OLD ORCHARD BEACH - I headed south from Portland at 3:45 a.m. Birds were already singing, a soft glow bathed the eastern horizon, and a fat moon still hung low in the sky.
Dan Patry had already been at work for almost three hours.
By the time I arrived at Kate's Homemade Butter, Patry had already churned the first batch of the day and his crew, mostly family, was busy packaging the first 1,500 pounds. The day would not be end until about 9:30 p.m. - or about 12,000 to 15,000 pounds of butter later.
I came to Kate's because I was curious about the product, which I have seen on Maine grocery shelves for years. Who hasn't glimpsed the smiling girl in the kerchief and overalls pictured on the package, and wondered, "Who's Kate?"
I came away with a lesson in butter-making and an appreciation for the passion that Patry brings to his work. This, for example, is how he prepared me for the magic of watching the exact moment when the cream becomes butter: "Wait until you see it turn," he said. "You'll die. It's absolutely beautiful. You'll see, all of a sudden it gets a deeper yellow, deeper yellow, then - bam! - it turns to butter."
Kate's is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, without much fanfare. I was the first journalist allowed into their production facility in 23 years. The Patry family has refused a lot of interview requests, and stopped giving tours a long time ago, mostly because of concern about contamination. Even a splash of perfume worn by a visitor could ruin a batch of butter.
The family also just plain doesn't like a lot of attention. Their production facility is located in the garage of a modest home on a side street. Occasionally, fans of Kate's Homemade Butter will track them down in this seaside town and suddenly appear on their doorstep, hoping to view the operation and buy some butter. They are always turned away.
It's hard to hide out, however, when Food and Wine magazine says that your butter "has the creaminess and body of the best examples from France, England and Denmark."
When I arrived early Monday morning, the house was already filled with the clackety-clack of a packaging machine.
"There's bedrooms above this, but the building is pretty much soundproof," Patry said. "You'll notice there's no windows on the side of the house. Everything is more or less double insulated so you don't hear any sound."
The fresh cream that's used in Kate's is stored in two on-site tanks. To make butter, first the cream has to be tempered - heated to at least 185 degrees for a minimum of 15 seconds. Then it's cooled down to 38 degrees and left to set so the fat can harden again, a process that takes at least 24 hours.
The temperature is raised again before the liquid is pumped into the 1950s-era butter churn, a big stainless steel drum with a plastic window on the front that looks something like a washing machine. The churn can hold 950 gallons of cream, but Patry typically runs it at about 80 percent of its capacity because he doesn't want to stress the machine. Breakdowns can wreak havoc on the production schedule, especially since Patry has to fix the old churn himself with spare parts he's collected over the years.
Modern facilities use a "continuous churn," then may freeze the butter or place it in cold storage in 60-pound blocks. When the butter is ready for store shelves, it's run through a homogenizer that chops it up before it goes to a packaging machine.
That level of processing makes Patry shudder.
"It's so easy to overwork butter," he said. "The more you handle it, the greasier it gets. Our butter is never frozen. We never put it in cold storage. We carry a probably a maximum of one week's inventory. Most of the butter we're making today has already been sold."
On the day I visited, the churn took about 20 minutes to fill up with cream. While we were waiting, I asked Patry why he refuses to use cream from cows treated with hormones. Is it a personal decision, or a marketing one?
He launched into a speech criticizing the way modern dairy cows are treated in an effort to increase their production by 15 percent.
"I think it's so wrong" to use hormones, he said. "It's like chickens in a cage. The cows, to push them like that, it's not a normal thing. You're stressing your animals out. . . .You're using them like a machine. To me, it's more of a moral issue than anything else."
DAIRY FARMING IN THE GENES
This is no animal rights activist talking. Patry hails from four generations of Minot dairy farmers. As a teenager, he learned how to make butter from his Uncle Roland using old wooden churns.
After the stainless steel churn filled with frothy cream, Patry pushed a button and the machine started agitating. He told me it would take about 45 minutes before we reached that magical moment when "the butter comes."
The butter he's making this month is a deeper yellow because cows are now eating grass.
"You can actually see the seasons change," Patry said. "It's very pale yellow in winter."
While the new batch of butter churned - this one would be salted butter - Patry kept an eye on a hopper filled with the remains of the last batch of unsalted butter. Two augurs at the bottom of the hopper pushed the butter through a big pipe to the packaging machine in the next room. The machine shaped the butter into sticks and wrapped them in foil.
Patry's sister-in-law Debbie and mother-in-law Theo busily assembled boxes with the picture of Kate on them. Patry only has sons and the family wanted a little girl on the packaging, so that's how a niece was chosen to be the face of the company. Kate, now 27 but perpetually a toddler in the grocery store, was just 18 months old when she posed for the photo.
Patry's son Lucas, Debbie's son Tim, and another worker packaged the sticks in the boxes, and loaded them onto palettes.
Just after 6:30 a.m., Patry called me back to the churn. Something was happening. The fat was separating, and the contents of the churn looked like a big bowl of whipped cream.
NEARING THE MAGIC MOMENT
The process of making butter involves breaking the bond between the fat globules in the cream and the emulsifier that surrounds them.
"The concussion breaks the casings around the fat and opens it up and releases the globule, and then they all stick together," Patry said.
By 6:44 a.m., the churn squealed and thumped as the blob of almost-butter formed, sounding like a pair of sneakers left in the dryer. The substance was swimming in a sea of buttermilk, and the machine was getting under a little stress.
Then, I experienced that magic moment. Suddenly, there were flashes of deep yellow in the window of the churn. The product inside looked like buttered popcorn.
When Patry turned off the churn at 6:51 and opened the door, I was overwhelmed by the smell of fresh butter. Patry had warned me about this, but I was unprepared for the head rush that washed over me. The scent transported me immediately to fresh air and countryside. I could practically hear the cows mooing in the pasture.
Next Patry pumped out the buttermilk, washed the butter to remove any remaining film, and added sea salt. Before closing the door to mix in the salt, he took a sample to be tested for moisture content. Butter is typically 80 percent fat, 17 percent moisture and 1-2 percent salt. If there's not enough moisture in the mix, he adds some back in.
Patry personally tastes most batches he makes, even though he has a family history of high cholesterol. There's only butter in the cupboards at home, and the taste of margarine never passes his lips.
His doctor checks his cholesterol level every three months.
With so much care going into each batch, the thought of the family's butter sitting in a store waiting to be shelved, or left out in a butter dish at home, drives Patry crazy. Butter left out too long will change color and take on a different flavor.
So, two months ago, Kate's began packaging its butter in plastic tubs that will take heat better. Right now the tubs, which took a year to design, are only distributed through Hannaford's and Associated Grocers.
Kate's is now looking for a new location in the country, a spot somewhere in southern Maine that's not quite so cramped. But that doesn't mean the company is planning a big expansion, Patry said.
"We aren't looking to be a huge company," he said. "We want to be the best at what we do. That's the most important thing to us."