Where do Cheese Cultures Come From? Behind the Scenes at Dairy Connection
Cheese and dairy products are truly one of those things that the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.
For example, its hard enough to to get your head around the notion and process that turns liquid milk into cheese. However, once you’ve conquered that, such questions naturally arise as “what makes a cheddar a cheddar” or “what makes brie a brie.”
Well, like any regular recipe, many different factors contribute to the overall result. That said, perhaps the single most critical factor in determining what variety of cheese is produced are the addition of starter cultures that give the cheese its main characterisitcs.
Starter cultures are usually added to the vat of milk at the beginning of the cheesemaking process. As their name suggests, they comprise a blend (often proprietory to the cheesemaker) of cultures and bacteria that, in conjunction with time and temperature considerations, determine the variety of cheese to be made.
Like a diva, starter cultures are crucial to the process and yet highly temperamental to work with. Use them too much or mistreat them in any way and they are likely to implode or fail - or to use the scientific term “farge”.
So how do cheesemakers source these tricky substances? Well, like any stage or screen star, cultures have a type of agent, known as a culture house (no relation). Culture houses comprise of a team of knowledgeable and dedicated folk who serve to advise cheesemakers, often preparing proprietory blends and sell them starter cultures together with other cheesemaking supplies such as rennet.
One of the most highly regarded culture houses in the US, especially for smaller and medium scale producers, is Dairy Connection.
Owned and operated by Dave Potter, a long time culture specialist, Dairy connection serves cheesemaking businesses and home cheesemakers across the US. Last week, I went to visit Dave and his team at their offices and warehouse on the outskirts of Madison Wisconsin.
Although the cultures are physically created elsewhere, there is a considerable art to keeping them viable until they are ready to be shipped out. Culures usually come in powder format and may are stored in freezers at -70 below. That said, other products can be stored in the refrigerator or at ambient temperatures.
In addition to a small but great Customer Service team, Sandy, Dairy Connection's Technical Specialist, is on hand to discuss specific requirements and answer questions from cheesemakers.
When it comes to blending and mixing cultures, this is performed in a sterile room, kitted out with a positive pressure air supply to dissuade the ingress of any contaminants from outside. This delicate task is performed by Kassy who accompanied by a radio is frequently heard singing loudly as she goes about her work.
Once the orders are taken, responsibility for shipping and inventory management falls to Terry, whose "office" is in the warehouse.
Here are some photos from the visit… Thanks to all at DC for taking the time to show me around.