Guest Columns

Industry Innovation

New Babcock Hall will host space for cheese ripening exploration

John Lucey

John Lucey, director of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, contributes this column for Cheese Market News®.

Last year, Wisconsin produced more than 640 million pounds of specialty cheese, many of which were bandaged, wrapped, washed, aged or otherwise packaged in a unique array of shapes, sizes and colors. While specialty cheeses are often known for their unique flavors, this growing category also has given way to a number of eye catching packaging techniques. After all, when a product is on the shelf next to a number of other cheeses, visual appeal may be the main difference between a consumer choosing your product over your competitor’s!

There are a variety of options for cheesemakers who wish to produce a cheese with a striking outer appearance. Colored waxes and polycoats and bandaged and natural rinds consisting of bright-hued molds, yeasts and bacteria are among the most popular. Washed rind or smear ripened cheeses, however, are perhaps the better known varieties as these have been produced for many hundreds of years in caves and aging rooms around the world. Examples of these cheeses include Limburger, Raclette and Gruyere.

Creating a great washed rind cheese is often a mixture of art and science, as generating the conditions that ensure the correct balance of microbial growth during the aging of these varieties requires knowledge and experience. In washed rind cheeses there is considerable biodiversity in the biota of the smear, which only adds to the complexity of ripening. Some cheeses are washed daily while other cheeses may only be washed a couple of times a week. These washes help dictate the type of microbiota that will dominate the cheese surface or rind.

For many cheesemakers the fun comes in experimenting with the washes and wraps. In the past few years, we’ve seen a number of companies experimenting with everything from ash and wood to wine and whiskey washes. These various washes or coatings help to create unique flavors but they also lend a hand in developing the moisture and texture of the interior cheese. The thickness of the rind and the types of milk and cultures used all affect the final cheese quality, so carefully researching and executing this aspect of cheesemaking is key in producing an outstanding cheese. In particular, depending on the diffusion of flavor from the outer coating, the interior cheese may develop a mild or intense flavor. Limburger, for example, is known for its intense flavor while an Appenzeller or Gruyere is known for a more subtle flavor. Much like the aging of whiskey in wooden barrels, the environment in which a cheese is ripened has an enormous effect on its flavor and texture.

The proper ripening of washed rind, bandaged or similar cheeses is a matter of controlling the environment of the ripening room. This process must take place in a room where moisture and humidity are kept at an ideal level for the desired microbial growth taking place on the surface of the cheese. Caves have been used for millennia to ripen cheese due to their relatively constant temperature and humidity. Presumably, the natural biota found in these caves contributed to the development of various unique cheese flavors as well. Sophisticated control systems for air flow, temperature and humidity are used in large cheese ripening facilities to ensure that the environment is conducive for the proper microbial development of the surface rind and smear. In general, most aging takes place on wooden boards as they allow for the best control of moisture (e.g., from the bottom side of the cheese), flavor and desired microbial ecology. Boards and racks must be routinely cleaned and sanitized to prevent the development of an undesirable microbial contamination.

Perhaps it’s the unique visual appeal, the flavor, or a combination, that has driven consumer and company interest in specialty cheese, but regardless this category has seen incredible growth. Successful examples of these cheeses command significantly higher prices than typical commodity type cheeses. This trend is particularly evident by the increased sales each year and the growing specialty categories at competitions such as the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest hosted by the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. The interest is so great in fact that industry has requested that a special suite of multiple types of ripening rooms for smear and surface ripened cheese types be included as part of the upcoming Babcock Hall/CDR building project. This new, small-scale specialty cheese area will allow cheesemakers to work with CDR to research and develop new varieties of specialty cheese, with the goal of continued innovation leading to even more unique varieties that will continue the vibrant growth of the U.S. cheese industry.


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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