Farming Magazine - June, 2009


The Art of Cheese

Artisan cheesemakers learn from the best
By Patrick White
Photos courtesy of Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.
The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese produces varieties such as Bijou — a French cheese made with goat milk.

Vermont, per-capita, is the largest cheesemaking state in the nation. So, it seemed only natural when the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese was introduced in 2004 at the University of Vermont as a way to help educate and assist those cheesemakers.

“We initially thought we would be providing services—technical and professional programming and research—to Vermont farmers and cheesemakers,” says Jody Farnham, director of the Institute. “But, to our surprise, the majority of the students in our classes—probably two-thirds—are from out-of-state.” She feels one of the factors that has led to the expanded student base is the power of the Internet. “I think it’s also because the Institute is the only comprehensive education program in the country that focuses on small, artisan cheese, not larger or commodity cheesemaking.”

The Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese is now a world-renowned resource, having attracted some 850 students from 43 states and seven foreign countries since it opened five-plus years ago. During that time, about 100 students have successfully graduated from the Institute’s basic, six-course “Cheesemaking Certificate Program.”

While its national and global reach has evolved, the mission of the Institute has remained the same: “to strengthen and enhance the artisan cheesemaking industry through scientific research, professional and public education and technology transfer.” The Institute operates out of the Marsh Life Science Building at UVM, and its facilities include a cheesemaking room with two 30-gallon vats and plant for pressing, as well as two lab spaces.

Ironically, the Institute thought at first it would be serving mainly established cheesemakers, but that group has proven the most difficult to reach. “Cheesemaking has been going on in Vermont for a long time, so it’s not always easy to get those cheesemakers to come off the farm and learn something new,” says Farnham. To help encourage participation, the Institute has offered tuition discounts to members of the Vermont Cheese Council. “That’s been a good incentive. And, there’s a lot of new cheesemaking going on in Vermont right now, so master cheesemakers who have scaled-up or expanded to new locations are sending some of their younger cheesemakers to the program.”

Farnham says the student demographics are cyclical. “Right now, we’re teaching to many people who haven’t even yet forged into this area,” says Farnham. “They’re a real information-seeking group.” Many students are “baby-boomers” who have had successful professional careers and see cheesemaking as a way to “get back to the land” as a semiretired career. Recent college graduates who have worked in sustainable agriculture, perhaps in a volunteer capacity, are another demographic that tend to enroll at the Institute, she adds.

Classes in the Cheesemaking Certificate Program are one-week “intensives” with open enrollment. Housing in not available at UVM, but assistance with local hotel arrangements is provided. The six courses are taught in two-week segments, three the first week and three in a second week, which might be a month or more later. “You can get the certificate program under your belt pretty quickly,” says Farnham.

The six courses in the program include:

  • Essential Principles and Practices in Cheesemaking (three days);
  • Hygiene and Food Safety in Cheesemaking (one day);
  • Milk Chemistry (one day);
  • Cheese Chemistry (two days);
  • Starter Cultures (one day); and
  • Basic Sensory Evaluation (one day).

“We feel those are the six components that someone really needs in order to leave here with a basic education—and be ready to make cheese when they leave,” says Farnham.

The first class taken is “Essential Principles,” taught by Dr. Paul S. Kindstedt, co-founder of the Institute and author of “American Farmstead Cheese: A Practical Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses” (Chelsea Green, 2005). For those still recovering from high school and college chemistry classes, the second week’s “Cheese Chemistry” class may prove intimidating. “Some people find it difficult, but they get through it,” says Farnham.

Nearby Shelburne Farms, which itself makes artisan cheese, has hosted some of Institute events, such as a class on fromage (the scents of cheese).

The chemistry class is one of two “hands-on” portions of the curriculum, which take place in a lab setting and involves actual cheesemaking. Other classes are theory-based, such as the sensory evaluation component taught by Dr. Monserrat Almena-Aliste of Spain.

Beginning in 2008, The Institute also began offering an “Advanced Cheesemaking Certificate Program,” which focuses on areas such as advanced sensory evaluation (the finer points of how cheeses are judged, for example); risk-reduction (more on food safety); cheese defects (the inner workings of the aging room); and a two-day class on affinage (the aging of cheese).

Students in the advanced program are also required to take part in two of the “international” programs that the Institute offers twice each year. “We bring in colleagues from around the world to discuss their techniques and traditional makes and methods. For example, we just had two colleagues from France who taught Alpine region cheeses,” says Farnham. “These courses are great, because students can come here to learn about these cheeses without the added expense of spending a week or two in Europe.” Other countries that have been involved include Spain, Ireland, Canada and Britain.

Labs that are part of the Institute's curriculum offer students an opportunity for "hands-on" training.

Farnham says that established cheesemakers often sign up for the advanced program—and the international component—as a way to discover new styles of cheese they might want to make. The basic program is not a prerequisite for the advanced program.

The curriculum at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese focuses more on the “science” of cheesemaking than the agricultural components that underlie it. “We don’t do a lot with herd-management. Nor do we do a lot with marketing or business issues. What we do best is the science, and that’s what we care about the most. We really want people to be making safe cheeses. The industry could very easily be toppled if people aren’t making safe cheeses.”

HACCP and hygiene, two areas that were not part of artisan cheesemaking a century or more ago, are constant parts of the Institute’s curriculum. Oftentimes, the technical aspects of food safety are eye-opening, even to experienced cheesemakers. “Many people say, ‘Wow! I don’t do it that way,’” says Farnham. “Just something basic like switching shoes when you leave the barn before you enter into the cheese house surprises some people. Or, the fact any open, free-standing water during the cleaning process can breed bacteria.” Hands-on lessons are provided, as well as advice on documentation.

Farnham says that some beginning students are interested in starting their own cheesemaking operation are also interested in having an agricultural component to their operation. “A lot of them get into a partnership with a neighboring farmer who provides them milk because farmsteading cheese is a lot of work, though it’s a little easier for a smaller operation or if you’re working with goats rather than cows. And, there’s a lot of co-oping going on for larger operations.” Because many people view the agricultural component as an important part of artisan cheesemaking, some opt to keep a smaller herd and produce some of their own milk, while purchasing the rest, she points out.

In addition to instruction, the staff also does a significant amount of research work, primarily on milk quality. This helps it fulfill the other part of its mission to provide technical assistance to (mainly) Vermont cheesemakers. “The quality of the milk is key to key to making good cheese—if you have bad milk you’re going to get bad cheese,” says Farnham. For cheesemakers wanting to learn about good milk and good cheese, what better place to come than Vermont?

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.