Food

The Bay Area Ice Cream Place that Pasteurizes Its Own Milk

The San Francisco Bay Area has a crazy food scene. It’s basically assumed that if you eat in a restaurant, the food is farm-to-table and uses locally sourced, artisan ingredients. The note that “Obama ate here” serves as the de facto equivalent of a five-star Yelp review (he’s eaten at a surprising number of places around the Bay, and not always fancy ones). Chefs here are used to catering to a dizzying array of food preferences and restrictions, including gluten free, Paleo, ketogenic, pescaterian, and Whole 30 — not to mention vegetarian and vegan, which are so common that they barely register.

This tendency towards unique food extends to everything in the Bay Area — even good old-fashioned ice cream. We have tons of different innovative ice cream options. You can get ice cream that’s flash-frozen the moment you order it using liquid nitrogen, which flows through pipes in the ceiling at -320 degrees. There’s ice cream which is made by pouring ingredients onto a super-chilled piece of marbled, and then folding them into a milky version of puff pastry dough by a man with a tiny, sharp spade. In this environment, it’s tough to stand out, and innovation is key.

So it’s not surprising that for one Bay Area ice cream place, the logic of getting started went something like this. “If I’m going to start an ice cream place, it should have homemade ice cream which uses artisan ingredients. Of course, it should have unique flavors, like roasted strawberry, that change every week. Oh, and if I’m going to do this, I might as well bring in raw milk and pasteurize it onsite in my own, fully-licensed facility. You know, just to make sure it’s really fresh.”

Lottie’s Ice Cream calls itself a microcreamery. With several locations around the Bay Area, they bring in raw milk from local farms. They then use their own equipment to pasteurize the milk onsite (pasteurization is a requirement for selling it to the public), just moments before turning it into a variety of artisan ice cream flavors. The goal is to preserve as much of the goodness of raw milk as possible, and to have complete control over the process so they can create a unique, fresh end product.

Lottie’s originally launched in 2013 using a Kickstarter campaign (this is the Bay Area, after all). They raised over $18,000 to help launch their business, with the promise of a kid-friendly scoop shop and a co-founder who trained with Berkeley ice cream legends (again, this is the Bay Area). The chain has delivered on its promises, with shops in Walnut Creek and Danville.

When you enter Lottie’s, you’re greeted by a crisp white and red interior, with chalkboards and stylized lettering everywhere, and friendly staff behind the counter. Again, the flavors here trend towards the out-there and unique, with rotating offerings including Thai iced tea, Honey Lavender, Honey Candied Kumquat, and the like. For the less adventurous — or your kid — there’s always a few standbys like chocolate and vanilla. One of my favorites is the roasted strawberry. Their ice cream is served in sustainable cups with little wooden scoops, like the kind you used growing up in those $0.50 combo chocolate/vanilla ice cream cups.

Interior of Lottie’s Walnut Creek, with pasteurization facility visible through the window on the left. Credit: Gado Images.

At the back of the store though a glass window, though, is the crown jewel of Lottie’s — their micro-pasteurization facility. It’s worth pointing out that pasteurizing milk is hard. On-site processing of foods already exists in the Bay Area, but this is different. Many coffee places, for example, bring in raw beans and process them in-house with their own coffee roaster. If you mess up roasting coffee, though, you’ll end up with a brew that’s too dark or too light. If you mess up pasteurizing milk, you’ll kill your customers with listeria.

To avoid this, Lottie’s had to build a custom facility (it looks a bit like a cheesemaking operation, with lots of stainless steel and gauges), and get a special permit from the State. Everything about the facility had to be custom and follow strict regulations— from the equipment itself to the materials in the walls — and Lottie’s has to keep detailed records about each batch. It’s a ton of effort and expense, but it allows them to make their own ice cream base, rather than purchasing a standard off-the-shelf base like everyone else. It’s that little innovative edge that allows them to stand out.

So here’s the most important question — is the ice cream actually any good? All the pasteurizers in the world won’t get you anywhere if your end product isn’t yummy.

Lottie’s chocolate ice cream. Credit: Gado Images.

Luckily, Lottie’s delivers here too, with ice cream that’s rich, vibrantly flavored, and perfectly textured. While the artisan flavors appeal to a certain audience, the basics are delicious too, and Lottie’s definitely delivers on its kid-friendly promise.

In the Bay Area’s food scene, sometimes you have to do something crazy to stand out. Building stores which tackle potentially deadly pathogens in a process usually relegated to giant industrial facilities — all in the service of a better ice cream base — is definitely crazy. But the end result is something unique, special, and most importantly, tasty. If you’re in the East Bay, make sure to check Lottie’s out.

Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His photographic work routinely appears in publications including Food and Wine, Conde Nast Traveler, and the New York Times and his writing appears in IEEE Spectrum, SFGate, the Bold Italic and more. Smith holds a degree in Cognitive Science (Neuroscience) and Anthropology from the Johns Hopkins University.

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