The process of making Seattle’s greatest cheese starts fast. It doesn’t end that way.
On Day One, local cows eat grass. Day Two: The milk from those cows, having traveled to Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at Seattle’s Pike Place Market, turns into fresh cheese curds under the watchful eye of passersby gawking through the glass. And then things get slow. Only on Day 450—after 15 months of careful craftsmanship and aging—will the process conclude with a finished batch of Beecher’s Flagship cheese. It’s not quite a whiskey-aging span, but it’s a hell of a long time to wait.
Kurt Beecher Dammeier, who founded the place in 2002, grew up a cheese lover. When he saw an open building, he decided to turn that love of cheese into a business. The cheesemaker nearly encircled the 1,000-square-foot kitchen with windows, allowing for a constant live demonstration of the handcrafted artisanal process.
When Beecher’s opened its doors in November 2003—making quite the bet that the cheese it had started crafting in 2002 would pass muster—the shop was more than the culmination of Dammeier’s dream to make artisanal cheese in Seattle, and more than the culmination of his culinary vision in the signature Flagship cheese, which is best described as a cross between a cheddar and Gruyère. Beecher’s shop connects people—to cheese, to craftsmanship, and to the patient but painstaking process of doing things the right way.
“What is so wonderful about cheesemaking is it involves a connection with the cheesemaker,” says Jon Gougar, a Wisconsin native and Beecher’s vice president of cheesemaking. “Our cheesemaker personally handles every pound and every curd through the process.” Producing just 4,000 pounds of cheese a day in open vats and not enclosed in a tank, Beecher’s can take the hands-on control with its small scale while still carefully measuring data points and embracing technology throughout the process. “There aren’t any assumptions,” he says. “We listen to the cheese and give it what it wants.”
The Tech of Cheese
To understand the cheesemaking process through those weeks and months, Gougar says, you’ve got to follow the milk. “It is all out the window if you use bad quality,” he says. Beecher’s relies on two local family farms, Green Acres Dairy and Groeneveld Farms, to provide all milk needed at the Seattle plant. “The milk is the primary raw material we use,” Gougar says. “It is one of the defining characteristics of the product we produce.”
From good animal welfare and nutrition at the farm to fresh cold milk that isn’t temperature-abused between the farm and the vat: Beecher’s works directly with the farm to monitor the diets of cows, plan for seasonal changes in cow environment, and to use high-quality tanker trucks to transport the milk directly from the farm’s milking parlor to Beecher’s Pike Place location. The result gives Beecher’s milk a that’s a quarter to a half of the European standard, which is already half of the standard allowed in the United States. (The lower the number, the better the quality and the safer the milk.)
Every day 4,600 gallons of milk from the two farms — 30 percent Jersey milk and 70 percent Holstein, a blend Beecher’s chooses for quality and flavor— arrives at Pike Place Market around 3 a.m. “It is not just some Jersey, but [exactly] 30 percent,” Gougar says. Jersey milk has the highest butterfat content of any milk used for cheesemaking, and that precision gives Beecher’s the exact characteristics it needs for its slow-paced production.
From there, cheesemakers clad in white lab coats and hair nets start the pasteurizing process, running the milk through high temperatures for a short time. “We feel it is gentle on the milk and gives us access to precision of temperature control,” Gougar says. “We can pasteurize very quickly and use that time for other quality actions.”
The milk then enters an open vat, visible to the public behind that glass, while mechanical agitators keep it moving. As the tank fills, Beecher’s adds starter culture, a carefully selected strain of bacteria that not only helps to send the pH downhill, but also encourages aging. The milk comes into the vat at 6.7 pH, but will likely hit about 5.3 pH by the end of the process. During the 15-month aging process of most Beecher’s cheeses, the starter cultures metabolize the cheese to build a greater depth of flavor, create texture, and impart melting behaviors—“all the things that make cheese what it is is because of the starter culture.”
An hour later, 90-degree milk full of starter culture produces lactic acid, starting the conversion to cheese. With the lactic acid started by the bacteria in the starter culture, the third ingredient comes in the form of a plant-based rennet, mimicking the rennet in a calf’s stomach that helps it digest the difficult molecules of milk. The rennet helps start the coagulation process, turning milk into curds. The rennet addition is so exacting that Beecher’s uses a scale measuring to the tenth of a gram.
As the process continues, cheesemakers wield hand-strung stainless-steel wire harps—each harp includes 280 feet of wire—to manually cut the vat, all while customers consume Beecher’s mac & cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, and more just feet away. “We could automate it,” Gougar says, “but doing it by hand gives us feel and dexterity and we can leverage that into quality by the rate at which we cut. It looks like cheesemakers pulling harps, but there is a lot to it. It is set, cut, cook. We set it very carefully and cut by hand.”
“You have to cut it right,” says Brian Gilbert, Beecher’s head cheesemonger. “Those were the hard-fought details that we figured out over time and experience. There was a lot of trial and error in developing cheese. You have to let the cheese talk to you and you want to respond to it in real-time. If you ignore it, it will go off the rails.”
Following the cut, you get Little Miss Muffet’s curds and whey. To strengthen the curds, low-pressure cooking releases steam bought from the city of Seattle to allow the curds to cook up 10 degrees over a 35-minute period.
Once strong enough, the curds and whey make a trip just a few feet away through a 3-inch-diameter positive-displacement pump into the cheddaring vat. The transfer happens with such gentleness that Gougar believes he could pump egg yolks through it without shattering them. He hasn’t tried it. Yet. Once in the vat, agitator forks keep the curds stirred so they don’t naturally knit together while the whey drains. When deemed time, cheesemakers let the curds knit and use sword-sized knives to cut the matted curds into loaves.
Then the cheddaring process can begin.
The Crosstown Connectivity
It wasn’t just Dammeier’s love of cheese that led him to start Beecher’s—it was also his desire to teach others about the food they eat. Pike Place Market, famous for fresh flowers, flying fish and farm fare, served as the perfect backdrop for that education. But it was truly a connection to the community that helped Beecher’s get its start, especially the relationships with local dairy farmers. From there, as Beecher’s continued to evolve, it took people that live and breathe cheese to make the company what it is.
Gougar and Gilbert will both tell you they know Flagship so well they can taste a batch and decipher how certain aspects of the process defined that particular flavor profile. So precise has their tasting become, they say, the average customer wouldn’t notice a drop of difference that seems monumental to them now.
Gougar gets excited when talking about the constant work—from finding the exacting amount of jersey cream needed for the Dutch Hollow Dulcet (it wasn’t an easy process, he says) to the exploration of future product. Through it all, it was that chutzpah, as Gougar says, of Dammeier to start a cheesemaking business out of nothing and turn it into an award-winner that keeps the entire company creating.
Beecher’s not only offers a new way to celebrate cheesemaking in Seattle’s most visited location, but a new flavor profile too, with multiple Annual American Cheese Society awards. The national success of Flagship led to multiple styles—and ages—of the cheese, along with a 2011 opening of a facility in New York City’s Flatiron District.
Back to the cheese. Through a choreographed phase of rotating, inverting, lifting, and stacking the loaves to orient proteins and impact moisture, the time-consuming process helps create the desired texture and pH. Beecher’s then mills the loaves back into curds before adding by hand the fourth and final ingredient: salt. While the curds take in 50 percent of the salt, it still accounts for only 1.5 percent of the final cheese, not a major component but a critical ingredient to halt the pH drop, provide flavor and help the curds excrete more whey.
More technology enters the fray, as curds enter stainless-steel block forms placed in pneumatic presses where Beecher’s squeezes the remainder of the whey out while matting curds together. The “relatively hard press for a long time”—Gougar wanted to remain vague to keep the difference-making press void of details—removes voids and lets Beecher’s arrive at the desired texture and moisture. Cheese will finish pressing the following day.
Once removed from the press, cheese gets vacuum-sealed to protect it from the environment and sent to a Seattle warehouse where it ages, monitored every step along the way as Gougar checks temperatures in real time and receives alerts on warehouse operations via his mobile device.
While the Beecher’s Flagship ages for 15 months, they also have a four-year aged Flagship (not just any cheese can improve over four years of aging, Gilbert says) and a Reserve Flagship that ages in open air, covered in cloth. Each process offers a slight variation on flavor and texture. The Reserve Flagship also gains a prescribed thickness of butter on the outside for the year-long French-style affinage aging process traditionally done in caves. With a shortage of caves in downtown Seattle, Beecher’s mimics the cave environment mechanically.
“As a cheesemaker, I like the investment put into a four-year age,” Gougar says. “It takes so much effort to make it and you don’t benefit from it for a very long time. It is a special cheese that can succeed in aging that long.”
Nearly everything Beecher’s produces comes as a derivative of Flagship, whether smoked aging with cherry and apple woods (reminiscent of gouda), the differing aged varieties, or the flavored versions such as the peppercorn-filled Marco Polo or the Jamaican-flavored New Woman.
Beecher’s has also introduced plant-specific low-production varieties to the mix, such as a Seattle-based Flagship made partially with sheep’s milk and another made fully with sheep’s milk. The holiday-inspired Yule Käse variety further ages Flagship in red wine and blackberry honey. In New York City, the Dutch Hollow Dulcet signifies a cheese produced using just local jersey milk—plus a bit of jersey cream—to produce a highly creamy, smooth take on a Beecher’s cheese sans the cheddaring process.
No matter the variety, Gougar can’t point to just one thing that defines the taste of Beecher’s Flagship. It starts with milk, includes the starter culture, and certainly gets determined by the cheesemaking process. For Beecher’s, Flagship craftsmanship offers a new definition of cheese. “It is an American original,” Gilbert says. “A Seattle original.”
Follow Tim Newcomb on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.