July 22, 2011

Cheesemaker For A Day

Today was a day to remember! Today I became a Cheesemaker (for a day)!

Those of us in the Seattle area, we know the wonderfulness of Beecher's Handmade Cheese. If you aren't from the Seattle area (or, as of June 20th, from New York City!) I hope you get a chance to indulge in Beecher's delicious cheeses when you come to visit!

Beecher's is located at Pike's Place Market, so it is a sure stop for most tourists and locals alike. Many local grocers and food shops even carry some of the delectable cheeses, so if you aren't in the mood to face the crowds at the Market, you can pick some up during your next midnight run for Oreos cheese.

At Beecher's, they handcraft all of their own artisan cheeses in small batches right in their store front production studio. They use centuries-old methods with only all-natural, farm fresh ingredients. There are large windows facing the street and into the shop, so all the visitors can see the transformation right before their very eyes.

I'm not sure how one becomes a "Cheesemaker for a Day" normally. I happened to win/purchase the adventure at an auction supporting a local school. Since I knew that Moi would be visiting this summer, I scheduled the day to coordinate with her stay.

We arrived at 9:30- after we popped in to La Panier for an almandine and latte- and the cheesemakers were already hard at work. Now I must say that we met quite a few amazing cheesemakers who were all very helpful, knowledgeable, and put up with our and tons of questions and sunshine! And boy do these guys work HARD! I was not quite prepared for the physical labor that we were about to endure!

We started by gearing up with knee-high rubber boots, white coats, aprons, and yep- hairnets!
Then, we were given a full tour of the production facility. The entire place is less than 1000 sq ft, but they are able to create about 4,000 pounds of cheese per day!  Our guide outlined the entire process of creating their signature cheese, Flagship, which was what we were going to make!

There are basically five steps, each one a science in itself. I popped over to the Beecher's site and grabbed a few pics to show you, since we couldn't make cheese and take pics at the same time!

Step One: Fresh Milk
Milk is delivered twice a day, fresh from the farm, just hours after the last cow is milked. All the milk Beecher's uses has no rBST added!

This is the milk storage container where the fresh milk is pumped. 

Step Two: Pasteurization
Since the milk is delivered raw from the farm, Beecher's pasteurizes the milk themselves. I was surprised that the milk is only heated for 24 seconds in what they call the HTST process (high temp, short time). The equipment used to pasteurize the milk is a complicated twist and turn of pipes and connections. 
Don't touch! That's hot!
Step Three: Cheesemaking (duh!)
The pasteurized milk gets pumped over to the open Make Vat where the milk is made into cheese. Let's all take a moment to pause and be thankful that someone, somewhere, somehow, once figured out how to make milk turn into cheese. Good thing I wasn't in charge of that invention.  
In this step, a few things are added to the milk. First, enzymes and then the rennet. Beecher's uses microbial rennet. What is rennet? I am glad you asked! Beecher's says, "Rennet is a coagulating enzyme used to curdle milk, causing clumps (curds) to form and separate from the liquid (whey). Rennet is added after the cultures and is also integral to the final flavor of the cheese. Until recently, rennet was derived from the stomach lining of a calf, goat or lamb. Now, many cheesemakers use vegetable rennets (derived from plants) or microbial rennets. In addition to being less expensive than traditional animal rennets, vegetable and microbial rennets allow cheesemakers to craft cheeses suitable for vegetarians. All Beecher's cheeses are made using microbial rennets." Again, who figured this stuff out? 
Next, the curds and whey are pumped from the Make Vat over to the other Open Vat. Here, the whey can be drained out through the large drain down the middle of the Vat. As the whey is separated, the curds begin to 'knit' together. The cheesemakers (hey- that's us!) cut the curds so they can encourage more whey to be squeezed out. 
Step Four: Cheddaring
The name cheddar comes from the process of cheddaring, the next step in cheese making. The curds are cut into 'loaves.' Once the loaves were cut, we had the privilege of stacking, turning, and restacking the loaves. It was amazing to watch the transformation as the enzymes were hard at work, the curds were knitting themselves together, and the whole batch changed texture and shrank as it lost moisture. The loaves are also HEAVY and awkward to handle. The real cheesemakers made it look super easy to flip those babies! We did a lot of laughing at our awkwardness.

This step also includes feeding these large loaves into a chopper of sorts that turns the huge, heavy loads into bite-sized pieces. These bites are salted and mixed up. 
If you visit Beecher's, you can buy the cheese in this stage. They call them "curds" in the shop even though it is past the official curd stage and is really just young cheese! The cheesemaker gave us a few containers to fill when we got to this stage, so we were actually able to bring home the cheese that *we* made!!
Step Five: Hooping and Aging
The salted curds are placed into molds called "hoops." Each hoop holds about 45 pounds of curds. We shoveled and scooped and piled and punched the curds in. At one point the cheesemaker told us to pack the curds in "like they stole your lunch money!" I guess I wasn't punching hard enough! Then we they moved the hoops to a cheese press. The press works overnight to drain more whey and it was crazy to watch the whey pour out from the cheese that was feeling so firm already!  
The Flagship cheese is then aged for a year at an off-site location. There is NO way they could store all that cheese in their shop- remember they make 4,000 pounds of cheese A DAY! Phew! we only made one batch and I was wiped!

Luckily, we were treated to a wonderful lunch at the lunch counter in the shop before we had to turn in our cheesemaker badges. Since we couldn't decided what we wanted off the menu, we decided to each order something different and split. 
Moi picket their world famous Mac and Cheese. It has always been amazing, but after a certain recently-retired television host said it was her favorite, it has really gained popularity. It, of course, is made with their Flagship cheese!
I chose the Flagship sandwich made with Flagship cheese, Just Jack cheese, tomatoes, basil, and Beecher's spread. Delish.

Before we knew it, it was time to hang up our hairnets. What an experience! Thanks, Beecher's! I will never take my cheese- or all the work that goes into it- for granted!

1 comment:

  1. So neat! I love experiences geared aroud learning how things are made. And you gals rock those hairnets ;)