Friday, July 15, 2016

Making cheese at Beecher’s

A version of this piece is in the July issue of National Geographic Traveller India.

My gloved hands feel a trifle wobbly. The large crumbly cream-ish loaf I’m cradling weighs only a couple of kilos, but the thought of flipping it over makes it feel like a tonne. It looks easy, but I’m worried I’ll make a hash of it. I take a deep breath and flip. The loaf emerges unscathed; I flip another and another.  
I’m in the glass-walled cheesemaking kitchen of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. And I’ve been helping to cheddar cheese — cutting curds into loaves, then stacking and flipping the loaves multiple times to drain out all the whey.
For as long as I can remember, cheese has been an integral part of my life. The first cheese I tasted as a child was probably a cheddar from the now shut Koshy’s department store in Bangalore. Since then, I’ve discovered and enjoyed cheeses from around the world, developing a special fondness for Roquefort and Mimolette from France and Kikorangi from New Zealand.
And then, in 2013, I nibbled on a sliver of Beecher’s Flagship Raw Milk and fell in love. It tasted like no cheese I’d sampled before. Creamy and nutty, with a sprinkling of magic, there was something comfortingly elemental about it. It was heaven in a wedge — the taste of home. It was also the beginning of a quest to learn more about this artisanal cheesemaker, visit its cheesemaking facility and, of course, sample more of its award-winning cheese. 
On a hot summer morning, two years and many emails after my first bite of Beecher’s, I’m in the heart of Seattle’s Pike Place Market all set to spend a day at Beecher’s Handmade Cheese. My wife and I are early for our 9 am appointment so we wander through the market, famous for its fresh produce and interesting handcrafted goods. We dawdle in front of the fishmongers’ stalls with their eye-catching displays and the flower sellers’ tables. Framed in a window between two stalls is a swatch of the cerulean waters of Elliott Bay.  
The Beecher's cheesemaking kitchen in Seattle.
As we watch, people line up in front of the Beecher’s store-café eager to breakfast on its Mac and cheese or grilled sandwiches. Others peer through the glass walls of the adjoining cheesemaking kitchen.  
We enter the store and luxuriate in the heavenly burnt-butter aroma of sandwiches on the grill and tangy vapours of tomato soup bubbling in a pot. While we wait for Sharif Ball, then the company’s head cheesemaker and production manager in Seattle, I think about the Beecher’s story. It begins in 2002, with food entrepreneur Kurt Beecher Dammeier leasing space in Pike Place Market and deciding to make great cheese, fuelled by childhood memories of local cheeses and a passion for pure, fresh, wholesome and flavourful food.
Today, the Beecher’s store, café and cheesemaking kitchen in Seattle is a Pike Place institution that draws tourists and turophiles or cheese lovers alike. The company also has a second facility in New York’s Flatiron District and cafes at Seattle-Tacoma airport and in Bellevue near Seattle.
Escorting us into a cramped office next to the long, rectangular kitchen, Ball points us towards lockers where we stow our bags and change into smocks and trousers, pull on boots, arm guards, masks and caps, and wash our hands with warm water and soap. Just inside the kitchen, there’s a further cleansing ritual as we pull on gloves. I feel like I’m entering an operation theatre, but understandably, hygiene is an obsession here.
The kitchen itself is all gleaming steel — vats, pipes, trays, shelves — broken by swathes of white of the milk and curds. Cheesemaking in Beecher’s is an almost 24-hour operation, beginning with the milk being tested and pumped into the large vats very early in the morning. The store in Seattle processes about 18,000 litres of cow’s milk, free of additives, hormones and antibiotics, sourced from dairy farms near the city, every day. So it comes in fresh, says Michael Staley, one of the company’s expert cheesemakers.
Beecher’s pasteurises the milk that goes into most of its cheese. The pasteurised milk is then pumped into an open vat where microbial cultures and rennet are added causing curds and whey to form. This mixture is repeatedly cut, ‘cooked’ ­ — stirred and heated — and pumped into another vat where the whey is drained and cheddaring by hand begins. Salt is added and the salted curds are packed into moulds called ‘hoops’ and loaded into a cheese press for 8-12 hours to drain out more whey. The cheese is then cut, vacuum-sealed and aged for several months or years depending on the type of cheese being made. Of course, not all cheese made by Beecher’s is a cheddar and the process varies accordingly.
Even as Staley takes us through the process, I’m struck by how physical cheesemaking is, with the effort involved in cheddaring and the hours spent on your feet. One of the other cheesemakers quips that it’s a good way to stay fit.
I also notice how involved in the process Staley and the other cheesemakers are, working with an effortless expertise, cutting the curds one minute, washing the equipment the next, all the while checking on the temperature, acidity and moisture levels of the milk and the curds and keeping track of the time each process takes.
The Seattle facility makes about 1,800 kg of cheese every day, Ball says. Much of the cheese produced is the company’s immensely popular Flagship, though it makes several other types. There is, for instance, the buttery but spicy Marco Polo with lightly milled peppercorns blended in and the smoky No Woman, infused with Jamaican Jerk spices that pack a punch. The Raw Milk Flagship I fell in love with, though, is made just a couple of times a year, with special precautions since it involves unpasteurised milk.
The Beecher's store-cafe in Seattle's Pike Place Market.
While we talk, I look out through the kitchen’s glass walls. It does feel a little unnerving with the curious onlookers outside, their faces and cameras pressed-up against the glass. Yet the glass walls bring the market’s bustle and colour into the kitchen, giving it a shot of energy.
What is it that makes Beecher’s cheese special, I ask Ball. Pat comes the reply: “Attention to detail and quality.” He thinks for a bit and adds: “Everyone here wants to make delicious cheese. A lot of love goes into it.”
As we leave the cheesemaking kitchen and head to the café where a Beecher’s grilled cheese sandwich awaits, I think about that. Food made with love and joy. No wonder the cheese tastes like heaven. 

The vitals                                   
Visitors can watch all the action in the cheesemaking kitchens of the Beecher’s store-café in Seattle while enjoying a meal (1600 Pike Place; 9 a.m. -7 p.m. daily; mac and cheese from $5.02 and grilled cheese sandwiches from $5.94). Some Pike Place Market tours, including Savor Seattle, stop at Beecher’s for tastings.

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