Serious Eats

Learning About Cheesemaking and Raw Milk from Two Dairymen in Alabama

"I think people are waking up and seeing what's out there as far as the way food is made today. Especially the milk industry."

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Corey Hinkel and his artisan cheese. [Photographs courtesy of Corey Hinkel and David Wright. ]

I'll be honest, before I talked to David Wright and Corey Hinkel, I would have bet my life that you couldn't find something like the artisan dairy operation they run in a place like Northeast Alabama. But a conversation last week with the duo shattered my Northerner-biased expectations and has given me a mind to visit the Heart of Dixie.

Over the last forty years, David has transformed Wright Dairy, his 200-acre farm in Alexandria, Alabama, from a large-herd, grain-fed milking operation to a smaller-herd, mostly grass-fed outfit.

He now bottles non-homogenized milk, buttermilk, and makes ice cream and yogurt and sells mainly at his dairy stores in Alexandria and Birmingham.

His story is one that mirrors a shift in many people's food ethics and foodways that can be seen all over the country over the last few decades, especially the last 10 years.

And it only gets better. Corey, who formerly operated an artisan bakery in Alexandria, has teamed up with David to start Yellow Moon Cheese, and the two turn Wright Dairy's milk into handcrafted cheeses in styles like Abodance and Asiago. Their pairing seems almost serendipitous, and their cheese has become a big hit at farmer's markets and specialty stores in Alabama and nearby Atlanta.

Corey works in restaurant consulting and also teaches breadmaking at the farm, so their schedule is to get together most Tuesdays and Thursdays to make cheese. When I spoke with them last Thursday, the humming and whirring of their dairy room was audible in the background.

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Truffled Wanda ages on a rack.

So it sounds like you're in the middle of making cheese today? Dave: We're making Gouda. We're actually in the process of washing the curds. Once we drain part of the whey we'll put water in there and then we're stirring it. We've actually got someone bagging cheese right now. It was one of those days where you thought you weren't going to be busy but we just got piled.

What does that mean, washing the curds? Corey: You drain part of the whey out then add water back in. What it does is wash the lactose off of the curds and you get a creamier cheese. There's a lot of washed-curd cheese out there, gouda being one of them. It's a really good cheese and it's selling quite well for us.

What other kinds of cheese are you making? Corey: We're pretty much making four cheeses consistently. Then we have what we call our "fun cheeses" we put into the mix. We'll throw in a pepper cheese, or we'll do a truffled Wanda. But primarily we're doin' a Gouda—we call it Canebrake Gouda. We do a Wanda, which is an Asiago style cheese, Natural Rye and Red Hill Cheddar, and we have a cheese called Piedmont, a really good cheese that's aged about 75 days and it's fantastic, similar to Abodance.

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David "Curd Nerd" Wright operates a cheese press.

For some reason Wanda strikes me as a great name for a cheese. Where does it come from?Dave: We had farm tours for several years and everyone liked this gentle little cow named Wanda. We would milk her for them and she became an icon around here, so to speak. She's gone now—we kept her until she died. But now we have an aluminum cow, life-sized, we put a little tag on her and named her Wanda so she still lives on with the statue and the cheese.

Tell me a bit about how you guys got started together. Corey: I had a bakery a couple miles down the road from him. Everyone kept coming in and saying "you've got to try this guy's milk, you've got to get his milk," and I'm like "where is this guy??" He just happened to be a couple of miles down the road.

We used to buy buttermilk and all my milk products from him and made a special bread that had his butter in it. He started making butter by hand, raking it by hand, turning a pump by hand. When you get down to using artisan ingredients it really makes a difference in the end quality of the product.

And when did you decide to start making cheese? Dave: We started out about two years ago, Corey would drop by in the evenings after work and we got to playing around with cheese on the stovetop down at my house. After we burned out about the third eye on my wife's stove she moved us out of the house. Luckily I had an old vat that we cleaned up, which worked extremely well. It was a pasteurization tank but we used it like a cheese vat instead (since all we make is raw cheese). We started making small batches and experimenting, primarily using skim milk or milk with really low butterfat. We were making parmesan. We made about 6 or 700 rounds of parmesan—it's going to be ready in about a year or so.

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David Wright stands proudly next to a rack of Yellow Moon Cheese.

Have you been taste-testing it all along? Dave: Absolutely. We'll let it sit there for a month or two, we try it and see how it's coming along and if we don't like it, we'll give it a little longer and try it again.

You've been in the dairy business for a long time, and from what I have read it sounds like a long journey. Dave: I've been on this farm almost 33 years. We started out selling raw milk to the co-op and 11 years ago we got tired of low prices on the wholesale level so we started bottling milk. We bottle whole milk and buttermilk, and we were buying cheese and selling it at our farm store. After we got the store going we added chocolate milk, drinkable yogurt, natural plain yogurt, then we added ice cream, developed about 32 flavors of ice cream.

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32 flavors?! Dave: I was thinking about getting into the ice cream industry hot and heavy at one point, but it's labor-intensive and very competitive. You have to compete with the big boys in the big plants, but we make a super premium ice cream and just sell what we can in the store. We don't worry about going out and pushing it real hard.

Where are your markets now?Dave: We recently got into Whole Foods in Birmingham, and that's looking real good. Corey: When we first started out we went through some trials and tribulations but there were people who have supported us, people who taught us cheese like Alice Strebel at Sweet Home Farms in Elberta, Alabama, and Tim Gaddis' Star Provisions, one of the mecca stores in the Southeast as far as cheese goes. We constantly go in there and do cheese demos and they move quite a bit of cheese for us.

How do you explain the interest in your products and other local, artisan products? Corey: I think people are waking up and seeing what's out there as far as the way food is made today. Especially the milk industry. It's horrific if you see some of these large dairies in the Midwest, the way they treat their cows, what they feed them and inject them with. Out here, no growth hormones and we're grassfed nine months out of the year.

Is there a strong local food culture in the Alabama yet? Corey: I sell a lot of farmers' markets and this year I'm doing more and it's amazing. The first time I did Pepper Place market in Birmingham, I brought 155 pounds of cheese and I was sold-out in about three and a half hours. And It's growing like crazy.

You can go and get great vegetables, cheese, fruit. Any idiot can go into a farmers' market, pile up a basket, take it home, put it on the table and put salt on it and it's the best food you've ever had in your life. Down here it's moving along very quickly, the slow food concept has taken off like a rocket in the last couple of years.

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Washing the curds.

What makes your cheese better than larger commercial operations?Corey: It's a combination of things. It's the type of cows we use, Jerseys and Holsteins. It's also the grass their fed, the climate, the soil (we use primarily rye grass that's planted). It's how the cows are treated, how much room they have to move.

We have 200 acres out here and we're only milking about 65 cows right now. It's the kobe relationship, taking care of the animal. There is something about the relationship between you and the animal that makes them produce a better product. If you put a cow on a concrete pad next to four others ones and they can't move, and inject them with hormones you're going to get what you get.

Are you selling any raw milk at the farm? Dave: Alabama is one of the strictest states on raw milk so we don't even attempt it. I went to a lot of trouble to get a license to get everything rolling for bottle pasteurized milk. I won't rock the boat on this one but I am a raw milk advocate, don't get me wrong. I think raw milk is a great thing. If you should be able to sell raw spinach then you should be able to sell raw milk. It's always and will always be fought by big processors, and sometimes the FDA does what the big guys want.

Why is that? A sanitation issue? The big operations aren't clean enough to produce safe raw milk? Dave: Sanitation can be a problem on a dairy farm and if you're not a good manager, and you don't pay attention, you can have some sorry milk. If you have milk that's dirty and otherwise wouldn't be good, you pasteurize it and you render and kill any bacteria that would be harmful so that it's relatively safe to drink. I always said it was a license to sell sorry milk. But I'm not going to fight them on this thing. I just go by the rules and regulations and go along with it.

About the interviewer: Carson Poole calls the Finger Lakes home but is living in New York City trying hard to maintain his farm boy credibility. His first job, at age 10, was in roadside corn sales. He is known to enjoy fresh local food and handcrafted spirits and liqueurs.

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