photo by Maryn McKenna
photo by Maryn McKenna
The Plate

Small-Batch Butter Makers Revive a Treasured Treat

In the back of a small shop in a nondescript industrial park, a metal box the size of a kitchen island is humming. And clanking softly. And, well, slooshing.

Andrew McBath, tall and lanky, bends over the box, listening. “Every batch is different,” he tells me. “Any moment now, you’ll hear it change.”

And he’s right: In a moment, the box stops swishing and starts thudding, like fingers thumping gently on a taut water balloon. McBath cuts the power, raises the lid, and displays what he’s been waiting for: a gleaming, craggy swath of butter, rising out of a froth of buttermilk.

It isn’t much butter—the high-tech churn processes just 25 gallons of cream—but Banner Butter isn’t focused on quantity. This startup in an anonymous Atlanta suburb aims to reframe butter, from suspect commodity to golden glory, one small batch at a time.

“I love butter,” says McBath, who owns and runs Banner Butter with his wife Elizabeth. “It’s delicious, it’s beautiful, it has been around a long time. But when I walked down the dairy aisle in a grocery store and looked at all the butter there, there was nothing interesting, nothing that I thought would be wonderful to eat. And I thought we could change that.”

View Images
Sliced butter, waiting to be packaged at Banner Butter. Photo by Maryn McKenna

On the surface, the success of Banner—which produces about 400 pounds per week of plain and seasoned butter, sold in local stores and offered on some Delta Airlines flights—represents both a tasty product and earnest effort by a couple who have been preparing to do this for years. (According to Beth, Drew started stashing seed money while he was in business school, in 1998.) But it also indicates a fundamental change in how we think about saturated fat.

For decades, butter and animal fats were the enemy, accused of causing heart disease and obesity and excised from the American diet by scientific certainty and federal proscription. Now, the science has shifted, the government has reconsidered, and butter is starring on magazine covers and in books and even in coffee. Banner Butter was perfectly timed.

The McBaths—who both have day jobs; he’s a business analyst, she’s a prosecutor—began their journey into better butter two years ago. Drew had always wanted to own a food business, and they thought they saw a niche, making compound butters with fresh, unusual flavors that could be served on toast or melted on a steak. A year later, in April 2014, they transitioned to making their own butter, modeled after farm butters they tasted on a research trip to France.

View Images
The McBaths, who make Banner Butter blending technology with old-fashioned technique. Photo courtesy Sweet Peach.

They buy high-butterfat cream from two small farms that raise grass-fed cattle, inoculate it with microbes (similar to the bacteria that make yogurt and crème fraîche), and chill it for 24 hours to let the flavors develop. Then they churn it, two small batches on each production day, breaking down and sanitizing the equipment each time. Once the butter separates from the buttermilk, it is washed in spring water, scooped by hand, and then packaged plain, or with sea salt, herbs or sweet spices, in hand-wrapped, five-ounce rounds. (The crew of women who do the handwork, including the McBaths’ former nanny and now business manager, wear T-shirts that say “Get Cultured” and call themselves the “butter babes.”)

View Images
Butter being churned at Banner Butter. Photo by Maryn McKenna

Figuring out how to make butter with new technology but old-fashioned intention has been complicated. After puzzling over modern food-science textbooks that describe industrial-scale butter-making—which can process thousands of pounds in an hour—Drew found the knowledge he needed in dairying journals from 100 years ago. “They’re full of accounts that rely on trial and error and observation, charts of temperature and pH and moisture content and churning time,” he says. “It’s an art, and it was lost when butter became mass-produced.”

It’s not only the science of butter that the McBaths see themselves retrieving, though. Both come from Georgia families, and Beth still has her great-grandmother’s wooden churn. When they make their butter, they feel as though they are reclaiming history, restoring a once-treasured food to its rightful place.

“We have talked to elderly people who are excited about our product because when they were growing up, their grandmother made butter for the house, and to upwardly mobile yuppies who are excited about it because they are yearning to live more simply,” Beth said. “Butter is one of the very few foods that transcends all cultures, all differences. It’s an honor to help bring it back.”