Curd mentality 

Colorados artisanal cheese makers are thinking big

click to enlarge No kidding: Milk from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy is - used in making artisanal cheeses. - JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse
  • No kidding: Milk from Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy is used in making artisanal cheeses.

It's been said that cheese is just milk that you can carry around, which essentially is true. Cheese of every kind is just salted, spoiled, dried milk, a vehicle that grew out of the need to actually move essential fat and protein around without sloshing it everywhere.

But cheese is much more to some of us, the cheese geeks. We'll wax loquacious over Emmenthaler or Reblochon, describe their flavors as "cacao-ish" or "barnyardy" or "obtuse," and go into paroxysms of joy every time a pile of fetid green or orange goo is laid on the table.

We're the people who buy artisanal cheese, and Colorado's producing a lot of it these days. While not an organized movement, the umbrella of artisans includes those makers who stress humane treatment of livestock, small production and a stringent eschewal of antibiotics, hormones, additives and preservatives.

Stainless steel and legal controls aside, artisans' creameries make cheese the way it's been made for centuries.

Vision of a goat

Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy, one of the most venerable producers of Colorado cheese, was founded in 1991 by Jim Schott, who went from a career as an educator and museum curator to one as a goat farmer and cheesemaker with no prior experience.

Schott is viewed as something of a father figure to Colorado's artisanal cheese movement -- Moses to the cheese geek's Israel. Haystack has been around longer than most of Colorado's small cheesemakers (it holds the first license for a Colorado goat dairy) and thus has provided a model for the making and selling of artisanal product.

Located a few miles outside Longmont, the dairy is nestled among some of the busiest cycling byways in the state. As I look for the creamery, my eyes shifting between my directions and the road, I'm afraid I'll inadvertently run one of the numerous cyclists off the shoulder.

I arrive, collision-free, and meet cheese room manager Sarah De Vasto in the main room. She is a bit harried at the moment.

"I've got milk congealing right now. Give me one minute," she says, before rushing back into the cheese room. Less than a minute later, she reappears, visibly more relaxed, and offers to show me around.

click to enlarge JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse

I'm regulated into a hairnet and white rubber boots much too small for my feet. I walk on my toes, looking like one of their goats as I clomp around. De Vasto points out a slab-like basin, where the raw goats' milk initially is poured.

It doesn't take long for the milk to congeal. Once heated to 90 degrees, the rennet and cultures are introduced and the milk begins to solidify. They're making Queso de Mano today, De Vasto explains. She's referring to Haystack's flagship raw milk cheese, made in a Catalonian Spanish style.

Because United States laws are strict -- some would say silly -- regarding the raw milk content of cheese, any unpasteurized product must age for 60 days. In this time, a cheesemaker identifies and culls out flaws, undesirable bacteria and other nastiness. Haystack produces three raw cheeses, but both Queso de Mano and Sunlight -- a washed-rind, firmer cheese -- are aged double the requisite time to allow molds and flavor to develop.

The aging room, a temperature- and humidity-controlled enclosure, smells damp and fertile. White and vermillion mold flowers on the cakes resting on stainless steel racks that line the room.

While the milk rests and continues to set, I'm ushered out to see the goats. Haystack raises three breeds, La Mancha, Nubian and Saanen, enclosed in a number of different pens. I'm surprised by how sweet they are, like ungulate collies. As we near the pens, they bleat and trot over to nuzzle our hands.

De Vasto explains that it's the beginning of the breeding season.

"They pee on each other," she warns. "They actually bend down and pee from the top of their head all the way to the front of their face. They love it, and the guys love doing it. This is huge in their sex lives."

And as we watch, it happens: A buck somberly dips his head between a doe's hind legs, bathing his face in urine. While very, very strong, the urine smell isn't all that unpleasant. It actually kind of reminds me of the smell of goat cheese, and my stomach growls.

Enough time has passed with our goat-petting for the milk to have set into what is, for all intents and purposes, primitive cheese.

"Do you guys want to watch me cut the cheese?" De Vasto asks. After much giggling, I follow her back inside. Hairnets and boots again are pulled on. De Vasto produces two layered, bladed instruments, which she inserts into and drags through the cheese, first in a checkerboard pattern, then diagonally, then parallel to the floor, producing thousands of tiny bits. These are the curds. The whey, a cloudy, watery liquid, is drained off and sold. Haystack sells its to a local hog farm, where it's used as a protein-rich feed.

After the curds have been cut, I ask De Vasto how she ended up at Haystack.

click to enlarge Oro Blancos Robert Strack. - JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse
  • Oro Blancos Robert Strack.

"I had a vision of a goat," she says, laughing. "I'd never met a goat in my entire life. After weeks of running around telling everyone that I was going to work at a goat farm, someone told me, 'Why don't you work at Haystack?' It actually took me years to realize that vision of the goat I had was the label, the Haystack label. And now I'm a cheesemaker."

I stop on the way to my car to pet more goats, this time a pen full of kids, who are clearly excited to see me. One twirls in circles, bleating and waggling her head in an almost dog-like way. I consider stuffing her in the back seat of my car to take home.

One for the kids

My next stop is Oro Blanco Goat Dairy, about 10 miles east of Fort Lupton, a small ag town near Longmont. As I continue east on Highway 52, the trees and houses thin and the mountains retreat to a smudge in my rearview mirror. Soon, except for the occasional truck, I'm alone on the prairie.

I pull into Oro Blanco's driveway and find two of the dairy's three owners, Cindi Ruser and Robert Strack. Both exude a kind of rustic self-assurance as they work on a vast stone patio. I'm more than an hour late for my appointment, but they express nothing but graciousness before showing me around the dairy.

We stop first to visit the goats. Like Haystack, Oro Blanco raises Nubians, Saanens and La Manchas, in addition to a few other breeds. But with nearly 200 goats, this is a much bigger operation. Because of its large stock, Oro Blanco doesn't process nearly all the milk it produces, but rather sources it to a number of local creameries, including Haystack.

Oro Blanco has been around for three years. During this time, its operations have exploded. As the second licensed goat dairy in the state, its original stock was eight goats; it is expected to grow to 700 in the near future.

Oro Blanco breeds, or freshens, year-round. While we're petting goats and snapping pictures, one of the dairy's Great Pyrenees bounds up. The enormous, fuzzy and friendly dogs are raised alongside the goats in order to protect the herd from coyotes, but they aren't guard dogs in the strictest sense.

The plant, where lab coat- and hairnet-wearing workers are processing today's milk, is directly behind the goat pens. Oro Blanco, like Haystack, does pasteurize; because it sells milk as well as cheese, it's actually forced to pasteurize all its raw product.

Strack explains that the legal temperature threshold for pasteurization is 145 degrees. Though many cow dairies will go much higher, Oro Blanco heats its milk only to 145 or 150, because goats' milk is more delicate than cows', and heating can significantly affect its flavor.

We enter a quieter supply room, where they open a few packages for me to sample. A standout, the Asadero is stretched and hand-wound into a ball. It's like supermarket string cheese, only vastly better. Dry and a bit grassy, it's got a pleasing, ropy texture and plenty of fat to carry the flavors. I'm secretly ecstatic when they give me a package to take home.

click to enlarge A label for one of the companys products. - JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse
  • A label for one of the companys products.

In addition to numerous cheeses, Oro Blanco also processes a small number of goats for meat. They become summer sausage, goat jerky or jalapeo-infused goat-meat sticks. While not overwhelmingly spicy, the sticks have enough pique to be interesting. I could see myself becoming addicted.

"It's like a Slim Jim," Strack says, "only you can pronounce the ingredients."

I take a few bites, then remember the pen of gamboling kids at Haystack. Shrugging, I finish it.

Party Munster

It's hard to believe that MouCo is less than an hour from the middle-of-nowhere grandeur of Oro Blanco. Located in a dismal industrial park in Fort Collins, it's a far cry from sunlight and pregnant does. As it turns out, MouCo is an entirely different take.

While clearly small, locally owned and devoted to artisanal production, MouCo has no need for vista, since its product depends entirely on sourced milk.

Cheesemaker Joshua Beck is a wiry, affable guy with a mountain-jock build. He shows me around the facilities, narrating with a learned and rapid-fire cheese-geek patois. I somehow assume it's his bike that's parked out front.

MouCo isn't a large location. Essentially just a cheesemaking shotgun space, there's a small front office and a supplies room, but most of the operation is given over to the cavernous back room, where all the production takes place.

Beck walks me through the process, pointing out a feed line on the wall, through which milk is pumped every Monday. MouCo buys its milk exclusively from La Luna, a family-run cows' dairy in Wellington, about 15 minutes north of Fort Collins.

Though functionally modern, MouCo operates with a decidedly more Old World philosophy than Haystack or Oro Blanco. This might be owed to the influence of master cheesemaker Franz Halbreiter of Germany, who acts as a consultant and spends roughly one month a year in Fort Collins. Halbreiter is the father of co-owner Birgit Halbreiter, who, with her husband, Robert Poland, left Fort Collins-based New Belgium Brewery to start MouCo in 2000.

The Old World style also manifests itself in MouCo's use of animal, rather than vegetable or microbial, enzymes. (For the lowdown on enzymes, see "Cheese: from Acidity to 'Zynes," p.24.) I ask Beck if the creamery catches flak for using it.

click to enlarge Cheesemaker Joshua Beck makes cheese cakes - (Camembert and Colo-Rouge) at MouCo in the Old World - style. - JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse
  • Cheesemaker Joshua Beck makes cheese cakes (Camembert and Colo-Rouge) at MouCo in the Old World style.

"Flak, no. Interest, yes. Obviously in the cheese world, because of the inherent aspects of that product, as far as where it has to come from, there are people who don't like it. We get more interest from people who are into the old-school, Old World way of doing it, who like the taste and the culture of using it."

Once pasteurized, MouCo's cheese is cultured, curdled, cut, poured into molds, then transferred to its "cave," the very recently expanded aging room. It's double the size of its predecessor, a sign that MouCo's business is taking off.

The company makes two distinct cheeses, both soft-ripened styles. Its first is a riff on Camembert, a milky-white, fairly mild, washed-rind affair that softens beautifully at room temperature.

The second is a bit less traditional. Called Colo-Rouge, the cheese is modeled after Mnster but is much more adventurous than most of the overly fatty, soft-but-not-soft-ripened varieties found in the States. It's noticeably but not unpleasantly bitter, gorgeously textured, and redolent of acorn or green almond. Once home, I let it warm up, cut it and taste a tiny slice. Then I end up eating the entire cake.

Brave new curds

These creameries exist within a few hundred square miles of each other, but they don't seem to have a great deal in common, or even care much that they don't.

With local foods co-ops springing up around the country -- and creating a fairly strong presence in Colorado -- it seems strange that artisan cheesemakers don't flock together in the same way. The industry's youth is at least partially responsible.

"There's the elder half, but everyone else came into it in the past five years or so," MouCo's Beck says. "Artisanal cheeses are a new thing in America, and Americans are just starting to buy cheeses differently. There's a youngness and a lack of size."

There's also a lack of pressure from what might be called Big Cheese. While factory and macro-creameries do exist nationally and in Colorado, there is no ConAgra equivalent driving down prices and snapping up land. Consequently, there's no resistance against such a threat. The fact is, small cheese producers don't need cooperation, because almost everyone is doing just fine without it.

The growth of these creameries is an anomaly in the current economic climate. While more American businesses are outsourcing and shutting down their stateside operations, each place I visited is expanding in some way or another.

This may be due to the current trend toward a more locally based, sustainable -- or at least responsible -- form of agriculture and ranching.

click to enlarge JOSEPH ROUSE
  • Joseph Rouse

As the public consciousness over hormones, antibiotics and feeding practices develops, even fast-food chains are finding that Americans want naturally raised meats. They want local produce. In increasing numbers, they want to put faces on their foods. This is a remarkable paradigm shift for a country that, for the past century, has wanted things bigger, faster and cheaper while ignoring the fact that such products rarely are better.

"There's a growing palate in America for artisanal cheese, though there's only a thousand or so of us [producers]," says MouCo's Beck. "There's a lot of momentum."

Such momentum has driven these Colorado creameries to the forefront of the rush away from excessive and abusive cost-cutting modernization. For that, we, the cheese geeks, thank them.

Like most precursors to modern food, cheese has a history rooted in, well, ickiness. Somewhere in human history, somebody decided to store milk in a bag made from the untreated stomach of a young ruminant, probably a cow, sheep or goat. This primitive cheesemaker found that after a few hours, the milk had curdled, meaning that certain proteins had aggregated within the mixture, separating curd from whey.

Unbeknownst to our ancestor, this curdling occurred because of an enzyme called chymosin, which is most active in very young animals and is found in the fourth chamber of a ruminant's compound stomach, the abomasum.

Chymosin's presence allows suckling animals to convert liquid milk to a semisolid within the stomach, arresting its flow through the digestive system to allow absorption of a greater portion of the milk's nutrients. It's produced most heavily during the few days following birth, after which it slowly is replaced by secreted pepsin.

Chymosin also is known as rennet or rennin, for the German rennen, which describes the "running" together of milk solids during curdling. At some point, our apocryphal cheesemaker found that adding a small piece of abomasum to milk was sufficient to induce curdling.

Calf rennet is the most commonly employed version -- and, for hard, lengthy-aged cheeses, fairly indispensable -- although an increasing number of cheesemakers use alternative sources, such as vegetable or microbial rennet.

The primary difference between milk and cheese is the introduction of cultures, which can be any prepared, harmless inocula of bacteria, yeasts or molds. Historically, cultures are bound to a specific place.

Penicillium roqueforti, the mold that defines Roquefort cheese, initially was exclusive to the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon in south central France. The same goes for Camembert and Penicillium camemberti. Although the product names still are legally protected, the cultures tend to spread. Stilton is made with P. roqueforti, as are Iowa's Maytag and many other American bleu cheeses.

Cultures jack up acidity in the cheese and promote ripening. They can be added prior to the curdling as well as after, either to the cheese's surface or inside the cheese itself, via needles or wire.

In addition, milk cultures play an aseptic role in cheesemaking. They naturally are more salt- and temperature-resistant than pathogenic bacteria, and some -- such as those strains of the bread mold Penicillium used for cheese -- are notoriously antibiotic.

Salting plays a corollary role to culturing. Like some molds or yeasts, salt also creates a safer and more consistent cheese, in that it aids syneresis (further setting and solidification), helps retard additional acidity, controls ripening and keeps spoilage bacteria and pathogens in check. It, like many culture elements, also tastes good and can create idiosyncratic flavors for particular types of cheeses.

When you taste a cheese you like, what you're appreciating are the fatty qualities of the milk, the tastes of the cultures and their interaction with the lipid structure, and whatever was done to the cheese during the aging process, whether it was pressed, washed in brine, or simply left alone. And, you're tasting salt.

-- Aaron Retka

  • Colorados artisanal cheese makers are thinking big


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