The recipe for Cream-Nut peanut butter from Koeze (rhymes with Susie) in Grand Rapids, Michigan hasn’t changed since Albertus Koeze started making it in 1925. The equipment is old, too, from the middle of the last century. Even a lot of the staff have been there for decades. As Martin Andree, vice-president of Koeze puts it, “We’re not new. We’re not improved. We’re making the same product we’ve made all along.”
Koeze peanut butter contains just two ingredients: roasted peanuts and salt.
Since Koeze doesn’t add any sugar (which hides off flavors in the peanuts), they’re choosy about the peanuts they use. There are four basic kinds of peanuts: runner, Spanish, Valencia, and Virginia. At Koeze, they’ve been using a high grade of Virginia peanuts since day one. They’re large, very flavorful, and typically rather expensive so they don’t end up in peanut butter too often. Instead most Virginia peanuts are roasted and sold for snacking (like our Virginia Diner Peanuts).
It wasn’t always this way. Until the 1970s, peanut butter was usually made from a mix of Spanish and Virginia peanuts. But then a new type of runner peanut called the Florunner was introduced, and in a few short years it nearly monopolized the peanut butter market. Florunners were popular with commercial peanut butter makers because they’re very high yielding (read: inexpensive). However, they don’t taste that great. They lack the rich flavor of Virginia peanuts. Today Florunners have fallen out of favor (as a monocrop they quickly became very susceptible to disease) but related runner peanuts are still used to make 99% of commercial peanut butter. To mask the lackluster flavor of the nut, peanut butter makers add a bunch of sugar. This isn’t the only place an added-sugar trick shows up in our food; it’s the same thing with 100% cacao baking chocolate, which usually tastes terrible because it’s typically made with very poor quality cacao. The baker is expected to add a lot of sugar to the crummy chocolate so that the brownies won’t taste horrible.
Koeze peanut butter is made using vintage machines that have been around for generations.
The peanut roaster is an old coffee roaster from the 1940s. Inside the roaster, 300-pound batches of peanuts are turned slowly over a flame, roasting gently until they reach a rich golden-brown color. That’s caramelization—the same thing that makes a crusty end of bread or a seared steak so delicious. It imparts a sweet, roasty flavor to the nuts. It also makes the production space smell incredible, like fresh peanut butter cookies that have just come out of the oven.
Using the old equipment isn’t more efficient; compared to most industrial peanut butter production, which employs very hot ovens and conveyor belts to quickly roast thousands of peanuts every hour, the production at Koeze is fairly slow. But while faster production is less expensive, the savings come at the expense of flavor. That fast, hot, conveyor belt roasting doesn’t give the peanuts much of a chance to develop color—or flavor. A lot of commercial peanut butters add molasses (more sugar!) to darken the color and mask the product’s shortcomings.
The roaster isn’t the only old piece of equipment; essentially all of the machinery is old enough that if Albertus Koeze were to walk into the production area today he’d know how to use it. How do they maintain these antiques? “We make our own parts. And we have a really good mechanic,” Martin told me. “But they were made to last. I have a lot more trouble with the new labeling machine than with any of the old ones.”
Making a batch of peanut butter at Koeze takes three people and zero computers.
One of the most important jobs for these three people is to taste. In spite of years of experience making peanut butter, they still taste every batch. They’re checking to make sure it has the rich, roasted peanut flavor and velvety—but still slightly chunky, with small bits of peanuts intentionally left in even in the creamy peanut butter—texture. They make peanut butter frequently enough that it’s usually not more than a few weeks old before it’s shipped out.
Since peanut oil is more likely to separate from the butter the longer it sits around, fresher peanut butter is more likely to be homogenous. Most commercial peanut butters whip in hydrogenated vegetable oils to keep the peanut oil from separating, but in addition to adding trans fats they can also give the peanut butter a gummy texture. Since Koeze doesn’t have those oils added, it may separate over time. Store it in the fridge to reduce that separation anxiety, and as a bonus, seeing it every time you open the fridge will help you remember you’re never more than a few minutes away from the best PB&J you can imagine.