Now that the Thanksgiving cheese rush is over, and the Christmas cheese shopping rush has not yet begun, I can finally sit down, reflect, and write about a nice little conversation I had with Pat Ford of Beehive Cheese Company, a rather young cheesemaking company from Uintah, Utah. He graciously agreed to fill me in on how he and partner (and brother-in-law) Tim Welsh got into the business, and about their cheeses. Not only that, after our phone conversation, the weekend after Thanksgiving, Pat even paid the cheese shop a visit while in town. What a nice guy! I only regret that I forgot to ask for a picture with him.
Beehive Cheese Company’s cheeses, such as Barely Buzzed, which is a cheddar cheese rubbed with lavender and coffee grounds, and Promontory, an aged cheddar, the smoked version of which has just recently taken the bronze medal in its category at the World Cheese Awards, are gaining ground on the international stage as excellent cheeses. This is no small feat for cheese makers who have only been in the business since 2005! Thus, I was so glad that Pat was able to speak with me.
It is true that Utah is not well-known for its agriculture or dairy products, but Pat was quick to point out that Utah does, in fact, have a bustling dairy industry. The northern and central parts of the state have mineral-rich soil and thus plenty of cows and alfalfa to feed them.
When asked why Tim and Pat went into the cheese making trade, Pat responded, “Tim is a huge foodie, and I’m kind of a medium foodie. He’s kind of obsessed with it. We looked at several [business] options. We looked at jerky, we looked at some salts, we looked at some fun salts, you know like sea salts and whatnot, and just kind of saw that cheese was happening. There was just a great resurgence of cheese in America, and there are starting to be some unbelievable American cheeses out there. So cheese just really intrigued us, and with the research facility at Utah State, here locally, we talked to them. We were fascinated by cheese, and we thought, ‘You know what, since no one’s doing cheese around here, let’s do it.’ So we did.”
Pat also described the early days of the company. Keeping in mind that Beehive Cheese is quite young, Pat recounted a bit of Beehive’s earlier days, and some of the first cheese making lessons learned. “Well, we’re still learning, for sure. [W]e actually went up to Utah State and made our first batches of cheese about six months before we were gong to open our doors, and we horribly miscalculated on how much we should make. We ran out a lot quicker than we should have. But then it was fun because when we came down [to Beehive’s facilities] and started making cheese with our cows, and our milk, and our makeup, the cheese tasted a lot different [from the cheeses made at Utah State University] based on the cows and what they eat, and based on our facilities and naturally-occurring bacteria in our plant.”
The most important ingredient in cheese is milk, and Beehive has taken great care to choose the cleanest, freshest milk to create its cheeses. Finding superior quality milk means Beehive needed to take careful note of the cows, their diet, and their living conditions. As Pat explained, “When we started searching for milk, we wanted a single source dairy, we wanted [the cows] to be close so we don’t have to haul [the milk] a long way. Our cows are right on the banks, right on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. I mean literally, they’re right on the shores of the Great Salt Lake, and they have 300 acres where they grow their own food, [which] comes from the mineral-rich soil of the Great Salt Lake. [As for the cows themselves,] they’re Jersey cows. We wanted Jersey cows because they’ve got the creamiest milk–just gorgeous, fresh, clean milk. They eat hay for the most part, which is alfalfa, and chopped corn during the winter when there is no hay or alfalfa around. Eighty percent what [the dairy] feeds the cows comes from their own dairy.
Pat went on to describe the milk’s qualities more precisely. “We actually get our milk from the night milking, at about 10 o’clock at night, and it’s an hour out of the cow when we get it. So literally, it’s just straight out of the cow.” He also described the testing procedures carried out on each load of milk Beehive receives. Measuring somatic cells is one way of testing for mastitis, which is inflammation of the mammary glands of the cows. Click on the link to read up a bit more on this condition which is cause for concern for all the dairy industry. You can also read up more on somatic cell counts here. To put it briefly, the higher the somatic cell count, the more infection a cow is suffering, since somatic cells are only deployed by the body to combat harmful bacteria. As Pat stated, “A typical target that you’re trying to stay under is 250 [short for 250,000/ml], and our milk is under 100. We’re one of very very few dairies in the state that can make that claim. So we’re using really clean milk, very fresh, and we think that’s the most important thing.
When asked about growth hormones in the cow, Pat stated, “We didn’t want any growth hormones, or any of that in there. It’s not organic, but it’s all natural. That somatic cell count tells a huge story about the health of the herd, and the cleanliness of the milk, and so that was a big factor for us.”
Just after the 9pm milk is delivered, the cheese making process begins! Pat says, “[W]e’re making cheese at 11pm. Then we’ll make basically until 9pm that next night, and we do that about 3 days a week. Once you start everything up, and get all the equipment warmed up and going, it’s just more efficient for us to make the batches back to back. So instead of doing one batch a day, we’ll do three batches in a day.” Ahhh….efficiency. In terms of how much cheese one day’s work yields, with the 1,500 gallons of milk received, Beehive fabricates 1,500 pounds of cheese.
I sort of skipped through the cheese making steps lightly before coming to what to me is the most fascinating part–affinage. Beehive does use three types of cultures in various combinations to obtain their cheeses’ different flavor profiles. Because of that, to cultivate these three types, Beehive must move its cheeses through three aging caves throughout the affinage, or else the cultures will run out of nourishing lactose too quickly or too late. Pat tried to explain it simply so us laypeople could understand: “You’ve only got about 45 days’ worth of lactose in that cheese. And so you’ve got to more or less farm the bacteria, and either slow them down or speed them up, depending on what temperature you put them at. They [the bacteria] have to eat the right amount of lactose in order to create the different flavor profiles. There’s a lot to the affinage of the cheese. For instance, [take] two of the cheeses we make, one is a cheddar-type cheese, and the other is a parmesan type cheese. I use the same cultures for both cheeses, but based on how I cook them, stir them, and manage the aging process, it completely changes the nature of the cheese, and the flavors. It’s the same exact cultures [used in all of the cheeses], but they’re managed differently, so one bacteria will eat more sugar than the others, and create different flavors, which is really cool.” Of course it’s cool–that’s the near-mystical element of cheese making where experience and science combine to create those flavors Beehive’s fans love so much. This process of “musical caves” lasts anywhere from 6 months to one year, although Pat informed me that they do have some 2-year aged cheeses.
After all of this work, and after six months to one year, the cheese is ready for distribution, and ready to shine on your cheese plate.
My enormous thanks to Pat from Beehive Cheese for sharing some of his knowledge and story.