By Meredith Hart
A step into Hope Creamery in Steele County, Minnesota is a step back in time. Not only is the rough brick building from the early 1920s but so is the current basic process of butter making. A climb upstairs reveals a historical community artifact, a social hall where people from all around the county once danced, discussed, listened, and gossiped. These days the creamery is still used for the very purpose it was built for, to make butter, and delicious butter at that.
“Careful. It goes straight to your thighs,” warned Jay Logan jokingly, an assistant butter maker at Hope. Just the tip of a spoonful of fresh Hope butter is enough to know that this is the real stuff. The butter made at Hope is not like the stuff that comes in a tub or in single serving containers. This butter is made the way it once was on the frontier, by churning.
Of course, times have changed somewhat. Metallic machines have replaced the wooden churn and hairnets have replaced the bonnet but the basic idea has remained: local ingredients and authentic techniques guarantee a quality product. For Hope, patience is key. On Tuesday each week when the cream arrives from Sauk Center, MN, it is sent to the 800-gallon pasteurizer vat where it is slowly heated to 170 degrees, held at this temp for 30 minutes then slowly cooled to 70 degrees with well water. The cream is then further cooled with chilled water to 40 degrees for overnight storage. This process takes 5 to 6 hours. It is then sent to a giant rotating barrel that churns the cream until the butterfat solidifies. Half of the cream that comes through the doors turns into butter while the other half becomes buttermilk that Hope sells to other creameries and manufacturers. Straight from the spigot buttermilk is actually quite refreshing and almost sweet, however a quick taste is enough. It is difficult to get past the idea of drinking butter remains, even if all the fat was removed.
Once the process has finished the employees pull open the heavy jaws of the churn, revealing a huge cylindrical mound of pale yellow butter slowly morphing to the flat surface. A heap of butter this massive seems only appropriate for a butter sculpting contest or an attempt at the world’s largest cupcake record. But in this case, mounds of it are scooped up in the hands of an employee and slapped into the packing machine where each pound is individually wrapped. This process happens every week throughout the entire year resulting in an impressive 300,000 pounds of butter annually, 60,000 being organic. By taking the time to do it right, Hope creates a product that is unmatched by large-scale butter makers.
Most people who use Hope butter know what they’re getting into before they buy it. The vegetable parchment paper packaging states the company’s alliterated slogan, “The Butter that Betters the Bread,” and for customers like Margaret Schnieders and her husband, it certainly did at their wedding. When planning the food for the big day they decided they had to use Hope butter not only because it’s local but because of its supreme quality. By using fresh local cream and churning it the real way, the small company can ensure excellence from every batch.
For people in Steele County, donated Hope butter can turn up at any type of community function including church potlucks, community events, and fundraisers. “We are here to support what’s going on,” said Victor Mrotz, Hope Creamery’s owner since 2001. Their commitment to the local community is a tradition that Victor would like to expand even further and the building’s unkempt upper floor is raging with potential. On a small wooden stage, where a dusty piano sits, Victor imagines a local band playing music. Beneath a wood slat ceiling, he sees multiple tables with people chatting and eating good food. With a hefty amount of rehab and rebuilding, Victor sees this room becoming a place for people to gather over meals catered with local produce and listen to live music.
For now, Hope Creamery is focused on retaining its good reputation simply by continuing with its local emphasis and personal interactions. “There’s no corporate boardroom up here,” said Victor, standing among ancient butter production machinery and scrap wood. In fact, lack of a website means Victor gives out his cell phone number to customers instead of referring them to the Internet. He summed up his business philosophy simply saying: “I believe in the handshake.”
Hope butter is not just a product but a tradition. Not just a factory but a community landmark. With each hand-delivered one-pound package of Hope Creamery butter comes not only the promise of its slogan to “better the bread,” but also to better its community of customers in Hope and the rest of Minnesota.
To view more photos of Hope Creamery, please see the Flickr slideshow.