The Makings of Beecher's Amazing Flagship Cheese

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[Above photograph: Max Falkowitz; all others: Rabi Abonour]

Kurt Dammeier wasn't a cheesemaker, but he came from a long line of cheese lovers—his great-grandfather was known to purchase Stilton by the wheel. After selling his family printing business, he decided to turn that lifelong love into a business of his own. He found a space in Seattle's Pike Place Market, hired a cheesemaker, and tasted every cheese he could find in the city. He ended up with Flagship, an alpine Cheddar inspired by Washington State University's Cougar Gold, and before long it—and his new company—became icons of the West Coast cheesemaking world.

At its base, Beecher's Flagship is a Cheddar. It's dense and a little crumbly thanks to the cheddaring process (which we'll get into later), and it carries a signature Cheddar twang. What sets Flagship apart from a typical Cheddar is that the characteristic sweetness of the style is offset by nutty, earthy flavors more typical of alpine cheese. Imagine the sharp kick of Cheddar plus the brown-butter notes of Comte and you can understand why we go crazy for Flagship.

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When Dammeier opened Beecher's Handmade Cheese (named after his Stilton-loving great-grandfather) in 2003, artisanal cheesemaking in America was still in its infancy. He wanted to sell American-made cheese at the shop alongside his own, but had trouble finding enough great cheese to fill a case. He recognized that if he wanted to see public interest in cheese grow, he'd need to be an educator as well as a business-owner.

So he brought the cheesemaking process right to the public. Both Beecher's original Seattle location and newer New York City shop have kitchens visible through large windows. Beecher's employees make the company cheeses in full view of customers, culturing milk and cutting curds in enormous vats, all in an effort to demystify the complicated process of turning fresh milk into finished cheese.

Curious about what's happening behind those windows? We went behind the scenes to see just what goes into making Beecher's signature Flagship.

Step One: Good Milk

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For their New York location, Beecher's gets 50,000 pounds of fresh milk trucked in each day from two farms upstate. Ooms and Sons Dairy Farm provides Holstein milk. When you buy a gallon of milk at the supermarket, you're buying Holstein. You're already familiar with its simple, sweet flavor and low fat content. Dutch Hollow Farm provides Jersey milk, which is earthier and yellower than Holstein, with a higher fat content.

Beecher's first tried making cheese with entirely Holstein milk, but the results were too simple. They swung to the other direction and tried used almost all Jersey milk, but its higher fat content rendered the cheese too soft. In the end, they found that about a 50-50 mix of Holstein and Jersey was right to make cheese that's complex and earthy, but also has the firmness they were looking for.

Step Two: Pasteurization

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The milk Beecher's gets tastes different from day to day. One shipment might be a little grassier than the next, another more floral, and so on. A raw milk cheese, then, can end up tasting significantly different depending on the batch. This isn't a bad thing, and Beecher's does make a raw version of Flagship, but for their signature version of the cheese they pasteurize the milk for a more consistent flavor.

During pasteurization, the milk is brought up to 162°F for 15 seconds, then cooled to 89.5° and transferred into a large vat. As the vat is filled, a large agitator keeps the milk moving in order to keep the fat from separating. Each batch of Flagship starts with 13,000 pounds of pasteurized milk. It takes about 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of Flagship, so this is enough for 1,300 pounds of cheese.

Step Three: Getting Cultured

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After the vat is filled, it's time to turn the milk into cheese by adding cultures. Beecher's uses a proprietary blend of starter cultures that convert the lactose in milk into lactic acid, neutralizing the milk's the pH and prepping it for the rennet.

Making cheese is like watching the snowball effect in action: Small initial changes have big impacts on the final product. In this case, the choice of cultures is a major factor in the final flavor of the cheese, and Beecher's, like most cheesemakers, closely guards their mix. Flagship is based on Cheddar cultures, with some cultures used for alpine cheeses such as Swiss and Gruyere added in to give the cheese a nutty, earthy quality.

Beecher's adds the cultures in a frozen state, and it takes 45 minutes of immersion in the milk for the cultures to "wake up" and begin the lactic acid fermentation. Once the fermentation starts, it's time to add rennet, an enzyme responsible for separating the milk into solid curd and liquid whey. It sits in the milk for about half an hour, long enough to solidify the curd but not so long as to turn it brittle.

Step Four: Cutting the Cheese

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While rennet gets the process of separating curds and whey started, a little mechanical action helps the process along. The curd needs to be cut to release the whey trapped inside. Cheesemakers drag two wire screens through the long vat; one screen has vertical wires drawn across it, the other horizontal ones. Together the screens cut the curd into small cubes, which almost immediately leak out the yellow whey.

Step Five: Cooking

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Up until this point, the curds haven't been heated since the milk was pasteurized. Now the curds need to cook to set their structure; rennet is temperature-sensitive, so it'll only fully take effect once the cheese is heated. In this case that's 100°F for 35 minutes to achieve the right acidity and start setting the curds.

The cheesemakers agitate the curds during the heating process, starting slow to make ensure the curds don't retain too much moisture, then speeding up once the curds begin to set.

Step Six: Cheddaring

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Steps one through five are similar for making plenty of other cheeses. But Cheddars like Flagship have their own specific steps, logically enough called cheddaring. First the cheese is moved into a second vat called the cheddaring table. Here, the whey continues to drain from the curd through a drain running down the center of the vat. The cheesemakers then pile the small curds into two long blocks.

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This is where the cheddaring magic happens. Each block is cut in half lengthwise and flipped onto itself. This is intense, physical work—one cheesemaker told me that everyone at Beecher's loses 20 pounds after they start the job. The blocks sit for about 15 minutes until the tiny individual curds meld together into loaves.

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Those loaves are sliced into manageable segments about six inches wide, then flipped over several times and stacked three high. The weight of the loaves then presses out more whey and gives the finished cheese the density one expects from a good Cheddar.

Step Seven: Milling and Salting

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After several flips, the cheese reaches a target acidity and whey content. Now the loaves get milled—i.e. cut into small pieces that Midwesterners will proudly recognize as cheese curds.

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The curds then get salted, both for seasoning and to start the ripening process and lock in that Cheddar and alpine flavor.

Step Eight: Into the Hoops

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Once the curds have fully absorbed their salt, they're ready to form blocks. 43 pounds of cheese get shoveled into each mold, called a hoop. Cheesecloth lines each hoop to prevent the cheese from sticking.

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The filled hoops then get pressed in a machine at 60 pounds of pressure per square inch for at least six hours, long enough to condense the distinct curds into a unified block of cheese.

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Pressing also squeezes out even more moisture—three of the 43 pounds—to help build the dense texture we expect from Cheddar. Once pressed, the blocks get vacuum-sealed in plastic before getting sent off for aging.

Step Nine: Aging

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Even after all this work, the cheese doesn't taste like much; it's pretty bland. It takes aging for bacterial growth to run wild, breaking down fats and proteins in the curd to unlock the cheese's full nutty and tangy flavor.

Beecher's likes to do as much as possible in-house, and they do make a "reserve" version of Flagship that is open-air aged on premises, but their Flatiron store just isn't large enough to age all their cheese. So most of the cheese gets sent to a New Jersey facility where it's held between 42 and 43° for at least 15 months, though more recently as long as two years.

A two-person team monitors the aging process and samples the cheese to decide when it's ready. The testers are looking for the development of certain flavors: sweet and nutty with notes of broth and brown butter. Only on their judgment—not a timetable—is the cheese certified as ready to make its way into the world and onto your cheese plate.