I want to become a cheese maker… where do I start?
I frequently get contacted by budding keen cheese-makers, including owners of small farms that want to find a way to use their milk, looking to make cheese on a commercial scale.
If you want to know what I tell them, read on…
It’s great that more and more people are getting into making cheese; there’s always room for more artisan and farmhouse cheese-makers, particularly making a unique, special cheese with raw (unpasteurised) milk. But I would offer a word of caution: for although it is easy to make cheese, to make an amazing cheese requires a shed-load of patience, dedication, hard work, and difficult decisions about animal breed, feeding, starters, ageing, etc, etc.
Many cheese-makers originally started out making cheese in their own kitchen; it is helpful to practice first and get an idea of what you are doing, before forking out to go on courses. Purchase a basic cheese-making book from Amazon, and some simple equipment from Moorlands or The Cheesemaking Shop, and peruse the advice on the blogs and cheese websites detailed below.
When you’ve experimented at home, and are familiar with the basics of cheese making, I would then recommend a cheese-making course at The School of Artisan Food (with Ivan Larcher). As an attendee of many courses and having spoken to many participants in my time, I think that Ivan Larcher is one of the best to learn from. The courses are not cheap, but ask any cheese-maker who has ever attended, and they will tell you how valuable they are.
If you have no cheese-making experience, however, there are good cheese-making courses that are useful for getting you started and introducing you to making cheese. Once you have decided to go ahead as a commercial enterprise and had some experience of making cheese, however, the professional courses at The School of Artisan Food are invaluable (particularly the ones specifically geared to a style or type of cheese).
Where can I read about cheese-makers’ good experiences?
Homemade Cheese – A nice website written by Jack Monty and designed to get people into cheese making – a good place to start: http://www.homemadecheese.org
HandyFace – It’s worth having a look at this blog too; brilliant cheese-making on a home scale: http://handyface.wordpress.com/.
For those who want to go more technical and also see how a budding (and experienced) cheese-maker goes about it, do read Anne Hastings The Cheesemaking Years. It is also worth perusing her blogs, especially: http://thecheesemakingyears.com/2014/02/17/we-live-we-learn-about-lactics/ and http://thecheesemakingyears.com/2013/10/29/all-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-blue-cheese-but-were-afraid-to-ask/.
For general advice, tips and help, see The Cheesemaking Forum; definitely a good source: http://cheeseforum.org.
Also many years ago, at the beginning of the internet…. a real pioneer in British farmhouse cheesemaking, James Aldridge wrote a very informative website on how to make cheese, thankfully Isle of Mull Cheddar have kept it alive and host it here: http://www.isleofmullcheese.co.uk/jalldridge/jaindex.htm
Where can I buy cheesemaking equipment and supplies?
They will provide you with the basics in equipment, cultures and bacteria. If you want to get a little more serious drop me a line and I’ll point you in the direction of the big suppliers on the continent and in the UK.
What books should I read?
Chosen from a vast range of excellent books on cheese, I would particularly recommend these three books, which are worth their weight in gold for any budding professional cheese maker:
The Fabrication of Farmstead Goats Cheese, by Jean Claude Le Jaouen.
Although focused on goats’ cheese, this book clearly details the fundamentals of planning and putting together a small-scale dairy and was originally aimed at small scale French farmhouse producers.
American Farmstead Cheesemaking, by Paul Kindstedt
The best all round book with loads about the fundamentals of cheese making. I wish I’d found this book earlier in my career…
The Specialist Cheesemaker’s, Association Code of Best Practice
A right good read which will also help massively when assembling your HACCP.
Who should I contact for professional guidance?
You might get in touch with Paul Thomas. He’s recently set-up by himself, including building a dairy from scratch, but his experience stems from many years working as head cheese-maker at Lyburn Farm. His technical advice and help will be very valuable once you have got a little further along: [email protected]
Other good professionals who give valuable advice and consultancy include Ivan Larcher (of Larcher Consulting) and Chris Ashby (AB Cheesemaking).
Everyone has a different take so it may be worth speaking to all of them!
If you want to read some stories and interviews with cheesemakers who set up from scratch in the last 10-years click here.
What about premises?
Don’t even start to think about buying expensive equipment and dedicated premises until you’ve plenty of experience making experimental and trial batches. Some cheese making utilities, such as The School of Artisan Cheese, may even let you rent space to use whilst experimenting. Once you’ve decided to go ahead professionally, though, do think about flow of the space and take advice from people who have done it before.
Some have started out in a tiled Portakabin (with an expectation to move into larger premises after several months); for many years Kirkham’s Lancashire was made in a tiny room, and their ageing room was an old refrigerated ‘lorry’ they’d bought at low cost. Many small cheese-makers will let you visit (if you ring them up and explain what you’re wanting to do); this is definitely worth doing. The Specialist Cheesemaker’s Association arrange a farm visit every year to a different producer; these are worth attending – you will pick-up a lot!
Have you any last words of advice?
It’s always worth asking a cheesemonger for some honest advice and guidance on what they are looking for, and for their feedback on early trial batches: ask them to compare your cheese trial batches against what they sell in the shop; at the end of the day those are the cheeses that yours will sit next to and will have to stand-up to in taste!
Aside from our own The Courtyard Dairy and any cheesemonger local to you, do think about asking Neal’s Yard Dairy, who will generally help and give good advice and tips.
If you are thinking of making cheese – on a small or large basis, please get in touch – we’d love to chat to you and help as much as we can.