131 Scovell Hall
University of Kentucky
By Aimee Nielson
Photography by Matt Barton
People have claimed the moon is made of it. Photographers ask their subjects to say it. Many mice have fallen victim to a pinch of it, and the average American annually devours more than 30 pounds of it. Be it bleu, white, fresh, aged, melted, salty, or sweet, people everywhere have a love affair with cheese.
Cheese has been around since people began breeding livestock. Historical accounts explain that travelers from Asia brought cheese making to Europe where the process was adapted and improved. The Pilgrims brought cheese to America aboard the Mayflower, and now the United States makes about 25 percent of the world’s cheese supply to the tune of about 9 billion pounds per year. And with more than 2,000 varieties, there’s plenty to choose from.
After raw milk is pasteurized by heating it to 165 degrees for 18 seconds, cheesemakers add culture, let it ripen for about an hour, and then add rennet, a complex of enzymes, to cause the milk to coagulate into a flat thickened layer, the curd.
Once coagulated, the milk gets cut into small cubes of delicate cheese curds, which the cheesemaker will gently stir using a type of cheese squeegee to separate them from the surface of the vat and the whey, a liquid with water-like consistency. This process allows the curds to heal before the mixture is carefully heated to a temperature of 88 to 90 degrees depending on the type of cheese thatís desired. The whey is drained, and the curds are pushed to the sides of the vat where they will ďknitĒ together. After cutting the knitted curds into slabs, the cheesemaker turns them every 20 minutes, checking the pH to get it just right. And then itís salted. Salt acts as a preservative and draws out extra moisture. It also enhances flavor and promotes the natural aging of cheese.
The salted curds go into molds with lids that press the curds to about 40 pounds per square inch. Next, the cheesemaker removes the hoops and begins the aging process or packages the cheeses that are ready to sell.
Clark County goat farmer and farmstead goat cheese producer Susan Miller grew up at a time when “it seemed that women just didn’t do adventurous things. But I wanted to be a chef... or a veterinarian, and look what happened. I take care of these animals and create cheese. Each time I make cheese, it’s just like magic. I don’t know all of the science of why it happens, but it amazes me every time.”
Hicks said the findings are really important for cheesemakers, because if bacteriophages are in a vat from a previous batch or even in the air, they can disrupt the entire process of the next vat. So, it’s important to stop the infection process early on.
“The acoustic properties now can virtually tell us immediately what bacteriophage we’re dealing with and what cultures to use to counteract it,” he said.
UK is also the leading institution for agglutination research. Agglutination is simply the clumping of bacterial cells. In the cheese world, this is important to those who make soft cheeses from skim milk such as cottage cheese, ricotta, even sour cream. Hicks said, over the years they have developed agglutination-control technology that is widely used in the cheese industry.
Late actress Billie Burke once said, “Age doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.”
At Good Shepherd Cheese in Bath County, Sanford and Colleen Dotson pioneered the first sheep dairy in Kentucky. With a pasteurizer costing at least $15,000, they decided to make raw milk cheese “for a while, at least,” which means all their cheese has to be aged at least 60 days.
Sanford Dotson said, while that’s the minimum requirement, their cheese is probably better around 90 to 120 days.
In 2012, the Dotsons made 60 batches of artisan hard cheeses with names like Pyrenees and Wild Mountain Thyme. Each batch makes six wheels, and each wheel weighs from six to eight pounds.
Inside the Dotson cheese “cave,” a ripening room, the temperature is 55 degrees with 85-percent humidity. They are beginning to add bleu cheese to their offerings.
“I actually hand salt these for about the first five days,” he said. “You wait about two weeks and turn them and flip them. And you poke holes through it. The blue mold is already in here; we put it in the milk. The holes will let oxygen get in there, and hopefully we'll get stripes of blue mold in the cheese.”
Dotson said he hopes to get an open texture where it will start getting in through the cracks in the cheese, though he often goes in and scrapes the blue mold off the exteriors to keep them “pretty.”
“The American public is not used to seeing mold. They're used to seeing cheddar with the rind cut away and Colby with the rind cut away,” he explained. “But when you're getting it from the farm, you're getting the real stuff. We sell it with the rind on it. We want people to have the same experience they would if they were in France walking along the market street.”
Seven years ago, Miller had never owned a goat or made cheese. She thought it was a joke when a friend said, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could just run away and make artisan cheeses?” That turned into a weeklong adventure in New England, visiting farms, making cheese, and developing a passion for it.
“I came back and realized I was going to have to set up a goat dairy and do this right,” she said. “So I started the process, bought some goats and worked through massive amounts of regulations. For three years, I milked and practiced making cheese in old barns and buildings here on the farm.”
Miller’s venture became Bleugrass Chevre, the first goat dairy in Kentucky. She learned early on that inspectors and regulations are a huge part of the cheese making process. Kentucky cheesemakers have to know and follow Kentucky Milk Branch Regulations and portions of the Federal Pasteurized Milk Ordinance and the U. S. Department of Agriculture dairy regulations. To even set up a dairy, they have to work with local health inspectors, zoning boards, water quality and septics inspectors and comply with regular health department inspections. If the operation has a pasteurizer, it has to be approved and then tested every three months.
Lewis Ramsey is a milk inspector for the Kentucky Milk Safety Board.
“We take (milk) samples four out of six months,” he said. “If there are any problems, we come back earlier the next time to make sure those are all worked out.”
Before cheese plants can open operations, they have to have a permit from the state. Then they have to have routine plant inspections and farm inspections once every three months.
All sheep, cow or goat milk that goes into cheese must be tested for antibiotics before it can be sold. Dotson brings a sample from every batch of milk in to campus. There, UK Regulatory Services tests for antibiotics. Some producers have the testing equipment in their own plants, but for those who don’t, Regulatory Services can do it for a minimal fee.