Even though the practice of plopping down free baskets of bread on restaurant tables has faded, the custom of charging for a homemade loaf and handcrafted butter has been slow to catch on in Charleston, largely because the state is home to very few artisan dairies.
Josh Brooks, Kent Whetsell and Patrick Myers are aiming to change that through Lowcountry Creamery, a boutique offshoot of their existing Bowman dairy operation. While the creamery still is in a pilot phase, with sales currently limited to the company’s small production facility and the Sunday Brunch Farmers Market on James Island, Myers believes the area is primed for a dairy renaissance.
“Up in Vermont, you can’t buy PET because everyone buys from a dairy within a 15-mile radius,” said Myers, who serves as the creamery’s general manager. “It’s the opposite down here. People are used to high volume at a very low price. It’s something that we have to break.”
At the farmers market, Lowcountry Creamery charges $3 for four ounces of butter, although Myers stresses that precise costs likely will change as the dairy finesses its production and sales strategies.
“Our products cost a lot more,” he admits. Still, he adds, the price is “kind of irrelevant” compared with the quality of Lowcountry Creamery’s butter, buttermilk and Greek yogurt.
Much of the growth in the small-scale dairy industry has occurred in the cheese sector. According to a California Polytechnic Institute report, per capita consumption of artisan cheese surged 75 percent between 1994 and 2003. But an increasing number of modestly sized dairy operations are now focusing on butter and its byproducts, taking advantage of customer dissatisfaction with industrial butter and a science-backed reconsideration of saturated fat.
For its butter, Lowcountry Creamery relies on a herd of Jersey cows. In addition to faring better in the South Carolina heat than the black-and-white Holsteins familiar from Ben & Jerry’s containers, Jerseys give milk that’s higher in butterfat.
“It’s just a breed more conditioned to what we’re doing,” Myers said.
Prior to the launch of Lowcountry Creamery, the prized milk was sold to a co-op at federally determined prices and mixed with other milks for commercial sale. While the creamery will continue to operate its five-year-old standard dairy as a way of supporting its artisan efforts, Myers said the company wants to get away from the prevailing dairy farmer’s mentality of “do(ing) things the way granddaddy did,” which in South Carolina means contributing to a mass production system.
“Charleston is one of the top culinary destinations,” Myers said of Lowcountry’s chances for success. “We have a very good market here.”