by Amy Pennington
photo by Carole Topalian
On the way home from a Christmas party in 2002, Kurt Dammeier walked past a vacant corner building with floor to ceiling windows in the Pike Place Market and thought, ‘I’m going to bring cheesemaking to the people!’
Not necessarily what the average person might think upon seeing such prime real estate, but then, Dammeier is no average man. For the past ten years he has invested locally in small food companies, such as Pasta & Co and Pyramid Brewery. He’d been mulling over the idea of cheesemaking for a few years when he walked by the vacant windows, going so far as to contact dairy science professionals at WSU.
Those scientists rained on his parade, and cautioned him against getting in to a business (dairy) that was currently tanking. Listening to his intuition instead, it was seeing the space at Pike Place that drove him to move forward. He got in touch with the owners of the building, negotiated a lease, and started working backwards, towards creating great cheese. Not the most traditional method, but as it turns out, one that worked in his favor.
With the space secured, and visions of cheesemaking vats stationed along the windows for Pike Place Market passersby to peer down on, Dammeier set out to find a cheesemaker. He hired Brad Sinko, a cheesemaker from Oregon, to lead the program.
Next on the to-do list was finding the right milk. Dammeier is against food additives and processed foods and works to support local farms (as evidenced by the seasonally influenced menu at Dammeier-owned Bennett’s Bistro, and in the mission statement of his nonprofit educational program Pure Food Kids). He searched Washington for suitable cow dairies that would allow him to purchase the milk in small batches.
At the onset of Beecher’s cheesemaking in November 2003, there were only two known milk pools to purchase from: Darigold, and the now defunct-Vitamilk. Overall, the organic label was not as important as a herd without artificial hormones. There were other criteria in the search, but most importantly, he wanted to protect the individuality of the milk by controlling the cow’s diet and the herd.
As Dammeier described it, cows are like potatoes sort of like comparing a big meaty Russet potato to a smaller, sweeter Yukon gold. Holsteins (those gorgeous beasts with the big black spots) are high producers. Jersey cows are smaller and produce milk that is higher in fat with an earthy flavor.
Sourcing milk with such specific requirements proved challenging, and Dammeier decided to purchase the actual cows instead. Why buy the milk when you can get the cow and raise it how you like?
Settling on Jerseys, Dammeier started the herd with about 65 cows. He has added cows over the years to reach his current herd size of 140. He entrusted their care to a local dairy farmer with plenty of pasture, although having his own herd allows for flexibility and consistent flavor of the milk. Those cows now live luxuriously in Duvall, a mere forty-five minutes away from downtown Seattle.
There are two daily milkings; the milk goes directly into steel tanks that are loaded onto a transfer truck and driven straight to Beecher’s. The truck parks right in Pike Place Market in the Police Zone (no ticket yet – going on 5 years!) and pumps the milk into a twelve thousand pound stainless steel tank located on the working floor of Beecher’s. The milk is pasteurized before being pumped in to the ‘make’ vat where the first step in the cheese-making process begins.
In the vat, bacteria is introduced and the milk is cooked into a loose liquid-y custard and then cut (by big fly swatter-looking tools) into curds floating in whey. Once curds are produced, they are moved to the cheddaring table where they will continue to drain moisture, eventually end up looking like popcorn and tasting like chewy, bland cheese.
‘Loaves’ are then stacked and salted by hand and mixed (some loaves are blended with fresh herbs or spices), ending up in one of two final cheese molds – big forty-pound cheddar blocks or tall cylindrical hoops called truckles. The process takes four to five hours from milk to hoop and is done twice daily, depending on milk supply. “The ladies produce less in the cold weather,” Dammeier coos.
Finished cheeses are moved to an offsite aging cave. Cheeses age for various lengths of time (18 months up to three years) and are eventually released to the retail location at Beecher’s, as well as small cheese shops and national groceries.
In 2007, Beecher’s Flagship was awarded a category win from the American Cheesemakers Awards, while the Flagship Reserve won top accolades from the 2007 American Cheese Society. Both continue to receive high acclaim, and local chefs (Springhill, Dahlia Lounge and of course Bennett’s) have adopted Beecher’s Flagship on their menus.
To this day, Dammeier is one hundred percent involved in the cheesemaking decisions and distribution. A fervent food connoisseur, he tastes often and provides input on aging. It is this passion for offering the best product that fuels the selection found within Beecher’s cheese case.
Sixty percent of the cheeses offered for purchase come from small Washington cheesemakers. The remaining inventory is made up by cheeses from Oregon, California and few others – highlighting only artisan cheesemakers west of the Mississippi.
When Beecher’s started making cheese, there were only eight licensed cheesemakers in Washington State. Today, there are over thirty. While he is most proud of his educational program, Pure Food Kids (an in-school workshop for fourth through sixth graders that educates them in deciphering nutritional information on food packages), it’s no secret that he loves himself some Beecher’s.
“I’m driven to do it, because I want it just like I like it,” he confesses. It’s no wonder then, that he up and bought the whole cow.
Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
1600 Pike Place, Seattle
For a list of purveyors who carry Beecher’s products, check the Beecher’s website.
Bennett’s Pure Food Bistro
7650 SE 27th Street, Mercer Island
Pure Food Kids Program
More information is available at Beecher’s website, or contact the Alison Leber, the Flagship Program Administrator directly.
206.322.1644 x 12
Amy Pennington prefers her milk steamed and sweetened, or poured over a bowl of barley and brown sugar in the morning. To learn about more food adventures, check out her website at amy-pennington.com/go-go-green-garden