My gloved hands feel a trifle wobbly. The large, crumbly, cream-coloured loaf of fresh cheese I’m cradling weighs only a couple of kilos, but the thought that I have to flip it over makes it feel like a ton. It looked easy when I watched the professional cheesemaker do it, but I’m worried I’ll make a hash of it. I take a deep breath and flip. The loaf lands 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 where I’m helping make Cheddar cheese. The process is known as cheddaring, and involves 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 shuttered Koshy’s department store in Bengaluru. Since then, I’ve discovered and enjoyed cheeses from around the world, developing a special fondness for Roquefort and Mimolette from France, and Kapiti Kikorangi from New Zealand.
Then, in 2013, I nibbled on a sliver of Beecher’s Raw Milk Flagship cheese that my wife brought from the U.S. and fell in love. Creamy and nutty, with a sprinkling of magic, it was heaven in a wedge—tasting comfortingly of home. Its earthy flavour made me want to learn more about this artisanal cheesemaker, visit their cheesemaking facility, and sample more of their award-winning cheeses.
On a hot summer morning, two years and many emails after my first taste of Beecher’s, I’m in the heart of Seattle’s Pike Place Market all set to spend a day in Beecher’s kitchens. Early for our 9 a.m. appointment, my wife and I wander through the market, famous for its fresh produce and handcrafted goods. We dawdle in front of fishmongers and florists. Looking out between two shops, I can see a swatch of the cerulean waters of Elliott Bay.
The Beecher’s store, café, and cheesemaking kitchen in Seattle is a Pike Place institution that draws both tourists and turophiles (cheese lovers). People line up in front, eager to breakfast on its famous mac and cheese (Oprah Winfrey counts it among her favourite things) or grilled sandwiches. Others peer through the glass walls of the adjoining kitchen. We enter the store and revel in the heavenly aromas of sandwiches toasting on the grill and tangy tomato soup bubbling in a pot. That tantalising smell alone tells me why Beecher’s has received so many accolades since it opened in 2003, including recognition at the World Cheese Awards and the American Cheese Society’s annual awards. It has been featured several times on popular television programmes in the U.S., including The Martha Stewart Show.
We’re met by Sharif Ball, the company’s head cheesemaker and production manager in Seattle at the time, who escorts us to a cramped office next to the long, rectangular kitchen, to stow our bags, wash our hands, and change into smocks and trousers, pull-on boots, arm guards, masks, and caps. There’s a further cleansing ritual as we pull on gloves. I feel like I’m entering an operation theatre.
The kitchen is all gleaming steel—vats, pipes, trays, and shelves—broken by white swathes of milk and curds. Cheesemaking takes place here almost 24×7, beginning early in the morning, when about 18,000 litres of chemical-free cow’s milk from local dairy farms is tested, pasteurised, and pumped into large vats. It mixes with microbial cultures and rennet, causing curds and whey to form. This mixture is repeatedly cut, stirred, and heated, and then pumped into another vat, where the whey is drained and cheddaring begins. Salt is added, the curds are packed into moulds, and loaded into a cheese press to drain for up to 12 hours. It is then cut, vacuum-sealed, and sent off to be aged for several months or years.
The Seattle facility makes about 1,800 kilograms of cheese every day. Much of it is the company’s popular Flagship Reserve; others include the buttery spicy Marco Polo with lightly milled peppercorns, and the smoky No Woman, infused with Jamaican jerk spices. The Raw Milk Flagship I fell in love with is made just a couple of times a year, with special precautions as it involves unpasteurised milk.
After so much time around cheese, I can’t wait to sink my teeth into a Beecher’s grilled cheese sandwich in the café. The explosion of flavours in my mouth with the very first bite reaffirms why I came all this way. Seeing how the cheese is made, I now know it’s the love and care that goes into the process, which makes it taste like home.
Appeared in the July 2016 issue as “For the Love of Cheese”.
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/₹335 and grilled cheese sandwiches from $5.94/₹400). Some Pike Place Market tours, including Savor Seattle, stop at Beecher’s for tastings. Cafés also at Seattle-Tacoma airport and in Bellevue city. Another Beecher’s facility is in New York’s Flatiron District. It occasionally offers cheese education sessions (www.beechershandmadecheese.com).