Monday, July 28, 2014

The Quest to Become a Certified Cheese Professional

Many thanks to Cheesemaker Cesar Luis for taking this
photo of me when I first started working at
Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale.
Eighteen months after making the decision to try and become an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional, I am on my way to Sacramento, California to take the official exam with 250 other cheesy pro hopefuls.

As many of you know, deciding to sit for the test has dramatically changed the course of my cheese geek career. In January 2013, I was rolling full steam ahead with my own public relations company when I persuaded the nice folks at Metcalfe’s Market in Madison to hire me part-time so I could garner retail experience and the hours I needed to qualify to take the exam.

Today, while I’m still running Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the Wisconsin Artisan Cheesemaker Guild (albeit a bit poorly – I promise members I’ll be back at 100 percent after this test is over), I’ve retired my PR company of one and am working full-time at the Metcalfe’s flagship Hilldale location, managing the Specialty Cheese Department, rockin’ and rollin’ cheese sales with an awesome staff of three-full time cheese geeks. I get the amazing opportunity to cut and eat cheese for a living.

However, whenever I tell customers I’ve spent the past year studying animal breeds, FDA regulations, HACCP plans and the science of cheesemaking in order to sit for the ACS CCP (catchy acronym, right?), I almost always get the universal response of: “What are you going to do once you’re certified?”

Well, first of all, getting certified is no sure thing. There is a substantial chance I will not pass this beast of a test. It’s a three-hour exam covering everything from the ph of cow’s milk before adding rennet, to the lactation schedule of goats, to the steps of receiving cheese in a retail setting, to knowing the FDA food code like the back of my hand.

It will be a three-hour written test during which I will be escorted to the bathroom by a personal exam proctor. I have been instructed to show up with a photo ID, my computer loaded with the test software, and nothing more. I get the feeling if I try to sneak in some deodorant, I might be escorted away by agents.

But on the off chance that I do actually pass this monster, here’s what I’ll do with my certification: I’ll keep working at Metcalfe’s Hilldale and know that I’m on the way to becoming a better cheese geek. Why does anyone become certified in their field? To know they are on the way to being the best they can be at whatever they do.

So at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, July 29, if Cheese Underground readers would like to cross their fingers for me, I’d be grateful. I’ll find out in mid-September whether I pass, but the folks already certified tell me that I’ll know myself once it’s over. Either you know the stuff, or you don’t, and I sure hope I do.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Next Frontier for Cheese: Raw Milk Microflora

When I grow up, I want to be Bronwen Percival. Seriously. And not just because she's the buyer for Neal's Yard Dairy, but because she continually has her finger on the pulse of what will make artisan cheesemaking better. Her latest feat includes launching a Kickstarter project that aims to translate a new textbook about raw milk microbiology into English.

Every two years, Bronwen organizes a spectacular conference in Somerset County, England, called the Science of Artisan Cheese. (This year the conference is on August 19-20 - more info here). At that conference two years ago, Dr. Christine Montel introduced a new practical guide/textbook to raw milk microbiology, written by a collective of French scientists and dairy technicians to help French cheesemakers preserve and encourage the natural diversity of their raw milk, which is crucial to the flavor—and to the safety—of artisan cheeses.

Bronwen says the book is groundbreaking because it contains legitimate peer-reviewed science combined with the sort of practical guidance that can be applied on the ground, making it an incredible tool for cheesemakers.

But here's the kicker: it's written in French.

So, during the past year, Bronwen's been working with representatives of the French group to organize a way to translate the book. To her credit, she's negotiated a contract that does not allow her to make a profit through the sale of the book, so she thought a medium like Kickstarter (which will allow her to raise the funds before the project commences and then distribute the book as a ‘reward’) would be an ideal way to raise the money, while also raising awareness of the cause.

The project has the support of several influential organizations, including the Specialist Cheesemakers’ Association and Neal’s Yard Dairy in England, Jasper Hill in the United States, and the Conseil National des Appelations d’Origine Laitières in France. And of course Cheese Underground in Wisconsin (for what it's worth).

Here’s a link to the Kickstarter site, which explains more about the book and the project. A minimum of 12,000 pounds is needed for the project to commence. I just contributed 100 pounds (I don't know what that is in dollars - maybe I should have checked that first), and would encourage anyone with an interest in growing the artisan cheese community to contribute.

"Especially now, the information in this book is particularly relevant and needed," Bronwen says. "We have just over a month to raise the money. Please join us and help to reshape modern farmhouse cheesemaking knowledge and practice."

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Small Cheesemaking Operations Lead Growth in U.S. Cheese Industry

Specialty Food News today reports that while the overall U.S. cheesemaking industry is on the rise, interestingly enough, the number of small cheesemaking establishments is far outpacing the growth of larger operations in America.

According to the Census Bureau's 2012 Economic Census, between 2007 and 2012, the total number of cheesemaking establishments in the U.S. rose by 13 percent to 542, while growth in small establishments, (defined as employing up to 19 people), rose more than double that rate, by 28 percent, to 250.

The report reveals that in 2012, small cheesemaking facilities accounted for 46 percent of all cheesemaking establishments, compared with 41 percent in 2007. As for employment statistics, 44,432 people in the U.S. were employed in cheesemaking in 2012, 7 percent more than five years earlier.

The census has all sorts of raw data in it - you can view it by clicking here. It contains tidbits like this: in 2012, cheesemaking operations spent $809.9 million on capital expenditures, three-quarters of which was spent on machinery and equipment, a 37 percent jump compared to 2007.

Here in Wisconsin, these numbers come as no surprise. Cheese factories have heavily reinvested in their facilities in the past few years. Official estimates from the governor's office put the number at $230 million in private investment in Wisconsin’s dairy industry since 2010.

And, Wisconsin continues to lead the nation in the production of specialty cheese. In May, the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service reported that specialty cheese accounted for 22 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production in 2013, an increase of 29 million pounds over the year before.

Just as with dairy farming, there is room - especially in Wisconsin - for cheese plants of all sizes - big, small and in-between. While the mammoth plants churn out the state's cash crop of pizza mozzarella, smaller plants help put Wisconsin on the map for high quality artisan cheese. The past two U.S. Champion cheesemakers are both from Wisconsin, and are both small operations: Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann of LaClare Farms and Marieke Penterman of Holland's Family Cheese.

The pair are part of a growing trend. The USDA reported in May that of Wisconsin’s 126 cheese plants, last year, 93 manufactured at least one type of specialty cheese, up from 80 plants in 2007. You can view a handy dandy table of specialty cheese production in Wisconsin by clicking here.

This is an exciting time to be in the cheese business, as more folks are continually joining the specialty cheese ranks. Not even counted in the census numbers is the growing trend in Wisconsin to forgo building a factory and instead partner with established creameries to rent space and churn out award-winning artisan cheese. A few examples come to mind:

  • Cesar's Cheese: Cheesemaker Cesar Luis won the gold medal at the World Championship Cheese Contest for his string cheese this spring. He and wife Heydi own their own cheese vat, but rent space at and buy milk from Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus.
  • Landmark Creamery: Cheesemaker Anna Landmark is crafting small-batch cow, sheep and water buffalo creations, such as Petit Nuage, Tallgrass and Arista at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. She was recently profiled in Edible Madison
  • Creme de la Coulee Artisan Cheese: Cheesemaker Bill Anderson is making artisan cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese in Fremont. His new St. Jenifer is a semi-soft washed-rind cheese, made in the style of a French Munster.
  • PastureLand Cooperative: Dairy farmer Bert Paris and four partner farms haul their grass-fed milk to cheesemakers where it is made into specialty cheeses, such as Grass Valley and Grass Kase. Both are available in Madison at Willy St. Coop and Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale.
  • Timothy Farmhouse Cheeses: Karen and Tim Kelley ship milk to Cheesemaker Katie Furhmann at LaClare Farms, where it is crafted into cheddars and BallyByron, a new American Original inspired by Double Gloucester.
  • Red Barn Family Farms: Veterinarian Tim and Paula Homan ship their Red Barn dairy milk both to Springside Cheese (where it's made into World Champion Heritage Weis Cheddar) and to LaClare Farms, where Katie Fuhrmann crafts it into Cupola, a new American Original.
  • Koepke Family Farms: Dairy farmers John and Kim Koepke in Oconomowoc ship milk to Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, where it's made into the LaBelle line of Gouda-style cheeses.
  • Bleu Mont Dairy: last but not least, there is the venerable Cheesemaker Willi Lehner, who perfected the don't-build-a-cheese-factory-model, and makes cheese at four different Wisconsin factories. His Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana were runner-up for Best in Show last year at the American Cheese Society.
What an exciting time to be a cheese eater in Wisconsin! With more than 600 types, styles and varieties of cheese to choose from, we cheese geeks have never had it so good. Here's looking forward to the next five years of cheesemaking growth in America's Dairyland.