Food - Banner Butter keeps it small and slow
The Decatur-based producer aims to 'Banish the Pale, Raise the Butter' with its meticulous approach to butter making
It starts with something simple: "A very nice bread, like an H&F Bread Co. baguette or La Calavera brioche, spread with softened, unsalted cultured butter, small-batch preferably, with a little bit of nice sea salt," says Banner Butter co-founder Drew McBath. "There is nothing better."
McBath grew up eating Southern food out of his grandma's kitchen in Atlanta, while his grandpa worked for Coca-Cola. To him there was something gravitational in mind and spirit about cooking. Especially the long holiday hours in the kitchen, "to take raw materials and turn it into something that is wonderful and satisfying," he says. Armed with this childhood appreciation and eventually a business degree from the University of Texas at Austin, he and his wife, Elizabeth, started Banner Butter in early 2013, out of an office park in Decatur.
Currently, Banner makes everything from traditional unsalted and salted varieties to compound butters such as balsamic fig and caramelized onion or cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger. The company's paper-wrapped discs are sold retail at farmers markets all over Atlanta, at Whole Foods grocery stores, and at smaller specialty food stores such as Alon's Bakery and Star Provisions. Local restaurants such as Atlas, Watershed, Octane Coffee, and the Little Tart Bakeshop have incorporated Banner Butter into their operations. Chefs have even begun requesting Banner's leftover buttermilk for things like pastries and sauces.
The use of butter dates back as early as 2000 BC. Arabs and Syrians used goatskins as a vessel for churning, while documentation from the 1600s portrays the Irish curing butter by hiding it in bogs. In simplest terms, butter is cream that is churned to separate the buttermilk from butterfat. It's just butterfat, milk proteins, and water.
Closer to recent decades, there was the method of simply "leaving the cream outside and letting it culture on its own for anywhere around two months. They would scoop off the rotten stuff on top, and then churn it," says Banner's operations manager Mary Ellen Yupari. Slow-cultured, small-batch butter, however, like the kind Banner makes, is more complex.
Unlike big-box grocery store sweet cream butters such as Land O' Lakes, Banner ripens its cream the day before churning for hours, hence the "cultured" in cultured butter. This process allows good, healthy bacteria to form, accounting for those rich, complex undertones characteristic of these high-quality butters. According to Yupari, the ripening is what imparts a subtle tanginess that's absent in uncultured butter. After it forms, the bacteria culture eats up all of the lactose, a type of sugar found in milk, leaving only pure butterfat. Because 99 percent of the lactose is eaten, many people with lactose intolerance can eat cultured butter without experiencing negative side effects.
According to Drew, refrigerated, cultured butters are good for six to seven weeks, whereas most mass-produced butters, which are optimized for longer shelf lives rather than for taste, can last up to a year and a half. Big-batch, sweet cream butters don't even taste like butter, at least, not naturally. The cream is immediately churned after pasteurization, then mixed with lactic acid or "natural flavoring" to give it a faux buttery taste.
Banner's meticulous slow-cultured process is the result of eight years of admiring butter and one intensive year of research. Drew and Elizabeth dug through almanacs and dairy production journals dating back to the late 1800s and early 1900 — a defining era for small-scale dairy production — to decode the art of small-batch butter churns, finding trials in appropriate temperatures, pH levels, and timing.
"Lots of small failures up front allow you to quickly eliminate unproductive paths," Drew says. "I'd rather us fail in many tiny increments than fail once spectacularly, because we assumed the only process we ever tried was the sole, viable approach." In once instance, they attempted a churn at a slightly higher temperature and velocity to speed up the "breaking" of the cream, the separation. "Let's just say that the batch turned out to be suboptimal," Drew says. The entire session was trashed. "But, we learned a valuable lesson about how slight temperature and velocity variances affect the final product. Had we never tried and failed, we would be left unknowing and ripe for failure at a much larger scale."
The McBaths' hunger for better methods drove them to Northwestern France, the epicenter of butter-making technique. They discovered Naomi Ingleton of the Butter Factory in Australia through YouTube. Ingleton began as a chef by trade and studied under some of the world's best butter producers through the Jack Green Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which celebrates contributions to the dairy industry in Australia. The McBaths also connected with Allison Abernethy of Abernethy Butter, winner of a Two-Star Great Taste Award (think the Michelin stars of food products in the U.K.) and one of only a handful of small-batch producers to make cultured butter this way in the world.
"You eat butter, you enjoy butter," Drew says. "Theoretically you should want the person supplying the butter to care about the way it appears and tastes ... small is beautiful in a lot of ways, because you know where everything is coming from."
Banner locally sources its milk from Southern Swiss Dairy Farm in Waynesboro, Ga., and cream from AtlantaFresh Creamery. At 40 percent butterfat, the cream is already 5 percent to 10 percent higher than most butter, meaning a silkier, creamier product all around. The entire process usually takes around two days, about 20 times longer than commercial butters. Drew thinks butter should be held to a higher standard. Although a 5-ounce wheel of Banner Butter costs around $8 and 16 ounces of Land O' Lakes costs around $6, Drew believes the quality of his final product is worth it in the end.
Banner Butter still operates out of its original office park production facility in Decatur, "in stealth mode," Drew says. With no official brick-and-mortar store, a retail space is one goal, along with increasing its 50-gallon churn capacity and continuing to establish a company that is both profitable and sustainable.
For Drew, each pat, slice, and smear of Banner Butter comes down to creating something that he can be proud of and sharing it with others. Breaking bread, slathering it with butter and drawing closer to your kin and community around a wood-worn table, populated by the offerings of familiar faces and neighbors.