Minerva Dairy’s Slow-Churned, Small-Batch Amish Butter

Interstate 77’s arteries fan out in all directions on the drive south from Cleveland through Akron. The bustle of traffic downshifts along the U.S. Route 30 exit that flows southeast, through unincorporated rural towns along the hem of the Appalachian region. White 19th- and 20th-century colonial homes snuggle closer together as the two-lane road meanders past churches, funeral homes, mom-and-pop shops, and into Minerva, population 3,720.

Within the heart of the village’s geographic boundaries, Minerva Dairy, the oldest family-owned cheese and butter dairy in the U.S., is churning out 50,000 pounds of cheese and 20,000 pounds of butter every day, and distributing those dairy goods throughout the U.S., Bahamas, and St. Croix in the Virgin Islands. Despite its vast footprint, the company is still intentionally small for a national manufacturer of Amish butter and cheese, with approximately 90 employees. “We don’t compete against the commodity brands,” says fifth-generation owner Adam Mueller. “We fill a niche market since we make artisanal butter. Ours has a different fat content.” While American butter is about 80% fat, Minerva’s unctuous sticks, rolls, and rounds are 85% butterfat, which means the butter is more pliable and has a richer taste.

Minerva makes its butter in the tradition of pre-industrialization, or, as they say, the old-fashioned way.

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For millennia, prior to the 19th-century industrialization of the dairy industry, all butter was of the cultured kind, its variance in tanginess dependent on terroir, seasons, and the cows’ diet. Culturing occurred as a result of raw milk resting overnight. Resting propagated microorganism growth and fermentation, transforming the milk sugars into lactic acid, and thereby slightly souring the milk. The cream that floated to the top was skimmed away for butter making. Rigorous hand-churning ensued, which concentrated the fat globules into butter. The remaining liquid made buttermilk. “Butter churned from fresh cream, irrespective of the quality of the cream, is somewhat bland. To unleash the full flavor potential of butter, the cream used to make it first needs to be cultured, that is, allowed to be fermented by lactic acid bacteria,” writes Johnny Drain of the Nordic Food Lab. Lactic acid bacteria make up a family of bacteria that is used widely in the making of other dairy products, such as cheeses and yogurts.

Today, cream and milk are separated instantly by centrifugal force, and milk is pasteurized to prevent undesirable bacterial development. To create cultured butter from pasteurized cream, cultures have to be added back into the pasteurized milk (a standard practice in Europe). Often, commodity butter makers skip this laborious step, and farmers inject natural flavor compounds, such as diacetyl and lactic acid distillations, into mild-tasting sweet cream butter after churning to make it taste like cultured butter. Some American artisan butter makers are taking exception to the practice by labeling their products as “vat-cultured” or “naturally cultured.”

Minerva Dairy, however, cultures butter in the same way it did 100 years ago—before pasteurization, a practice that Adam says differentiates them from other butter makers. Even cultured butter made today in Europe and in the U.S. do not culture butter as it was (done) generations ago. Only Minerva continues this tradition, he said.

Minerva’s traditional approach of culturing cream for butter-making produces nuances in the flavor that commodity products cannot achieve because commodity butter is only 80% fat and not cultured. “That’s why commodity butter tastes the same, all the time,” Adam said.

Cream of the Crop

At Minerva Dairy, trucks haul in the milk from 60 or so local farms located in the northeast quadrant of Ohio. “Our milk trucks go to our local farms every two days,” Adam said. The Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, and Milking Shorthorn cows graze on forages, grains, and fresh grasses—including alfalfa, timothy, and clover, which pack in beta carotene, an antioxidant, and gives the Amish butter its deep yellow color.

The trucks are unloaded every 45 minutes, and the milk is tested for antibiotics or bacteria. From there, a maze of pipes and tanks carry the milk through a process that separates the pasteurized cream for butter and the milk for cheese. In one corner of the facility, vats the circumference of a small backyard swimming pool agitate the curds in the whey. After cooking the curds and whey, the whey is drained off and the curd is salted before pressing. The result is 4,000 pounds of cheese from one vat, or the equivalent of 40,000–50,000 pounds a day from the 10 vats. Minerva produces cheese only for private label. “We make cheese to make butter,” Adam quipped.

Deeper into the production facility, a hulking churn spins cream into butter curds and buttermilk, like a front-loading washing machine on a delicate cycle. The slow churn yields a thicker, creamier butter than its lighter, whipped, and flavor-light commodity counterpart, which uses high-speed pumps to shear fat and trap air. “At last count, there are three of us in the U.S. still making and selling butter with this type of churn,” Adam said.

Grape-sized curds gather at the bottom, while the pasteurized buttermilk is drained and diverted for animal feed. “I can’t just take this buttermilk, bottle it, sell it to you, and say ‘See you later,’” Adam explained, although he’d love to. But the buttermilk would have to be re-pasteurized prior to bottling in order to be sold, Adam said, referencing regulations under the 423-page federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Most buttermilks are made with milk and cream that have been pasteurized at high temperatures, which kills off the naturally occurring bacteria that causes the buttermilk to ferment. Today’s shelf-stable buttermilk is an amalgamation of skim or low-fat milk, lactic acid bacteria, salt, and thickeners like carrageenan, and starch. “I would love to sell this buttermilk. It has an incredible taste and mouthfeel,” Adam said.

Across from the churn, a butter trolley upends a half-ton of butter at a time. Butter boats shuffle what now looks like a deep yellow gelato over to a mechanized butter pump that rotates the solid mass through its hulking coils, which contour the butter into rolls. A handful of employees are on the receiving end, hand-wrapping each roll in parchment paper, as has been done for generations.

A cavernous, warehouse-sized cooler holds 525 pallets of butter boxes that will be shipped to 3,500 stores, mostly along the west and east coasts, and, of course, in Ohio. Variations include salted and unsalted rolls, sticks, and quarter sticks. The butter also comes in garlic herb, pumpkin spice, smoked maple wood, and cinnamon honey flavors.

“It is rich, creamy, and delicious. We’ve had customers who eat our butter by the spoonful, on its own,” Adam said.

Despite having the mindset of a small manufacturer, in which growth is carefully monitored and the owners quite literally have their hands in the business, Minerva Dairy is still growing production by 10% to 12% per year, and outpacing the national average of 2% growth, Adam said. This year, Minerva Dairy is celebrating its 125th anniversary.

Adam and his sister, Venae Watts, have introduced the business to their kids, who range in age from 15 to 21, and comprise the sixth generation. “My dad had me start working there when I was 12 or 13. It started out as punishment for a C that I received in class,” quipped Alec Mueller, who is a junior majoring in business administration at Ashland University. “During summer and winter breaks, I would do simple production line assembly work, like putting butter in the boxes and shipping them out. When I really got into trouble, I had to work sanitation. But now, I feel like I have an advantage over my peers in terms of work experience. The basic factory work taught me the value of the dollar very quickly, and what hard work really means.”

Say Cheese

Minerva Dairy has not always been in Minerva. The son of Prussian immigrants, first-generation owner Max Radloff left his home in Wisconsin at age 14. He didn’t want to learn the furniture business like his successful father. Max wanted to learn the dairy business, as noted in his 83-page memoir.

After my second year of cheese making, I heard of the Dairy school at Madison and made application for a term in cheese making. I planted out with Frank Reinte from Iron Ridge but lost track of him in Madison. We homed with Philip Caper [who made] Pidge cheese for all fairs and conventions. I also won a Pidge once for Brick Cheese at Milwaukie cheese Convention. After (Dairy School) I took a job as cheese maker at Manawa for a farmer factory. It was a loosely put up building, made American cheese. When the cheese was low the farmers would hold the cheese in an upstairs building where the temperature was the same as outside. I told the farmers I could not make cheese to stand up in such a room, so the factory closed and I went home.

A few years later, during the late 19th-century, he established Radloff Cheese in Hustisford, Wisconsin, and bought other cheesemaking locations from there. By the time he reached his late 60s, in 1935, he bought his 20th dairy operation in Minerva. The building had been vacant for years prior to its heyday as a World War I milk company.

The Pet Milk Company, then of St. Louis, had abandoned the factory, which is a big 300-ft. tall brick-and-concrete that could be bought for taxes, which amounted to $5,000 to $6,000. We decided to take it and started in to make cheese. Kurt Gronick and Max Jr. worked up the patronage to near 300 patrons . . . when a Mr. Hershey appeared and wanted to start in company with us to make Candy. We got the record of this man and he was no good, had failed several times, had fires, etc. He was related to the successful Hersheys but was a failure, so we declined his offers. But he was persistent to start in that territory and got money from banks and government to start at Malvern, and they put 5 field men to work on our patrons, shrinking our patronage one half . Around the same time, the soon-to-be third-generation owner, Max’s granddaughter, was back in Wisconsin, marrying an ice cream maker. Neither of the families showed up to the wedding because of fighting over religion (both sides were Lutheran, but from different churches). Max was the only guest. As a wedding present, he bought the couple a Model T and urged them to flee Wisconsin for Minerva. “My grandmother didn’t know any English, but she learned it fast because back then, no one wanted to hear German. They wouldn’t teach my father German,” Adam said. “Isn’t that a shame?” To be accepted into the Minerva community, the new cheesemakers donated some of their farmland for a community park and turned their back on their German heritage.

World War II ushered in the rationing of goods in the U.S, a far cry from the abundance afforded to today’s modern society. Locals flocked to the farm with their rationing tickets, in exchange for a 2-pound butter roll that Minerva Dairy packaged and wrapped in the wax-sealed bulk roll, similar to the technique of the Amish—and thus, christening its association as Amish roll butter.

Minerva Butter is sold at local and specialty grocers throughout Northeast Ohio, and Annmarie’s Dairy at the West Side Market. For more information, visit MinervaDairy.com or follow them at Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.