California artisan cheese school is big success

Staff report

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif: Cal Poly’s Artisan Cheese Making School has become extremely successful in the ten years of its existence.

Limited to only 35 students, the $675 four day cheese making school normally sells out months in advance.

The September school is not limited to Cal Poly students or residents of California and attracts students from all over the USA.

The school teaches basic cheese making skills such as: culture selection, cheese making sequence, post curd handling and how to salt, age and handle cheese correctly.

Students are taught how to make nine basic cheeses in the open vat system used exclusively in artisan cheeses.

Also included are such things as how to buy used equipment, where to get supplies and basic business knowledge such as common price markups and distribution.

Dr. Phillip Hong of Cal Poly said that artisan cheese is always made in an open vat whereas, industrial cheese is made in a closed vat.

He said the open vat system allows for much more flexibility in dealing with milk variability due to stage of lactation.

“With small-scale cheese making you can wait for the cultures to start. There’s an ‘art’ to it,” he said.

With farmstead artisan cheese, only the milk from the cheese producer’s own farm can be used. Hong said that farmstead artisan cheese production lends itself best to very small dairy units whereas most of California’s dairies are large.

“If you are losing money on a thousand cows, a small-scale cheese business is not going to bail you out.”

Artisan cheese allows for the purchase of outside milk and this is the most common system used in California.

“The first question you have to answer if you want to make artisan cheese is, ‘Where are you going to get your milk?’” Dr. Hong said.

Since most dairy producers have contracts that commit all of their production to a certain buyer, he said accessing milk is a major problem for artisan wannabes with no cows.

He said that while a few dairymen attend the classes, typically as many as half the attenders are doctors and lawyers who want to find a way back to the land.

“A lot of people see the high prices artisan cheese sells for in the store but don’t realize the typical number of middlemen between the producer and the consumer.”

He said that approximately 80% of the school’s attenders never go to the second stage of developing a business plan and probably only 10% are still active after five years.

“Once they see there’s actual work involved most people tend to lose interest.

“However, the ones who are really into artisan cheese are the most passionate students I have ever seen.”

Laurie Jacobson of Cal Poly said she recommends that people visit an artisan cheese maker before they decide if they want to take the school.

“Go visit people who are actually doing it. Some are very successful,” she said.

Jacobson said that due to the growth of artisan cheese making, supplies and cultures which were once hard to obtain are now easy to find.

“This is a new industry where there’s plenty of room for everyone.”

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