Cheesemaker Interview w/ Chris Gray of Consider Bardwell pt. 2/3

The cheeses we make are like fine wine.  You can’t make great wine out of grape juice that comes from whatever, wherever. It has to be grown in the right conditions, the right terroir, with the right handling.

We are trying to recreate the European model here. We went out and convinced new and existing local farmers that have gone out of dairying in our local area to come back and start dairying for us. On our property we milk a hundred goats and we now have three farms in addition to our own.

The Brooks’ Farm is next door and they have twenty cows. The Brooks are fifth generation dairy farmers from upstate New York who were looking for a change. The property next door to us came up for sale and we connected them. They bought and restored it. Now they are milking for us.

The Larson Farm is about 5 miles north of us. They were a military family who had stopped doing conventional dairying because they did not want to grow corn for feed. When we went to them and said we wanted to source grass-based, pasture-based raw milk for cheese making, that met a lot of their goals. They actually got back into dairying for us.

We have a small dairy run by a woman named Karen Gutman.  She’s about 5 miles away in Middletown Springs. She was a former university professor who loves goats and wanted to get into goat dairying.  We were able to help her get started by creating a market.

With all the farms we work with, we take all their supply, all their production. We’re also intimately involved with their operations. We inspect the farms. We do quality and bacteriological testing on their milk. We’re on the property; we’re working with the farmers.  We need these animals to make quality cheese. The system is all pasture-based and grass-based with only supplemental grains.  This diet gives us the quality of milk we need to make our cheeses.

Also importantly, all the farms including our own are all animal welfare approved by AWA.  They’re an independent animal care auditing group based out of D.C. They came up with the highest level of standards for animal care and welfare. We require that all of our supplier farms follow that system. We can tell you that we take care of our animals.  When someone else audits and verifies it, we hope that people understand that we really do practice what we preach A well cared for animal can live a longer, healthier, more productive life than one that is put in a conventional system and not treated as well. We believe that makes better cheese.

All of our cheeses are based on certain traditions, but they’re all our original cheeses. As cheesemakers, it’s fun for us to make something that’s slightly more original and more characteristic of our farm.  

Our goal in making cheese is to take great milk and do as little as possible to it, in order to let the milk express its true flavor. So nature is our partner in developing these cheeses.  That’s the bacteria that are present in the milk; that’s the mold, yeasts, and microflora that are resonant in our caves.  Nature is in control, and we’re just trying to guide it a little bit and create a unique, healthy, wholesome, well-made food.

We’re not obsessed with making the cheese exactly the same every time, so there will be batches that are slightly different from one another. And to us that’s more of an expression of the characteristics of the milk and the terroir of the farm.

We built our own entire system and network of caves. Cave is the traditional word, but they’re aging rooms. About 50 degrees temperature, about 90 percent humidity, basically a cold and humid room  in which mold and bacteria like to grow. We have a system of six caves now, and each cheese has its own cave and its own slightly different environment. Some are more moist, some are a little cooler, some a little warmer. Last year we completed an entire cave for Rupert. We can take that cheese out for a year and really unlock the flavor potential of that cheese.

I think it was in 2007, we entered our cheeses into the American Cheese Society competition. We had this new cheese called Rupert.  We thought it was coming out pretty good and we wanted to send some down just to see how we did. We figured it would help us judge ourselves against our peers.  We sent a wheel and the results were posted at the end of the conference. Rupert took best in class in its category, and then it took third best in show! I think there were almost a thousand cheeses entered that year. We were flabbergasted to see this cheese win a ribbon in the best in show category, and it was a great celebration.

But then everyone started calling us, looking for that cheese. I think at that time we had fifty or sixty cheeses aging, maybe ten or twelve of which were ready. It was on the market, but on a very local, regional scale. And so, we were getting calls from everywhere for this cheese and I kept saying ‘I just don’t have it’ and they said ‘Well, can’t you get more?’ and, ‘No, actually we can’t just get more, we make the stuff and it takes time!’ We only had so much cow’s milk at that point to devote to Rupert. Financially, as a young business, we couldn’t afford to put all of our milk into Rupert. I liken it to taking your whole paycheck and putting it all in your 401K and not be able to touch it until later.

So at that time we decided, alright, people love this cheese; the judges like it; we had good success in our markets with it; so let’s make more Rupert! We had to go out, get another farm established to supply milk and build another entire cave (since then we’ve actually built two caves to age this cheese). And it took four years from deciding we were going to make more Rupert to actually getting it on a volume and scale where we had the cheese available for distribution beyond our local area and an at age profile of ten months to a year. It was a four year process from start to actualization. And by that time in 2010, the market of course completely forgot about the fact that this was one of the best in show cheeses.  Right, in 2006…  ©