It didn't exactly seem like a day for ice cream. The rain had finally returned after a dry spell that left lawns crunching and heavy, charcoal clouds were inching closer, bringing with them a bit of wind. The only cover on the dairy farm is pretty well full of cows and there's scant grass, crunchy or otherwise, thanks to 200 head of nibbling Jersey cows, their calves, and a rather verbal bull digging his forehooves into the still damp earth.
Fifty minutes north of downtown Charleston, off an exit with nothing but a BP station and an empty lot with one half of a faded Blimpie sign, Patrick Myers, Josh Brooks, and Kent Whetsell, the co-owners of Lowcountry Creamery, run a dairy that is by all industry metrics small, but for the milk and ice cream lovers of Charleston, irreplaceable.
"When I started making ice cream, there wasn't a question of what I was going to use," says Cynthia Wong, the six-time James Beard Award semifinalist and founder of Life Raft Treats. Wong's now infamous Not Fried Chicken ice cream drumsticks are irresistibly cute and perfectly sweet, thanks in large part to the creamery's Jersey cows.
"I was working at a restaurant downtown when a barista brought me a gallon of milk to taste," she says. "It was easy! I liked that it was local, but the first thing I noticed was the taste."
Back at the creamery on that rainy day, in an old restaurant turned office turned production facility that shares a wall with the BP, Wong and Myers talk shop while the 7-foot-tall water cooling tank buzzes. Heat levels, fat percentages, DHEC rules, equipment costs, and cow breeds. It sounds more like an episode of Planet Money or the 99% Invisible podcast than you might expect.
"The retail price you pay for milk is not at all related to what I get paid. Look at it like this: I've been paid 100 percent more than I am now at some points in time because it's a global market, but the price of milk in the grocery store doesn't change that much," explains Myers. "Butterfat is where all the money in milk is. All our milk every day is sampled for what percent butterfat it is and what percent skim it is. Right now, our cows are producing about 5 percent butterfat, so we get paid for 5 percent of our milk and then [separately] for the other 95. We get paid twice as much for that 5 percent as we do for the 95 percent."
The age-old adage about cream rising to the top seems relevant here, especially with Myers' explanation of how the dairy industry became keenly aware of optics once milk supply transitioned from backyard cows to grocery aisles: "They invented homogenization to basically blast the fat particles into tiny little pieces by running it through a series of tubes decreasing in size to increase pressure. That hurts the milk; it hurts the fat and that's not good for flavor, but it makes the consumer feel better when they see it, because the fat then stays suspended in the milk so there is no cream line on top."
Next time you take in the spread of grocery store milk variations, look closer. You'll see a highly standardized pricing system that seldom reflects the true cost of production or what's paid to farmers of any scale. Most large dairies, Myers explains, can do in 15 seconds what it takes Lowcountry Creamery's one full time employee, Lauren Clemency, to do in half an hour with their 100 gallon processing tank. Their whole process — vat to bottle — takes six hours, the slow heat slightly caramelizing the milk proteins and sugars in the process. Larger industrial outfits will also take all the butter fat out of milk, adding back in only enough to meet the FDA minimum for "whole milk," which is 3.25 percent.
"The value is in the fat ... and that fat is what makes ice cream," smiles Myers.
Damn good ice cream, too, especially as Wong does it: waffle-flavored and molded around a chocolate-covered cookie "bone" before taking a dip in caramelized white chocolate and crushed cornflakes. Or churro-flavored and tucked into a taco-shaped cone shell edged with chocolate.
If people balk at the cost: "Yeah it's $5 for a scoop of ice cream — look at where I get the milk, the eggs, the fruit, and the time and care I put into it ... Then they taste it and are like, 'Oh my God, this is really good!' Of course it's really good, I use really good ingredients! You can't make this with another milk. If I wanted to, I could go get some random commodity milk from a very large distributor and pay a third as much for the milk and make a lot of money, a thick margin, but then there's no point in doing this. The point is to make a really delicious product that celebrates everything that's around it."
- Ruta Smith
- Wong and her kids meet a calf on the farm
Seeing Wong and Myers talk cow breeds on the dairy, their boots collecting mud as Wong's two young sons and a pair of week-old calves oggle each other — it's hard to believe King Street is less than an hour south. By next weekend, Wong will be driving the former postal truck that she won at auction, painted a fresh green, and retrofitted into an ice cream truck to city markets with crowds who may never have seen a cow up this close. Earlier this year, Myers and Wong did bring a cow to the crowds as part of their demo at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition. It was one of the first times that the pair met in person — after liking each other's Instagram posts for a long time, Myers recalls — and not one they'll likely ever forget, as the little brown Jersey cow got loose in Marion Square.
Farm-to-table isn't a stretch, but a standard for Wong: "That is always what we did because it makes sense," she says. "It wasn't like I worked places where we didn't do that and suddenly it changed and became a fad, It's just what you do ... The main thing for me is that the milk tastes good. Period. That's it."
As the first raindrops started to fall, one round mama cow laid down on the spotty grass, her sides, the color of richly creamed coffee, mounding out around her. Unlike her black-and-white dairy cow cousins, the big Holsteins, this Jersey cow is likely to give birth easily, quickly, and without human help. Her milk output, while not as abundant as the Holsteins, will be more dense with vitamins and proteins, and richer, at around 5 percent butterfat.
"Stick around long enough and you might see one born," smiles Myers. These chocolate brown Jersey cows are more than work to him; they're part of the family.
Lowcountry Creamery sits on land that Myers' great-grandfather bought "a long, long time ago," a parcel that started at 400 acres and has grown under the family's farming business to nearly 1,600 acres. Now Myers and his business partners, the money-smart Brooks and "heart and soul of our milk output" Whetsell, rent 50 acres from his family. Feed and hay for the cows come from Myers' father's farm. And the old restaurant attached to that BP down the road? Above the door you can still make out an old, faded sign: Carolina Cafe, the restaurant where Myers' mother used to be the chef. Between three silver vat pasteurizers in the back room, you can see the window where she would place order-ups and the metal strip that held customer tickets.
"I went to college [at Clemson] to not have to work on the weekend," Myers laughs. It's not the first Sunday he's spent on the farm. "That's the weird part that you can't explain. It's in the roots, the blood, the hard work, all that type of stuff. I love it." Some nights he's up until 11 p.m. making yogurt in his mom's old kitchen.
"This is the reason for the creamery." Myers gestures toward the mama cow about to start pushing, the snorting bull kicking at the dirt, the week-old calves still so flexible they can lick their own tails. "We wanted to start the dairy back then because we felt like we could do it, but we knew we had to do this [the creamery] to really make it work because a 200-cow dairy is small ... We had no clue if we would get where we are now. If you don't succeed in six months, you might fail pretty quickly with this type of investment. We didn't know what type of market we had, or if we could make anything good."
This May marked Lowcountry Creamery's fifth year selling its Jersey cow milk, and now creme fraiche, yogurts, and chocolate milk, too. When you sip your latte at The Daily, The Harbinger, Second State, Broom Wagon, or Butcher & Bee, that's the taste of slow-processed milk from cows just an hour north of town.
"I really don't know what I would do without it [Lowcountry Creamery milk]. I don't know where I would go for milk," says Wong.
Back under cover at the gas station, drops were already battering the old roof when Wong produced a striped bucket of cornflake-coated ice cream drumsticks and handed it to Myers. You can smell the milky sweetness despite the cold. The eyes of a brown Jersey calf in a picture on the wall seemed to follow the bucket, its purple tongue curling out as if to say it is, in fact, a perfect day for ice cream.