Locally made, European-style butter is difficult to find in Colorado. Now, a dairy start-up is bringing the butter—which is known for its elevated fat content and arguably more delicious flavor—stateside, leading the whey, er, way, in its industry. Colorado Springs–based Sawatch Artisan Foods delivers a growing selection of small-batch-produced, higher-fat butters and cheeses. “We started with a focus on creating sustainably made, high-quality dairy products and were excited to bring something back in this region of our country that currently doesn’t exist,” says Jennifer Gomez, Sawatch’s co-owner.

Sawatch’s small-batch manufacturing process makes a big difference in taste—and it all starts with the freshness of the milk, the majority of which is delivered each day from a nearby dairy farmer. After the cream is separated from the skim, it goes through a “lower and slower” pasteurization process (opposed to high-heat pasteurization done on a commercial scale), ripens for 16 hours to enhance the flavor profiles (instead of seconds, as most is made), and is tumble-churned twice (rather than dumped into an industrial continuous butter churn once).

The result is European-style butter with an 82 percent (or higher) butter fat content. Comparatively, American-style butter has 80 percent butter fat content. “Those extra few percentage points make a huge difference when it comes to the creaminess, the texture, the flavors, even how the butter cooks,” Gomez says. “Basically, less water and more fat makes for a better product.”

It’s the same with Sawatch’s artisan cheeses, which are all made using fresh ingredients and hand-crafted techniques.

But it’s not just their recipes that set Sawatch apart; its commitment to sustainability makes the company an impressive outlier as well. The brand invested heavily in a full-cycle water reclamation process that allows them to extract the unused water portion of the raw milk, clean, and treat it, and then use that water to clean Sawatch’s manufacturing facilities. After the water is used for cleaning, it’s collected a second time, run through an additional water treatment process, and then piped back out to a local farmer who uses it to water the crops that feed the cows that supplied the milk in the first place.

Jennifer Gomez, co-owner of Sawatch Artisan Foods. Photo courtesy of Sawatch Artisan Foods

As 25-year dairy industry vets, Gomez and her husband and Sawatch co-founder Tim thought they knew what they were getting into when they decided to start the company back in 2018. Throughout 2019, the couple built the manufacturing facilities (conveniently located near their dairy partners, which they knew would simplify logistics and save fuel emissions). By spring 2020, they were ready to launch. But despite their experience, the Gomezs didn’t have a crystal ball. “It was the worst time ever in recent history of our country to launch a food business with a target on restaurant wholesale markets,” Gomez says.

Like so many other companies last year, Sawatch pivoted its business model and began selling their butter direct to consumers in “hand rolls,” instead of only in bulk as had been the original plan. When it “took off like crazy” at the local farmers’ markets, Gomez knew they were on to something big. “When people got a chance to experience what butter is supposed to taste like, it really changed their perspective,” she says.

That positive reception has spurred Sawatch to expand from its initial offerings of a European-style butter and a handful of gouda cheese varieties. Of late, it’s working on a collection of Hispanic-style cheeses for wholesale—cotija, Oaxaca, and queso fresco—along with American favorites like colby jack, Monterey jack, and traditional white cheddar. The company is also expanding to other dairy products, such as a lactose-free barista milk for specialty coffee shops.

As vaccines become more abundant and restaurant business picks up, Gomez is eager for Sawatch to support independent local shops, whether as an ingredient or as a product on the shelves. Sawatch is also in the process of renovating a small retail store of its own in downtown Colorado Springs, which Gomez hopes will be a multifaceted hub for small-batch cheese manufacturing, an educational resource for local schools and community members to learn about cheesemaking, and a rooftop patio for wine and cheese pairings. “We want to bring the community into the space and to reconnect people with where their food is coming from and how it’s made,” she says of the space, which is currently scheduled to open in late 2021.

Gomez has already had a glimpse into how their products can refine the taste buds of even the youngest consumers. She’s heard from parents whose kids have requested the “good butter” after having tried Sawatch’s European-style variety and then going back to the traditional American fare: “We’re creating a community full of butter snobs, but I love it!”

Today, you can find Sawatch butters and cheeses in Denver retailers like Leevers Locavore, Il Porcellino Salumi, the GrowHaus, and St. Kilian’s Cheese Shop and Market. It’ll also have a booth at the Cherry Creek Fresh Market throughout the summer.