Kentucky Cheese: Coming of Age

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.

The Key Was Value-Added

Growing up in the suburbs of Indianapolis, Kenny Mattingly didn’t know much about dairy life until, at age 19, his family moved to a 200-acre farm in Barren County. There he quickly found “the same crazy passion about dairy” his father had.

Kenny Mattingly considers cheese making to be an art form, an art that begins in the pasture and ends in a "cave," a cheese cave.

Kenny Mattingly considers
cheese making to be an art
form, an art that begins in the
pasture and ends in a "cave,"
a cheese cave.

As Mattingly got older, concerned about the future of milk, he started researching ways his family could stay on the farm and make a living. He knew adding value was going to be the key. His family began to handcraft Gouda cheese with their own milk in 1998. They made about 4,000 pounds. Last year, Kenny’s Farmhouse Cheese sent more than 100,000 pounds of cheese out to 13 states. They even had their product on the menu at golf’s Masters Tournament a few years ago.

“The reward for me is knowing this cheese started with grass on my farm and cows we’ve raised for generations that produce high-quality milk,” Mattingly said.

These days Mattingly, his family, and a few employees milk 140 cows—about half of them Holsteins and the other half a mixture of crossbreds and European breeds such as Swedish Reds and Milking Shorthorns.

Of the nearly 25 varieties of cheese available from Kenny’s, aged white cheddar sells the best. His personal favorite is the Barren County Bleu.

“We use the same type of process as when we started, just a bigger vat (600 gallons),” he said.

An Age-Old Process

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.

Savvy Sound Science

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.”

Susan Miller drains the whey from goat milk curds. "Each time I make cheese, it's just like magic.... It amazes me every time."

University of Kentucky researchers know the science and are working with cheesemakers like Miller and Mattingly to bolster the cheese industry small and large. UKAg animal scientist Clair Hicks has spent many years researching the science behind cheese. He currently is researching the acoustic fingerprints of bacteria. That’s right; bacteriophage (a virus that infects and replicates within bacteria) makes a lot of noise when it attacks good bacteria. And Hicks’s recent studies have shown that biological processes within bacterial cells produce measurable ultrasonic acoustic emissions. By “listening,” he can tell the difference between good bacteria and those that produce unclean flavors and grassy textures in cheese.

“We can actually hear when the bacteriophage injects its DNA into the cell and infects the cell,” he explained. “We used to think the mechanism inside the cell set the timing for the bacteriophage replication, but now we are learning that the cell really just kind of loses control of itself once the foreign material enters.”

Clair Hicks, shown filling a tube with culture media, can listen to the acoustic emissions of bacteria in cheese and determine which ones will produce unclean flavors or grassy textures.

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.

Sanford Dotson cuts the curd into smaller pieces. Every cheese boasts its own terroir. "You can't make this anywhere else; it won't taste exactly the same, because you taste the land in the cheese," Dotson said.

Sanford Dotson cuts the curd into smaller pieces. Every cheese boasts its own terroir. "You can't make this anywhere else; it won't taste exactly the same, because you taste the land in the cheese," Dotson said.

Age Does Matter

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.”

Oh, the Rules and Regs

Susan Miller has become deeply attached to her goats. For her birthday, her husband gave her a playground for the animals' entertainment.

Susan Miller has become deeply attached to her goats. For her birthday, her husband gave her
a playground for the animals' entertainment.

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.


The Demand’s There

Miller recently started purchasing extra milk from a new dairy in Nelson County, Dalton's Double D Dairy. This will allow her to increase production from her current weekly 30 to 40 pounds of fresh, spreadable chevre. She will also make feta cheese and a bloomy rind cheese she dubbed “Bloomin’ Bleugrass” that she will continue to sell weekly at the Louisville and Lexington farmers markets.

“The biggest challenge of it all is keeping up with demand,” she said. “That and keeping the animals healthy takes a lot of time and effort. I have three jobs—taking care of animals, making cheese, selling cheese—and it takes more time than I really have.”

Each year, new cheesemakers enter the arena with a lot to learn, but they can take heart that others have successfully paved the way before them. From the humble beginnings of small-batch experiments to artisan offerings fit for international event menus, Kentucky cheese is coming of age.