So You Want to be Cheesemaker?

When people find out I’m “in the cheese business” one of the first questions they ask is, “Oh so are you a cheesemaker?” Or, “Do you want to have your own farm someday?” To which I speedily and unequivocally answer, “No.” Or, more likely, “Hell, no. Not in a million years would I EVER be a cheesemaker.” 

Since I’m not a maker I called up a bunch of people who are, to ask their advice on behalf of the curious. I spoke to makers who own their own animals, those who buy milk, some who are business owners and others who are long-time employees. I stuck to people who are hands-on producers of artisanal cheese—all considered to be very small production though some of them oversee the creation of 100,000 pounds of cheese a year. 

Here’s what they had to say:

Just Do It: The reason I know I’d never want to be a maker is because I’ve done the one thing every cheesemaker agrees is critical if you’re considering this path: I’ve made cheese. As with any industry, the first and best way to find out if it’s really for you is to get yourself exposed. Generally that means working for free, apprenticing, interning or squeezing time in on nights and weekends when you’re not at your corporate law job, or whatever it is you think you want to ditch. As Leslie Goff at Consider Bardwell Farm says, “Get your feet wet first before you jump in.” Colin McGrath at Sprout Creek Farm echoes this, “You gotta start somewhere. Get a job washing molds, turning cheese. See if it’s for you. “

Prepare for a Reality Check, Part 1:

Enter Leslie: “It’s a lot of hard, boring, monotonous work. It’s not until the end that you get something rewarding. You can’t get off the farm because you’re milking twice a day. It’s a Fulltime Job. Plus. You can’t wander off and take a vacation.” That being said, Colin added, “Yes you follow the same steps every day but it never gets repetitive…It’s constantly changing, it’s constantly challenging.” Leslie agrees. “You’re working with a raw product that’s changing. It’s fun…[but] it takes a certain type of person who wants to devote that much energy, and in a hot, humid environment. It’s such a good feeling when you start with milk and 2-12 months later turn it into something people enjoy.”

And this is why cheesemaking isn’t a good fit for me. I experience the hard work, repetition and monotony, but the daily miracles of creation are lost to me. To a maker, the process is both art and science. To me, it’s science and cleaning. Until you do it, you won’t know what it is for you.

Prepare for a Reality Check, Part 2: 

In the past decade the American cheese scene has undergone exponential growth. What’s good about this is the increase in resources, community and sales opportunities: more farmers’ markets, more specialty stores, more cheese departments in supermarkets. What’s challenging about this is the according increase in expectations.  Or, as Colin put it, “When I think about what I did 10 years ago compared to now it’s a joke.” The checks and balances he has had to establish and manage, the level of formality, the process of recipe development. “There are so many awesome producers. [Back then] being local was enough.”  It’s not enough anymore. The window of opportunity to launch a successful creamery is much smaller—with more competition people expect your cheese will taste good from the beginning.

Get (Self) Educated:

Despite the explosion of the American artisan cheese scene, there are relatively few formal resources for learning about cheesemaking. The best and best known, the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) stopped offering workshops in 2013. That said there are chances to learn more about the world of cheese and network with other makers. The burden is on the individual to get out there. Padgett and Nathan Arnold of Sequatchie Cove Creamery (Nathan, particularly, who “assigned the task of learning to be a cheesemaker to himself”) sought out resources in other countries to transition from a decade of farming to a life of cheesemaking. In 2004 they went to Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre conference. Nathan took classes at the University of Guelph in Ontario. The annual American Cheese Society conference became an important crossroads to meet other makers, consultants and resources such as Margaret Moore of cheesemaking supply company Glengarry Cheesemaking. Most critically, a 2007 tour in France with their consultant opened doors to cheesemaking techniques and equipment they would otherwise have never encountered in rural Tennessee.

Prepare to be More than a Cheesemaker:

The vision of cheesemaking that many people have: gently stirring an aromatic vat of milk while the sun rises over the dew-dusted hills of your small farm is a radically incomplete one. In fact, actually making cheese winds up being less than 20% of what most makers do each day. Here’s a smattering of what else is involved for Leslie, Colin, Padgett and Nathan:

  • Writing a business plan
  • Finding (sourcing) milk
  • Writing a milk purchasing and projection plan (understanding that animals don’t make milk all year, and the amount of milk they makes changes over the course of their lactation cycle; oh yeah, so does its fat and protein content, the workable bits you’ll use for cheesemaking)
  • Developing a HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points Plan)
  • Cleaning the entire making and aging facility in accordance with your HACCP
  • Developing a production schedule: what cheese do you make when? What was sold last week? How long does the cheese have to age before it can be sold again? What equipment is needed for which cheeses?
  • Designing a production facility: sourcing equipment, figuring out how it all fits together, building for scalability and efficiency so you’re not ripping everything out in 2 years (see above, writing a business plan)
  • Developing cheese recipes
  • Aging cheese: turning, washing and brushing it 2-3 times each week
  • Being a salesperson: calling customers, filling orders, dealing with credits and returns
  • Managing a staff: maybe you’re not the one cleaning the facility, turning the cheese and packing the boxes but someone else is, and chances are they report to you
  • Tasting and profiling your cheeses, then troubleshooting what’s not working

The second-most common refrain I heard from these makers is how deeply fulfilling they find their work:

“The pace, the environment, the making something that people really enjoy.”

“It’s very physical.  It’s a labor of love. It’s heartbreaking, it’s fulfilling.”

“Being a cheesemaker has to be about the whole package. It can never be just about the finished product, the finished cheese.”

“It’s like caring for your own kid. Every turn, every time you wash it you’re caring for that one piece of cheese.”

“Cheese seemed like the perfection combination of art and science and agriculture. This is how we can create more of a sustainable model.”

The first-most common refrain was how they yearned for a different kind of life, and a different kind of work, and all of them gravitated to a more physical, more active, more relentless environment than what’s normally presented.

“I knew I didn’t want to flip burgers. I had a horse and I liked animals.”

“We had a passion for producing food. That’s our background.”

“There are so many parallels to cooking. The multitasking, the timing, the pace, the creating something.”

Which brings me to my first, last and final point. If you think you want to be a cheesemaker figure out how to go make cheese with someone. You’ll know instantly.