So You Think You Want to Make Cheese?

Someone asked me the other day whether I’d like to become a cheesemaker. I probably should have said “yes, absolutely,” since it would have made for a better effect. While it’s true—I’d love to—the fact is that making cheese is hard, expensive work that’s very time and labor intensive. The more that I travel around to farms and talk to people who make cheese, the more complicated my feelings become on this issue. There’s a certain pastoral utopian quality to the vision of making cheese on a farm out in the country somewhere, but if you’ve ever owned a farm or been directly involved with a farm or dairy, you know otherwise. jersey cowsSo, say I decide this morning, right now in fact, to start making cheese with the goal of selling it commercially. What would this involve?

The first bit of hard, cold reality that creeps in is that I can’t just start making cheese in my kitchen one day. Well, I can, but I can't sell it commercially. In order to sell cheese, I'd have to have a facility that's certified by the state. There are all sorts of regulations (which vary by state) that address cleanliness, pasteurization temperatures and other issues. Said facility is also necessarily going to need equipment like a pasteurizer and then another large holding tank where I can add coagulating agents into the milk to start the cheesemaking process. I’ll also need to be sure to have sufficient drainage to dump the whey, and various forms and shaping molds and presses, depending on what types of cheese I’m making. Then I’ll need coolers to store the cheese while it’s aging or waiting to be sold (i.e. the cheese caves). Ideally these would be natural caves adjacent to my house (like the Roquefort caves in France) but Portland doesn’t have natural caves that I know of, so refrigeration will have to do.

Another major hurdle I’ll have to overcome is figuring out where to get milk. If I lived on a farm this would be a simpler proposition, but I don't. And fortunately or unfortunately, sourcing milk involves more than just buying a whole bunch of gallon jugs at the local market. One of the first things I'd have to consider would be the variety of animal that produces the milk I'll be using. For example, milk from Jersey cows has a higher butterfat content than milk from other types of cows; sheep’s milk has an even higher butterfat content.  I will also need to think about things like  - what the animals are fed? How are they treated? How far away is the farm from my facility?  Since I don’t live on a farm, that’s going to take some time and research. To state the obvious, milk is absolutely vital to the cheesemaking process so supply, and quality of supply, is something that needs to be thought through very carefully.

Cheese making equipmentOnce I've cleared all of those hurdles, there’s going to be a lot of trial and error and getting myself up to speed in the actual making of cheese before I make anything I want to sell. Several people have told me that it can take up to six months to make a cheese that comes out consistently the way you want it. So that’s money and time spent with no immediate return on the investment. Probably I’d take a cheesemaking class like the one they offer at Washington State University, and then maybe spend time with various cheesemakers for advice and counsel. Count that as a few more months of  incubation time.

We’re getting a little closer. Once I’ve got a product I can live with, it’s time to worry about the marketing. It takes time to develop a reputation such that restaurants and distributors come calling, so at first I'd be courting them. I can’t just show up at any old Farmer’s market, either. I know several cheesemakers who would love to get into the Portland Farmer’s Market, but it has a waiting list...maybe at first I could get into the smaller ones outside of the city. I’m also forgetting to mention other things I'd need to do like forming a business, the cost of insurance and all of that.

I suppose it’s always true that the reality behind an undertaking is a little more complex than the fantasy will allow. The more I understand cheesemaking, though, the more respect I have for people who make cheese and make it well. Cheesemaking is a business, a science, a craft and an art all rolled up into one.  And, as with many worthy and admirable undertakings, making great cheese takes time and effort. When I taste the fresh goat cheeses and havartis and tommes of local artisan producers I'm reminded of all that went into that simple, beautiful cheese—it's astounding and a little awe-inspiring. I'm not sure I will ever become a cheesemaker myself, but I'm grateful to those people who devote their lives to the craft.