Wisconsin – Day 2 – BelGioioso – Chase Plant
April 29, 2009
The Lady has decided to write about the next two days in Wisconsin…so…heeeeeere’s The Lady…
First of all, I want to thank my company and specifically John and Cheryl for giving me the opportunity of a lifetime for this cheesemonger. What a fabulous trip and learning experience. I also want to thank the cheesemakers who welcomed us to their plants: BelGioioso, Crave Brothers and Roth Kase. I want to add a special thanks to Deb and Robert from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board who put the trip together.
Wednesday began at 8am when we boarded a motor coach for the BelGioioso Chase Plant somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the country side of Wisconsin outside Green Bay. The land is flat and dotted with dairy farms and silos (I never saw a single goat or sheep…). It was a chilly but clear morning. After getting lost, even though the bus driver had a GPS (turns out it had NOT be updated recently), we arrived at the Chase plant and were met by the Plant Manager. This plant makes most of the hard, table cheeses that BelGioioso has developed after the Italian cheeses with the same names. The plant has just finished making Parmesan and had started production of Asiago. As you may recall from one of Spaulding gray’s earlier blog entries, the founder of BelGioioso immigrated to the US in 1979 with the express purpose of making world-class Italian cheeses in America.
We were divided into two groups and my group was guided by the Plant Manager who is also a licensed Cheesemaker. Of the thirty-five employees at the Chase Plant, seven are licensed by the State of Wisconsin to make cheese. Wisconsin is the only state that has a licensing program for cheesemakers. The first step is to apprentice for a minimum of eighteen months with a cheesemaker. Then there are university-level courses you must take and finally you must take and pass a three-hour test given at the University of Wisconsin.
Once you have become a licensed cheesemaker, you can, after another ten years of cheesemaking, become a Master Cheesemaker which requires more university-level courses and testing including a rigorous oral exam given by college professors. A Master Cheesemaker can only apply for a license to make two different cheeses each time they apply for the license.
Our tour began in the room where the wheels are formed after the milk has coagulated to form its curds. This is a two-step process. After the separated milk is pumped into the vat and reaches the desired temperature, a starter is added. (The milk is separated from the cream and the cream is used for other cheese and milk products.)The starter consists of bacteria cultures necessary to start the cheesemaking process. After a specific amount of time, rennet is added and the coagulation begins. When the desired coagulation is reached, the curds are cut and both the curds and whey are pumped into a table where the curds are separated from the whey and formed into the desired shapes for the cheese being made. The whey is pumped off and used for various purposes including field feed and dry whey protein which is used in a variety of everyday items from protein bars to cosmetics. The water is separated out, polished and returned for other uses in the plant. Nothing is wasted.
One of the impressive aspects of all three cheesemaking companies that we visited was the level of commitment to recycling. Almost nothing is tossed away; everything is used and re-used. Another impressive feature is how incredibly clean these facilities are kept. The term “cleaning as you go along” was never truer than in a cheesemaking plant.
From the cheesemaking room we were taken to the brine vats where the wheels are placed after the initial forming and drying. Depending on the style of cheese being made, the cheese may soak in the brine for several hours or several days. The brine bath has three important components; it removes moisture from the cheese; adds flavor to the cheese; and helps create and develop the rind. Because the cheese is floating in the brine, employees come along on a regular schedule and turn the wheels to keep the brining process uniform on all sides. Also, again recycling is foremost in the minds of the cheesemakers. The brine is recycled; cleaned and used over and over. At any given time, there is over 650K gallons of brine being used in the plant. As the salt is absorbed into the cheese, salt is added back into the brine to keep the desired saline level at all times.
I noticed is how labor-intensive and hands-on the cheesemaking process is at each of the plants we visited. When people ask why cheese is so expensive, I can now answer honestly that I wonder why it doesn’t cost more. There is a lot of time and labor that goes into making cheese.
After removal from the brine, the cheese wheels are taken to a drying room and placed on racks where they continue to dry and age. Again, employees come along on a regular schedule and turn and flip the wheels. Again, it’s amazing how much detail goes into making high-quality specialty cheeses.
This plant uses about one million pounds of milk per day from local farmers. Depending on the cheese, it takes between ten and fourteen pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese. BelGioioso has five plants; all of which use approximately the same amount of cheese everyday and cheesemaking is a 24-7-365 business.
The milks are co-mingled but detailed records are kept regarding which farmer delivered what milk to the truck and plant. Field samples are taken when the milk is pumped into the truck and tested upon arrival at the plant. If one of the milks tests badly, that farmer ends up buying the entire load of milk rather than selling his day’s yield. This is certainly one incentive to making sure your milk is good. Also, based on this same rigorous testing, the price paid to the farmer for his milk is determined. The higher the quality of the cheese, the higher the premium paid to the farmer. In other words, the better the milk; the more the farmer makes. Yet another incentive to produce quality milk.
Another facet of the testing has to do with antibiotics that have been given cows when they are sick. Cows get sick and must be treated. But antibiotics are bad in the cheesemaking process. In addition to the general public not wanting to ingest unnecessary antibiotics, the presence of antibiotics in milk can kill the cultures needed to start the cheesemaking process. The cow that is being treated is pulled from the line and her milk is not used until her milk tests clean…yes even cows are subject to workplace drug-testing. The plant has a chart that lists the cows receiving antibiotics and when the day arrives to return them to the line, their milk is sent separately to the plant to check and make sure it is clean. On a small farm that cow might be listed as “Rosie”; but on a larger farm, the cow is merely a number on an ear tag. After testing the plant tells the farmer the cow can or cannot be put back on-line.
A couple of asides here.
The milk at this plant is not pasteurized. Pasteurization requires that milk be heated to 162-164° and held there for sixteen seconds. The state tests and seals the vats when pasteurization is being used. The reason that the cheese in this plant is not pasteurized is because all of the cheese made here will be aged more than sixty days.
And beginning in August of this year, the Chase Plant will begin producing and selling to our company our private label of Parmesans, Asiagos and Romano cheeses in wedges and shredded or shaved cups.
And finally one bit of trivia: Romano cheese must be cured and dried in a separate room from the other cheeses due to its pungent smell. If you dry Romano with Parmesan, then the Parmesan will absorb some of the Romano smell and will change the taste. If you dry Parmesan cheese in a room filled with Romano, the Parmesan will taste like Romano.
Up next: BelGioioso Bellevue Plant and Lunch.