September 19, 2010
I've passed by the Nasonville Dairy Retail Store on Hwy 29 many times. You cannot miss that bright yellow building! Heading west out of Wausau, it's a few miles past the Abbotsford exit. Last May, I decided to stop in and have a look around.
The Nasonville Dairy has been making cheese since 1885. It has a large plant in nearby Marshfield. At present, the dairy is owned by the Heiman family spanning three generations of cheese making and dairy farming. Ken Heiman is the company's president. He and his forerunners have all stressed high quality rather than mass production. Ken, his brothers Kim and Kelvin, and their parents Arnie and Rene manage the operation. Arnie has been a cheese maker since he was 18, and has managed the plant since 1966. All three sons attended night school to receive their cheese making licenses and grading certificates. The Heimans officially purchased the factory in 1985. Ken is a Master Cheese maker, a distinction earned by only a few across the country.
The company produces over 30 varieties of cheese, producing over 100,000 pounds daily. I was able to take a few shots of the retail store's interior, and it is mouthwatering all the way. I was unable to resist buying some stuff, that's for sure.
It was a weekend, so the "manufacturing" area was closed, but the young lady at the counter let me step in to take some photos. The equipment and area were spotless. Of course, I did not understand what I was photographing, so now I have to go into the cheese making process to learn what it's all about.
There is an excellent article for we rookies entitled "Manufacturing of Cheese," by Kyle Wanke. I will draw from it but commend the entire article to you.
For starters, all cheese is made from milk. The manufacturing and aging processes are what produce various kinds of cheeses. Actually, the process for making cheese has remained relatively the same for many hundreds of years or more.
First the cheese maker must coagulate or curdle the milk. To do that, he-she makes sure there are no harmful agents in the milk. The milk is heated to a given temperature to destroy most harmful bacteria, and then cooled down. This is the pasteurization process.
The cheese maker then moves the pasteurized milk to some kind of container, in this case oblong vats, adds special starter cultures to the warm milk which changes a very small amount of the milk into lactic acid. That acidifies the milk much faster. Starter cultures come in various forms, they must be grown, and they are fundamentally bacteria. This enables the next step, adding the enzyme renin.
Rennet or chymosin is then added to the milk which, in a short time, produces a curd. This is an enzyme produced in the fourth and final chamber of a cow's stomach. It converts the milk protein from a soluble to an insoluble material, causing the milk to gel.
The curd is cut into small pieces such as cubes, and heat is applied to start a shrinking process which ultimately transforms the curd into small rice-size grains. At just the right moment, the cheese maker allows these grains to fall to the bottom of the cheese vat. There is left-over liquid consisting of water, milk, sugar and albumen, now called whey, which is drained off. That allows the curds grains to mat together and form slabs of curd. The slabs are milled, salt is added, and then they are pressed and packed into various size containers for maturing.
The lady at the store when I showed up allowed me to photograph the cheese making equipment at the retail store. As you will see, the place was spotless, and shut down. So I took my photos. I went back in September, took some additional photos, and two ladies explained the roles of the major components. I tried to figure the roles out on my own, and could not do it, so I’m glad I went back.
The blue cylinder tank is the boiler and provides heat to the cheese making process. The white you see on the left is the tank that holds the milk.
There's the white milk tank. My guess is it runs about 20 feet in length. I thought I understood the ladies to say that they get a milk delivery just about every day to fill this baby up.
The white tank you see with the "REAL" label on it is the front of the milk tank you saw previously. It fits through a wall and extends into the main cheese making room by only a few feet. Hoses are hooked up to move the milk to its first stop, the pasteurizing system.
This is the pasteurizing system. Some will argue that raw milk provides better nutrition. But when running a business at the level of Nasonville, the course taken is one focused on safety. Furthermore, pasteurizing the milk allows one to keep it longer in the refrigerator than if raw milk were used. Fundamentally, the system heats the milk to a desired temperature for a designated period of time. It is then immediately cooled. This process reduces the number of pathogens, though it does not kill them all. The temperatures are usually below the boiling point since boiling the milk will cause it to curdle before the cheesemakers wat it to curdle.
The next step is to get the pasteurized milk into a vat. Nasonville employs two long oblong vats.
This is Vat A. Vat B can sort of be seen to the left along the wall. Vat A's mission is to produce curds and solid blocks of cheddar. Keep your eye on the unit above the vat. It holds mechanisms that stir the pasteurized milk and the additives put in it to make the cheese curds. Both vats have these.
This happens to be a close-up of Vat B, but you can see three mechanisms hanging from the top rail.
The ladies called these "stirring paddles." These are hung from those mechanisms on the top rail. Their design difference indicate different roles each plays.
Let's return to Vat A for a moment. It is to produce the famous Wisconsin cheese curds as well as blocks of cheddar. cheese.
In the Nasonville Retail store, you see the typical bags of cheese curds. Start on these and it's hard to stop!
Depending on product requirements, the cheese makers may also choose to compress the curds into cheddar.
This metal box is lined with what is known as press cloth. It is then filled with the curds and the box is then covered shut.
In the upper left, you see the metal boxes lined with press cloth. Just to their right is a stack of covers to shut them tightly. Then you see the main pressing mechanism. I would assume they are hydraulic.
This is a closer look at the "presser." It will press the cheese inside those boxes and produce a 40 lb. block of cheddar cheese.
Let's take a look at Vat B.
Vat B is much like Vat A except that it us used to make specialty, variety cheeses.
Once again, a shot of some of the output. Hmm good.