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Perspective:
Cheese Technology

Aging cheese on purpose

Kate Neumeier Clarke

Kate Neumeier Clarke is president and COO of Wisconsin Aging & Grading Cheese Inc. She has more than 16 years of aging and grading cheese experience and contributes this column exclusively for Cheese Market News®.

From powders to blocks, cheese has countless forms, uses and varieties in today’s market, each having ideal properties suited for the cheese’s intended purpose. But how are those properties achieved? The answer goes way beyond the formula that is used at the production level. Cheese must be purposefully aged to reach its ideal state. To understand why and how this happens, let’s start with the basics — how is cheese made?

All cheese is made from four ingredients: milk, rennet, cultures and salt. Milk is the main ingredient and, in my opinion, is the most important factor in making quality cheese. Cultures are desirable bacteria added to the milk in order to convert the lactose to lactic acid, thus preventing the cheese from spoiling to allow for proper aging. Next, rennet is added to the milk in order to produce the curd, followed by the salt.

So, what makes Cheddar different from Parmesan? The answer lies in the cultures. Different cultures drive different organoleptic properties, which are the flavor, odor and body of the cheese. In order for these properties to develop, for most cheese varieties, it must be aged.

For example, in a Cheddar, the flavor might be described as “acid” or “bitter.” These flavors, as well as the body and odor, are gauged on a scale of Very Slight (VS), Slight (S), Definite (D) and Pronounced (P). Again, cultures dictate flavors, but that’s not a foolproof way of achieving balanced acid and bitter tasting Cheddar.

These cheeses must be constantly monitored and graded by an expert who can determine the current qualities and also predict how it will age and when it will reach its peak flavor, odor and body.

Color is graded using the National Cheese Institute (NCI) Cheese Color Standard Chart, which works off of a 12-color scale. White Cheddar, for example, should grade at a 1-2 on the NCI chart. If it’s higher than that, it would be considered an “off-color,” which would diminish the grade.

The grader also is key when cheese companies are experimenting with trial cultures to produce new cheese flavors and varieties. The grader should report on how the cheese is developing and whether the culture formula is producing the desired profile.

Whether it’s Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, or any other variety, the desired flavor, color, odor and body standards differ greatly. An aging and grading expert has the experience and knowledge to drive and manage these properties in the cheese.

Thoughtfully aging cheese seems like something all cheese companies would prioritize to produce top quality products, but this isn’t always the case and there are a number of reasons why. First, many companies lack the expertise to age and grade cheese. For example, gaining a Wisconsin cheese grader license is a lengthy process. It is recommended that individuals aspiring to obtain a license start by taking the Grading Short Course at the Center for Dairy Research at University of Wisconsin-Madison, followed by hands-on experience under a working licensed Wisconsin cheese grader. On top of that, depending on the frequency of grading, it could take up to a year for someone to be fully trained to acquire their license. Once fully trained, you can apply to take your one-on-one exam with a Wisconsin state grader (Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection), which includes a written and physical examination of cheese samples. In this field, experience is key. That’s where working with an aging and grading firm comes into play — offering expert staff, with years of experience to back up their craft and ensure your cheese reaches its desired profile.

The second problem cheese companies encounter when aging product is the space. As cheese ages, it takes up large amounts of space for long periods of time. Companies often do not have the capital to build a warehouse for long-hold cheese. However, it’s more than the space itself, it’s what’s required inside the space that poses additional challenges. A cheese’s ideal aging environment involves a delicate balance of temperature, humidity and air circulation. If one of these factors is off, it can significantly impact the cheese.

Sophisticated computerized equipment is needed to optimally manage these elements, which isn’t always financially feasible. This equipment, in addition to multi-temperature storage facilities, will be provided to you by an aging and grading company as part of their overall solution — guaranteeing your product is being properly stored and managed while aging.

This brings us to our final problem, which is the cash that is tied up in inventory while cheese is aging. If given the choice, most cheese companies prefer to use their working capital on strategic initiatives like plant expansions. Holding vast amounts of inventory that tie up that cash restricts companies from growing. An aging and grading partner can finance your cheese while it ages — freeing up your cash flow to invest in other strategic initiatives.

To truly manage a cheese aging program, it’s essential to have the right people, processes and facilities in place. Experienced professionals will develop processes around aging cheese, such as how often to grade it, which varies for every cheese variety and is largely based on what the grader sees during a previous grade.

This, along with the proper facilities and equipment, create a true strategy to aging cheese.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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