hear the aesthetes talk about it, this is no ordinary frozen water. Common praise for the ice includes mention of its chewability and its seeming ability to chill beverages more quickly than conventional ice and absorb their flavor in the process.

And let’s not forget that it keeps your drink cold at the same time.

Life was previously difficult for the nugget ice devotee. Manufacturers in this niche cater almost exclusively to the food service industry, so options were limited if you wanted nugget ice at home: you could invest in a pricey, industrial-scale contraption, or hoard the ice from businesses that serve it. And lots of people did.

“It turns out that nugget ice lovers often got their ice from fast food restaurants and travel stations,” said Larry Portaro, director of the FirstBuild team that designed the Opal and brought it to market. Hardly a backyard homebrew invention, this machine is the brainchild of a GE Appliances engineer who submitted his idea to FirstBuild, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the company.

“With the Opal nugget ice maker, there was enough in-person and online support for the idea that FirstBuild went to market using Indiegogo,” he said.

Nugget ice has a posse, basically, and the Opal is the domestic breakthrough these people were waiting for. With a clean, stainless steel look and a $549 price tag, it squeezes the functionality of expensive restaurant hardware into a countertop appliance for the home. It has a footprint of 10.5 inches by 15.5 inches, measuring 17.25 inches tall.

It’s extremely simple to use: fill the basin with water, plug in the machine, and press the power button. You’ll see the first bits of ice in about 20 minutes, and it can fill its bucket with three pounds of ice in approximately three hours.

One bucket is enough to fill several large drinking glasses with precious nugget ice, and I have filled many. The more I used and enjoyed Opal-manufactured ice, the more I was inclined to store it and have it on hand 24/7. I ultimately turned off the icemaker in my freezer, keeping my nugget ice reserves there instead.

Opal ice maker

This leads me to the only problem I encountered with the device: if you store your freshly made nugget ice in a conventional freezer, it will harden together into a block. In other words, the Opal makes ice that is slightly damp — no problem if it’s going straight into a drink, but a speedbump if you want store it for use the next day.

An ice chipper solves this problem immediately.

If you are lit up by the prospect of “at-home nugget ice machine,” then the Opal is your manna raining from heaven. It works exactly as marketed and I have no negative feedback, save for my experience with the ice sticking together in my home freezer.

The price will be contentious, however. The only question of substance is: are you willing to shell out $549 for it? If not, you may be rewarded by a “wait and see” approach — the Opal has been on sale in the past for a low as $400 — but these are still price points that will have some people happy to continue taking their nugget ice from Sonic.

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