A ‘Whey-ward’ Assistant Winemaker Learns Cheesemaking

While tasting through some ferments in the cellar, I wondered what exactly it took to make cheese. At this point in my career, I clearly have some idea of how wine is made, but cheese? That creation process was a mystery to me. Luckily for me, the fine folks at Lively Run offered to let me participate in a cheese make during some downtime at the winery in the winter whilst the wines slumber away.
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Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin

By Meagz Goodwin of Red Newt Wine Cellars

While tasting through some ferments in the cellar, I wondered what exactly it took to make cheese. At this point in my career, I clearly have some idea of how wine is made, but cheese? That creation process was a mystery to me. Luckily for me, the fine folks at Lively Run Goat Dairy offered to let me participate in making cheese, or a cheese make, during some downtime at the winery in the winter whilst the wines slumber away.

What follows is my best attempt to convey to you, with my limited (but growing) understanding of, a cheddar make at Lively Run.

Breakfast and coffee having been consumed, I hopped in the car and drove over to Lively Run with Ryan. His morning greeters are the best looking group of individuals I’ve seen in a while.

Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin

First things first: change into appropriate clothes for the cheese make room, put on sanitary boots, and clean and sanitize all surfaces (including yourself)! Side by side with the head cheesemaker (that’s you Pete!) I’ve never felt like such a dirty heathen before. I felt the need to walk around like a surgeon who had just scrubbed up for a procedure, hands held up in front of me where I could keep an eye on them to make sure they didn’t touch an unsanitized surface.

My hands touched unsanitized surfaces anyway (they never listen), and I’d head back to the sink to wash them again … and again. I washed my hands A LOT that day. (I’d like to point out that all the tanks, crush equipment, wine transfer hoses, and pumps are cleaned before and after every use in the winery, but at least I can put my hands in my pockets in the cellar!)

After the milk has been pasteurized and pumped into the make tank, we mixed up some culture (I don’t know what this culture was exactly, I’m used to working with sacc cerevisiae [Saccharomyces cerevisiae yeast] people!) and calcium. Those were added to the milk and then mixed for about half an hour. Rennet is added to the tank (a substance used to coagulate milk, separating it into curds and whey), and mixed for another minute … then the tank fell silent and still until curd break.

“Oh hey, you’ve got a few spare minutes, time to clean some dishes!” says Ryan. This was probably his favorite part of the day since I rarely do the dishes when we’re at home. Shrug.

Ryan had me “assist” in checking for curd break. Simply slide four fingers an inch under the surface of the milk/cheese (it is in between stages at this point I suppose), lift up slightly, and then tap the top of the cheese with your thumb. If the mixture splits cleanly, it’s ready! Sounds easy, but this is an acquired skill I assure you. I’d say it’s kind of like knowing if the press is done based on the smell of the pumice. You don’t want it to smell like juice, and only faintly of skins. Yup, acquired skill for sure.

Anyways, back to curd break. It was time. I was taught to slide the curd knives through the cheese to break up the curd. It was remarkably cathartic

Now what?! Mix it all again. (These cheese people really like to keep stirring things up). Fine fine, all this mixing isn’t just for fun, but to keep the curds from sticking together (until you want them to stick together…?). It involves something with temperature and pH shifts (I said I was learning, not a master cheesemaker!)

Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin

We’ve reached a magical moment of temperature and pH perfection, so now we drain the whey out of the tank, trench the curds onto the sides of the tank, and keep draining the whey. Stick together my little curds (this took very little convincing on my part, the curds really do want to stick to each other). I then cut my side of the cheese … mat, flipped the cheese blobs and stacked them up. I believe this is to help drain more whey and get the curds to stick even more, but I was having a little too much fun at this stage to absorb all the information coming at me.

So, I’ve made cheese blocks right? Nope! Now Pete put the expertly stacked cheese blobs through a mill (it looks terrifying, lots of spinning metal blades) and cut the blobs into small chunks. The mechanized two-toned boots, affectionately known as puppet feet by the cheese team, mechanically stir (kick around) the small cheese chunks and we homogenize the size of the chunks and add salt.

Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin
Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin

You know those lovely blocks of cheddar you get from the store? Yeah, those are formed by putting the cheese chunks into the molds, then placing them on the pneumatic press, and squeezing them several times over. Interesting fact, the press is to help compress the cheese to make it stick, not force out more whey. Clean and sanitize everything in the room once again, squeegee the floor, and TADA! I’ve made some cheddar. Well, not really. It needs to be cut the next day, aged, and some other things I’m sure. But … I made some cheddar, let’s go with that.

Phew, y’all picked up on all of that right? Ready to make some cheese with my highly detailed instructions?! I wouldn’t recommend you do that, I really, really wouldn’t. Instead, do what I do: pick up some Lively Run cheddar (chevre—that’s my favorite), crack open a bottle of Red Newt Riesling and Cabernet Franc (I couldn’t decide which I liked more), and have yourself a little cheese pairing party.

Photo provided by Meagz Goodwin

Meagz Goodwin is an Assistant Winemaker at Red Newt Cellars, a popular destination on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail. Her significant other Ryan Dougherty started working at Lively Run Goat Dairy in the summer of 2020.

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