A year ago, three Utahns entered the risky world of artisan cheesemaking. Beehive Cheese Co. has exceeded all expectations, with the company struggling to keep up with the big demand for its small batches.
UINTAH - It is 10 a.m. and three men - baseball hats on their heads, rubber boots on their feet - stand around a big stainless steel vat inside the Beehive Cheese Co. plant.
With long metal rakes, they move 500 gallons of warming milk in smooth, rhythmic motions, making it ripple and swirl, like a breeze on a mountain lake.
Tim Welsh, Pat Ford and Stewart Christensen arrived at the plant five hours ago, just in time to meet the tanker of fresh whole milk from the nearby dairy in west Ogden.
Since then, these fledgling cheesemakers have never stopped to rest. It is risky, backbreaking and time-consuming work for these husbands and fathers who walked away from lucrative jobs in real estate and software development to journey into the uncertain world of making artisan cheese in Utah.
They put the milk through the pasteurizer, add cheese cultures and enzymes and begin heating it to 102 degrees. When visitors arrive, the crew is only halfway through the "cooking" process that ultimately will turn the whole milk into large blocks of spongy, white cheese.
Once the yellowish whey is drained from the vat, the compressed blocks are cut into manageable slabs and flipped at 10-minute intervals. This process - called cheddaring - ultimately will give the cheese its dense, smooth texture.
Now in their ninth hour of work, the Ogden men - who all grew up within miles of the plant and still live nearby - put the condensed cheese through a mill turning it into finger-sized curds. The pieces are generously salted, pressed by hand into round containers and then wrapped for aging.
That is when these Utah cheesemaker's patience is really put to the test. They must wait several months to know if the 450 pounds of Promontory Cheddar made on this early November day is even worth selling.
Into the future: Skip ahead eight months and the cheesemakers are working double shifts to fill their refrigerated aging room, lovingly called "the cave." Two large-scale orders have recently catapulted the business.
In early August, their handcrafted cheeses will be sold at Wild Oats stores in Salt Lake County and Park City. And later this year, Beehive Cheese will be placed in 19 Whole Food stores in the San Francisco Bay Area.
But even before these large orders, they had no trouble selling their boutique cheese at Utah-owned stores like Emigration Market in Salt Lake City and The Store in Holladay.
Chefs at Roosters in Ogden and Squatters in Salt Lake City have been using the cheese in soups and fondues. And the Beehive Cheese booth is a popular stop at farmers markets in Salt Lake City, Murray, Ogden and Park City.
Word-of-mouth advertising has been brisk, and thousands of customers have made their way to the Beehive Cheese store inside the Uintah plant, located just off Highway 89 at the mouth of Weber Canyon. The cheddar cheese made specifically for the holidays sold out before Thanksgiving.
"I'm just pulling on the reins, fighting not too grow too fast," said Welsh on a hot July day.
Growth is a double-edge sword. The cheese is best when it ages properly. The process varies with every wheel, affected by everything from the outside temperature to what the cows ate. Cheesemakers check and recheck to make sure consumers are getting the product at the height of flavor.
"That's the beauty of handcrafted cheese," Welsh said.
But when consumers are ready to hand over cash, it's difficult for a small business to tell them to wait.
The cheeses: Beehive Cheese Co. is one of a growing number of artisan cheesemakers in America, dedicated to making cheese in small batches, by hand or with as little mechanization as possible.
There are fewer than 200 small producers across the country, mostly located in the large dairy states of California, Wisconsin and Vermont.
Surprisingly, with its long dairy and agriculture history, Utah has only a handful of artisan cheesemakers today, including Drake Family Farms in West Jordan, Shepherd's Dairy in Tooele and Rockhill Creamery in Richmond.
But in just a short time, Beehive has exceeded its Utah counterparts. Since September of 2005, when Beehive Cheese first started production, the staple of its business has been its Promontory Cheddar, a recipe gleaned from the Western Dairy Center at Utah State University. Initially, it was made from whole milk from Holsteins but now is made from Jerseys.
From that main recipe, Welsh and his partners have experimented with different flavored cheddars such as smoked apple-walnut, habañero, rosemary and Tuscan herb. They have rubbed wheels with chocolate, coffee and lavender, and even vodka.
It was the coffee-lavender cheddar, which does not yet have an official name, that most intrigued fellow cheesemakers at the annual American Cheese Society (ACS) conference held in Portland, Ore., last week. Beehive garnered several orders, most notably the Central Market chain in Texas, which ordered 70 wheels.
One evening in February - a full moon in the sky and a full vat from the dairy - the trio skipped the pasteurization process and decided to make cheddar from raw milk. After letting it age 60 days (a federal health requirement when using raw milk) Beehive's Full Moon Cheddar was born.
The Beehive Cheese plant is difficult to find, hidden behind a tire center, a karate school and a playground equipment store. Those who have followed the signs successfully are treated to a taste of Beehive's signature "Aggiano" cheese. Similar to Parmesan, the first batches were made in the summer of 2005 using special mixing equipment at USU. Aged at least 10 months, the Aggiano is being eyed eagerly by retailers and wholesalers as it is one of the only dry, Italian-type cheeses being made in the west. Beehive entered the Aggiano in the ACS competition, but it failed to earn a ribbon.
In January, the Beehive cheesemakers tried to make the Aggiano by hand at the Uintah plant; they initially dubbed the product a disaster. The moisture content was too high to call it a Parmesan. So they treated it as a cheddar and tucked it away in the cave.
Rediscovered in April, the trio marveled at its unique characteristics: soft like cheddar but with the sweet aftertaste of Parmesan.
Now a regular Beehive cheese offering, it was dubbed "Emigrant" because of its unexpected arrival.
Planning pays off: That kind of success was something Welsh, Ford and Christensen hoped for 18 months ago when the idea for Beehive Cheese Co. was born. Welsh, having weathered plenty of highs and lows in the computer industry, decided to sell his software development company and use the proceeds - combined with investments from his two partners and other family members - to pursue a different passion: cheese.
His computer work had allowed him to travel and taste the handcrafted cheeses made in other cities and countries.
"I wanted to bring something like that to Utah," he said. With Welsh's previous business success, his meticulous nature and creative fervor, he convinced Ford, his brother-in-law, and Christensen, a childhood friend, to be his partners.
They took several months to research their craft and develop a business plan. After three months, they had exceeded all their modest expectations.
Welsh, Ford and Christensen attended the short course on artisan cheesemaking offered at USU. Welsh spent time talking to cheesemakers in California and Oregon and worked side-by-side with an artisan cheesemaker in Fort Collins, Colo. last summer.
From the beginning Beehive Cheese has concentrated on being a local product - from naming their company to the hormone-free whole cow's milk they use.
The Beehive partners have relied heavily on the expertise of Steve Larsen, the research and outreach coordinator at USU's Western Dairy Center. With 34 years in the business, Larsen has been the perfect mentor for the rookie cheesemakers, even helping them design the plant.
"It's satisfying," he said, "to be part of a Utah success story."
Where to find the Beehive brand
Beehive Cheese Co. cheeses are available at the following locations:
Here is an explanation of some of the Beehive Cheese Co. products and what to enjoy them with:
Promontory Cheddar: Rich, white English-style cheddar. Goes well with honey-wheat ale or sparkling apple cider.
Full Moon Cheddar: Raw-milk cheddar with earthy, farm flavors. Serve with single-malt scotch.
Emigrant Cheddar: Blend of young, sweet Parmesan and aged cheddar, similar to Asiago. Serve with Chardonnay, such as the 2003 from Landmark Vineyards.
Aggiano: Dry, Italian-style cheese, with sweet, fruity pineapple taste. Serve with chocolate stout or other strong, dark beer.
Apple-Walnut Cheddar: Young mild cheddar smoked over red delicious apples and walnut shells. Serve with California Zinfandel.
Uintah Jack: Traditional Jack cheese aged 6 months; excellent for cooking. Serve with light Mexican beer.