How to Become a Cheesemaker
Making cheese is "a little bit like watching your children grow up."
There’s something beautiful about making cheese. As Andy Hatch, owner of and head cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, puts it, “We're distilling and preserving a summer day's pasture and weather, and sending it out into the world. It's a little bit like watching your children grow up, develop their own character, and then go off to make their way: trepidation, pride, a little bit of sorrow—we live that life cycle with every batch of cheese.” Like we said, there’s something beautiful about making cheese.
Beautiful though it is, it's not an easy job. Cheesemakers rise early—think, 4:30 in the morning—to do physical labor like pasteurizing milk and filling cheese vats with a side of heavy-duty cleanup, all before aging cheeses in caves and shipping out ripe wheels, says Joseph Caleb Widmer, assistant plant manager and cheesemaker at Widmer’s Cheese in Theresa, Wisconsin.
But if, for you, the beauty outweighs the hard work—and you’re ready to become a cheesemaker—you came to the right place. Read on for three cheesemakers' top tips.
1. Conduct an informational interview with a cheesemaker.
“The best advice I can give someone is to know what you don’t know, and surround yourself with people who have the knowledge that you lack,” says Scott Robbins, owner of and cheesemaker at Urban Stead Cheese in Cincinnati, Ohio. “The cheese community is very open and helpful. And trust me, you’re going to need this community as you get started.” One way to touch base is to set up an informational interview, in which you ask a cheesemaker for 30 minutes of his or her time. “Find out everything you can about their job and what it entails,” encourages Widmer. “Find out the positives and negatives what they like and dislike, along with where they see the industry going. Any information and insight you can gain will be to your advantage.”
Nervous to approach your cheese-making idol? Then, “offer to buy $100 worth of cheese in exchange for 20 minutes of his or her time,” suggests Hatch, who adds if the interview goes well, it could lead to a part-time job where you could learn the proverbial cheese ropes.
2. Study up.
There are a bevy of resources—from books to blogs and formal classes—that you can use to educate yourself about the varieties of cheeses available—and how to make them. “Cheesemaking is chemistry,” explains Robbins. “It’s crucial to understand the terminology and technical aspects of how cultures and rennet transform milk into cheese.”
Widmer recommends starting your research on the Center for Dairy Research site, where you can find articles on cheese and cheesemaking, while Hatch says that Paul Kindstedt’s
American Farmstead Cheese and Will Studd's Cheese Slices DVD's are excellent resources.
Of course, there are formal education options, too: Robbins trained at Westminster Artisan Cheese Making in Vermont; Hatch studied dairy science at the University of Wisconsin; and Widmer graduated from the cheesemaking short course from the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Dairy Research. All recommend their respective educational avenues.
3. Attempt to make cheese at home.
“As strange as it sounds, try making cheese at home,” suggest Robbins. “This will not be like producing cheese on a larger scale, but it will at least give you familiarity with the process and some practical application of theory.” You can use the books and articles you’ve read—plus any formal education—to guide you at home.
4. Take on a cheesemaking apprenticeship.
If your informational interview didn’t lead to a part-time job—and your at-home cheesemaking mission wasn’t a complete disaster—it’s time to step inside a professional cheesemaking operation and find out what it’s really like to make cheese in a large-scale facility. “Before anyone spends any considerable time or money pursuing a career in cheesemaking, he or she should find a way to dabble in the work itself,” says Hatch. “Like farming itself, it's a job which people tend to romanticize. I take on apprentices every year and routinely work the romance out of them within a few weeks. So don't quit your day job until you know what it feels like to be a cheesemaker.”
5. Network within the cheese industry.
Like many other industries, cheesemakers have ample opportunities to network with one another, from trade shows to award banquets. Hatch suggests attending the American Cheese Society's annual conference, held in a new location each year. (This year, it’s being held in Pittsburgh.) “Introduce yourself to as many people as possible and you'll have dozens of great conversations about cheese,” advises Hatch. “And if you have a business plan or even an idea of what you'd like to do, most of us will be willing to offer some genuine advice.” There are cheese groups and classes in most cities, and you can more easily attend them with the purpose of networking, Robbins says.