Many, many years ago (back when you could smoke in restaurants), my grandmother gave us "sugar-butter bread" (white bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with sugar) for after-school treats. Those days, butter ran in rivulets down our mashed-potato volcanoes, dripped off our chins as we ate corn on the cob. It was delivered to the back door in wax-paper-wrapped pound blocks along with squat, wide-mouthed bottles of milk capped with an inch of cream. Melted butter was our dip for blanched asparagus and steamed lobster. As Harold McGee, author of On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen says, butter is a sauce in itself, needing no embellishments.
The saucy workhorse essentially comes in two varieties: salted and unsalted. In the days before refrigeration, salt was added to keep the butter from going bad; today it's added for flavor. Unsalted, or European-style, butter derives its classic tangy taste from the addition of a culture, which is much like the starter used to make sourdough bread.
And, if you've been buying butter only from grocery stores, you might think that's all there is. Sure, there are expensive imports (Kerrygold from Ireland, for example, and European-style Plugra) and artisan butters from small American companies (such as Vermont Butter and Cheese Company)for about $5 to $6 a pound. Delicious, but not what I scramble eggs in. More pedestrian domestic brands (Land O'Lakes, Crystal Farms) are priced between $2.50 and $4.50 a pound; butter from large organic producers (Organic Valley and Horizon) costs a little more. All are consistent but unremarkable.
Then there's Hope butter. Made with fresh cream in relatively small batches in Hope, Minnesota (an hour or so south of the Twin Cities), it's "about the best in the country, certainly on a par with the imports," raves Julie Bloor, chef and forager at Uptown Minneapolis's Lucia's Restaurant. It's also moderately priced, close to the commercial brands.
Bloor discovered Hope butter last year when she decided to sharpen her focus on local products. She combed the surrounding area by making calls and following leads, and finally connected with Victor Mrotz, who had purchased Hope Creamery in December 2000. At a tasting of 32 different domestic and imported butters done by Lucia's chefs and invited tasters, Hope Creamery butter won, hands down. Bloor spread the word, and chefs at Restaurant Alma, Birchwood Café, W.A. Frost, and the Wedge deli, to name a few, began using it in their kitchens and serving it in breadbaskets. Before long, retailers were stocking it on their shelves.
Hope's operation is tiny compared with that of corporate giants. It processes about 5,000 pounds of butter per day, two days a month, using local cream from Bongard's Dairy (about 45 minutes southwest of the Twin Cities). Large operations such as Land O'Lakes or CROPP (which manufactures Organic Valley butter) can make 400,000 to a million pounds of butter a day with cream trucked in from thousands of miles away. Hope vat-pasteurizes the cream slowly and gently; large operations flash-pasteurize using high temperatures, which can often burn off nuances in the cream's flavor.
Gene Kruckeberg, who started working at the Hope Creamery in 1964, makes the butter, checking its quality throughout the entire process. The cream is piped into a huge stainless-steel vat and pasteurized over rotating steam-heated coils. Cold well water is then pumped through these coils to cool the cream before it's piped into a 900-gallon cylinder tank. This churn revolves quickly at first, then gradually slows as small kernels of butter begin to separate out and clump together into marble-size wads floating in buttermilk, which is nothing like the yogurt-thick stuff in the dairy case. (I filled a glass with it as it gushed from the churn into a large steel trough. Thin as skim milk, it was frigid and fresh.) Sadly, it's too much of a hassle to market, because of strict USDA guidelines governing equipment and bottling, so it is dried and sold to animal-feed manufacturers.
A small window in the big churn allows Kruckeberg to monitor the process; he watches for visual cues and listens to how the gathering mass hits the sides of the churn. The white sloshing foam becomes a thick, pale-yellow silt and coats the glass. Before the butter becomes solid, cold water is piped in to wash out the milk solids. Attention to this step is critical, because the fewer milk solids (those white particles that float to the top of melted butter), the better it will taste, and the less likely it will burn in a sauté. Hope butter is known for being especially "clean."
Kruckeberg then tests the butter's milk-fat content. To begin, he removes a small tin cupful of butter and weighs it on an antique scale. He then melts the butter in the same cup with a blowtorch to boil off the water, weighs the cup of clarified butter, and calculates the result, aiming for a little over the standard 80 percent. If it's too low (and the butter is too moist), he'll keep it churning. (Hope also makes a super-rich, 85 percent milk-fat butter for commercial bakers to use in croissants, scones, and pound cakes.) Once satisfied with the results, Kruckeberg adds the culture or salt or chives, depending on what type of butter is being made.
To finish the process, Kruckeberg scoops out great waxy hunks with his bare hands and plops them into the packing machine's square mouth. An extravagant scent of buttered popcorn fills the room as the satin-soft butter is pressed into one-pound blocks and wrapped with the simple Hope label. It's then hand-packed into cartons by Mrotz (often with the help of his five-year-old son Hudson) and is ready to truck out; it is never held at the distributor's warehouse or stored in a retailer's freezer.
Finally, the butter travels from Hope Creamery to its destination, which is never farther than 70 miles. "Hope butter is always fresh, never stored very long, and never ever frozen," Mrotz explains. "We make what we know we can sell, and retailers move it out right away." To keep the market stable, large manufacturers often produce excess butter when the price of cream is low and then freeze their inventory. Distributors and wholesalers also keep stock frozen; since salt masks flavor, salted butter is largely unaffected, but unsalted butter never tastes as fresh.
The butter we buy at market must be at least 80 percent milk fat; the remaining 20 percent consists of water and milk solids. Commercial processors often color butter for consistency using annatto, a flavorless natural derivative of the achiote seed--which is used in East Indian, Spanish, and Latin American cooking. The color of Hope butter is completely natural and will vary through the year depending on what the creamery's cows eat. In spring and summer, when they graze in the pasture, the butter is a soft sunshine gold; come winter, as their diets turn to hay, silage, and some grains, it's creamy white.
While taste, freshness, and quality are important, personal attention may well be the key to Hope's success. By dealing directly with restaurants and grocers instead of using a distributor, Mrotz is able to compete with popular brands and maintain a reasonable profit margin. A middleman would not only take a cut of Hope's profit, he explains, but also be less likely to see that the butter is handled properly or respond to individual clients' concerns. Mrotz enjoys knowing whom he sells to. "These chefs are independent businesspeople; they want to work with other independent businesses. They like the service, the accountability, the level of trust," he says. To reach consumers, too, Hope has begun sampling its butter at Kowalski's and the Wedge Co-op. "Whether people buy my butter or not, they always agree it tastes better than anything else on the shelf," Mrotz says.
Mrotz moved from the Twin Cities back to his family's farm with his wife, Kellie, who helps manage the creamery's books and raise their two children. Along with running Hope Creamery and farming, Mrotz is seeking out like-minded farmers and producers who want to collaborate in distributing local products into the Twin Cities and surrounding areas. Hope Creamery also processes butter for PastureLand, a cooperative of six families on four farms near Dodge Center, Minnesota.
In 1914, Steele County, Minnesota, boasted 24 creameries and produced almost four million pounds of butter a year, making it the butter capital of the world. All of them but Hope have closed as the number of dairy farms in the area dwindled and competition from major brands became increasingly fierce. Lucia's Bloor, in her search for quality ingredients and her commitment to local food and sustainability, asks herself, "Why this push to travel around the world, this fascination with Italy or France, when there is so much happening right here?"
Hope Creamery butter is available at the following stores: Almsted's Sunnyside Super Valu, Minneapolis, Isles Market and Deli, Minneapolis; Kowalski's Markets, Minneapolis, Woodbury, Inver Grove Heights, St. Paul, and White Bear Lake; Kramarczuk Sausage Company, Minneapolis; Linden Hills Meats, Minneapolis; and the Wedge Co-op, Minneapolis.
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