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A New Career for Scientists

Samples from Jasper Hill farm lab

We all know starter cultures are the bacteria added to milk, ultimately defining a cheese’s taste and texture. Once upon a time, cheesemakers relied on the bacteria formed in whey to act as their starter. However, since that system was difficult to control, it often led to inconsistent results. Nowadays, many American cheese producers buy their starter cultures from one of several corporate suppliers in the US. While this method is typically hassle-free and fail-proof, it can create products that lack distinct flavors and characteristics

That’s why some American cheesemakers are taking more control of their curds by investing their time and funds into creating their own starters. A recent New York Times article features Jasper Hill Farm as an example. This Vermont creamery has been running its own lab since 2013, and its staff boasts microbiologists. Producers like Uplands Cheese and Murray’s Cheese are also collaborating with researchers to develop one-of-a-kind cheeses and become more educated about bacteria in cheese caves.

By making their own starters, artisans use their own bacteria, yeast, milk, and maturing conditions to create flavors truly unlike any other in the world. It’s not an easy process, and rigorous testing is involved. While researching a starter culture for a new soft pasteurized cheese, Jasper Hill scientists sampled 300 strains of yeast and bacteria from milk from the farm’s 250 cows. 

Creameries that want to try these experimental techniques may have to sign on a few science specialists. It’s a mutually beneficial situation, though: microbiologists obtain access to starter cultures and can research unique samples, while cheesemakers receive original tastes (and consumers can buy new products). Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more of these fruitful collaborations.

Feature Photo Credit: Jasper Hill Farm

Rachel E. McLean

Rachel is an editorial intern at culture for Spring 2017. She is Junior at Boston University studying Journalism and Communication with an emphasis in Public Relations. Known as "the cheese queen" among friends, she's had a passion for fromage from a young age.