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Artisanal Alchemy: Secrets of Bleating Heart

Artisanal Alchemy is a series of interviews with award-winning American cheesemakers across the United States. We discuss their journeys to the industry and how their origins and ideals impact their approaches to curd design and development.

For Seana Doughty, making Colby or Jack is out of the question. “As long as I am alive, Bleating Heart will never make a knockoff of an existing cheese.” When starting out, her mentors in the industry advised her to start slow with home cheesemaking books—she needed more. She dug into dairy science and decoded the intricacies of the chemical reactions that are the building blocks of lactic delicacies. She needed to answer why specific temperatures were used with certain cultures and why a technique would work for one wheel but not another. It is this attention to detail that makes Bleating Heart Creamery unforgettable.

Doughty didn’t start in dairy. She is a former non-profit research administrator who left office drudgery and embraced the road less traveled. While she appreciated the achievements of the scientists who surrounded her each day, they weren’t hers. “My office looked exactly the same everyday. Maybe one pile of papers would get moved one side or another, but there was just no tangible result of what I was doing.”

She landed a gig as a local cheesemonger, and within weeks she knew it was the industry for her. “You know how people describe falling in love? Like, ‘How do you know he was the one?’ Well, I didn’t have that experience with my husband, it was something that grew over time. The only thing I’ve ever fell in love with like that, just knowing, was cheese.” Armed with the knowledge of scientific process (and a pre-med undergraduate education), Doughty’s history shaped how she approaches her role as a maker.

We got the scoop on Doughty’s creative (and scientific) process and talked about the risks and realities of innovation and design in the American cheese world.

Let’s start at the beginning: Doughty’s creative process. First, Doughty imagines a cheese that she wants, but doesn’t exist yet.

I think, OK, format, milk type, what type [of cheese], and then I think of texture. I think about the rind. I think about the flavor attributes that I’m looking for. And for many of our cheese, I use something called a spider graph. It looks kind of like a radar, so we’ll set different attributes. On mine it’s a scale of 1 to 5. I’ll think about really where I want the cheese to be—salt level, buttery, sheepy. If it’s a washed-rind cheese, how funky, how strong do I want that funky aroma to be?

Doughty examines the curds of her award-winning Buff Blue. Photo Credit: Bleating Heart Cheese

Doughty examines the curds of her award-winning Buff Blue.

After having her eureka moment, Doughty hits the books and charts her course in a way that’s reminiscent of film-trope mathematicians and their equations scribbled on windows.

I’ll come up with a recipe and cultures that will hopefully get in that ballpark of what I put in the spider graph and then make adjustments from there. Then part of that process is thinking about things like ripening temperatures, what types of cultures to use. I have big folders . . . of all the different technical sheets from different cultures. I’ll read through those and I’ll think about how they performed in other cheeses that I make and what I think they might do in the new cheese . . . The latest cheese that I’m developing . . . it’s a semi-soft beer-washed cheese. We’re doing different things to the wash solution, and we also have a control that’s just salt water with no beer . . . [This process] definitely comes from my science background.

Without taking a chance with their tastebuds and dollar, consumers won’t know if a new favorite exists. Doughty doesn’t rely on potential market shares and consumer preference to dictate her business—she brings her art to us.

I can’t make a product that I don’t feel enthusiastic about. Even though the general public might want more of a soft, creamy cheese low in flavor, that’s not a good enough reason for me to make something like that. I try to have a balance between what’s going to make me feel challenged . . . versus what consumers want. Nobody knew they wanted to eat water buffalo blue cheese because it didn’t exist in this country… I think Buff Blue is a perfect example . . . If I had only considered what consumers want, that cheese would not exist.

Buff Blue in progress, draining in their forms. Photo Credit: Bleating Heart Cheese

Buff Blue in progress, draining in their forms.

Doughty struggled with her water buffalo blue cheese, Buff Blue, after a drinking buddy convinced her to buy his excess water buffalo milk and concoct a product with it. It was Doughty’s scientific acumen and maker-chops that resulted in Buff Blue winning runner-up for the American Cheese Society’s Judging and Competition “Best of Show” in 2016.

When I first started developing that Buff Blue cheese . . . I was really a loner. I was way out there in fringe land trying to make this type of cheese. It’s not like I can go to the store and buy different water buffalo blue cheeses to compare to and think about what attributes I liked and which I didn’t. I came up with a core recipe and started from there. I knew I wanted a natural rind and what affinage practices we would need for that cheese in order to cultivate that rind. The milk has a super high fat content so it doesn’t drain the same way . . . I struggled getting the right strain of Penicillium roqueforti. You need to have some mechanical openings in the body of the cheese, and with so much fat it would tend to close up . . . I will say that if I had tried to do that seven years ago, I don’t know that I would have been able to pull it off . . . You would not be able to open a home cheesemaking book and look up a recipe for blue cheese and expect it to turn out to be a major award-winner.

For Doughty, creameries can’t build greatness from a book.

I think if you want to have a unique cheese that is likely to win awards, you gotta up your game. You gotta take it up a couple notches… I almost feel as a small business owner you have to [take risks]. The thing that has put us on the map is the approach that we’ve taken making more innovative, unique, American original cheeses . . . I think it’s a mistake to take the safe route as a small company and try to enter the marketplace by making something familiar. If you want to break into this industry, the bar is coming up all the time. You’ve got to do something a little bit different.

Fat Bottom Girl freshly demolded. Photo Credit: Bleating Heart Cheese

Fat Bottom Girl freshly demolded.

In the “Wild West” of American cheese, makers can freely break the mold.

One of the advantages of being an American cheesemaker is the sky’s the limit. It’s wide open. For me, it doesn’t make sense that you’d try to jump on some bandwagon for some culture that doesn’t exist here. American cheese is still very new compared to European traditions. While I respect the tradition if you only want to focus on tradition, then you run the risk of diminishing innovation . . . How would the cheese that we make ever come into existence if I was just trying to do follow something? If you try to put everyone into a box you’re going to stifle innovation.

Despite her scientific leanings, for Doughty, cheesemaking is equal parts art and science.

To me [cheese is] a marriage of art and science, and hands-on craftsmanship, and you end up with something that you get to eat! …I think it’s equally both. Some days it may go more one direction or the other, but you can’t have one without the other. Cheese is not purely art, and cheese is not purely science. Embrace both!

Photos Courtesy of Bleating Heart Cheese

Kara Kaminski-Killiany

​Kara is a Michigan cheesemaker, writer, and freelance behavioral economist who can’t get enough bloomy rind cheeses that perfectly melt just below the rind. She is happiest when tending goats, discovering unique cheese flavors from new sources, and decoding the puzzles of human behavior.​