VICTOR, Mont. — The cheese-making process begins in the chilly early morning hours every Wednesday at Lifeline Dairy in Victor, when the breath of the brown Swiss cows waiting to be milked comes out as misty white clouds in the cold sunlight.
Kelli Hobi is busy trying to coax the nervous heifers to the milking machines, using gentle prodding and verbal commands to move them along. Each heifer produces between three to four gallons of fresh milk, which is then trucked directly to the cheese-making facility inside the Lifeline Creamery Store.
That's where Quincy Powers is waiting. He's making a batch of 1,000 pounds of cheese curds, and he is going to be busy.
First, the milk is pasteurized and transferred into the giant cheese vat while it is stirred.
"We don't homogenize our milk here because it changes the molecular structure of the milk," he explains. That's why the cream rises to the top on all the milk we sell. A lot of people think it tastes more natural."
A mixture called rennet, made of enzymes, is added to the milk and the liquid is held at a constant 90 degrees for half an hour while it sets. Powers has to constantly monitor the temperature with a thermometer.
Powers has been making cheese long enough to know exactly when it is firm enough just by sticking his finger in and watching how the surface breaks. When it's ready to go, he uses a giant cheese harp to cut the cheese horizontally and then vertically. The mixture is then stirred again to allow the whey to separate from the curds.
"The whey is very high in protein, so we actually feed it to the pigs on the farm," Powers says.
At this point, the cheese can be made either into Jack cheese or cheddar. For Jack, water is added as the whey is drained out to lower the temperature, and the curds are drained and stirred and salted. For cheddar, the curds are separated into slabs under the whey. After the whey is drained, the slabs are cut into blocks and stacked for an hour, during which they are flipped and restacked multiple times. The slabs are then milled into curds, where they are salted or flavored, stirred and bucketed into cheese boxes. Cheddar goes from mild to sharp the longer it is aged.
Started in 1978 as an organic vegetable farm, Lifeline Farm added Lifeline Dairy under the direction of Ernie Harvey in 1984. The Bitterroot Valley was once home to several large commercial dairies.
Stevensville still hosts the Creamery Picnic every year as a testament to the importance of dairy farmers to the town's history, and the large Creamery Building in Hamilton now houses insurance companies and other businesses. While others have come and gone, Lifeline is still going strong.
On one recent Wednesday, workers were busy building another barn near the milking barn. The company sells many different types of Jack cheeses, cheddars, brie, mozzarella and feta, along with butter and fresh milk that are available at farmers markets and local grocery stores.
Another cheese-maker, Jeff Valimont, was busy making a batch of brie.
"Making cheese is a pretty interesting process," he said. "Once you get the hang of it, it's pretty simple. You learn as you go."
Both Powers and Valimont say the job is both fascinating and rewarding, with only one downside.
"Our hands are extremely soft," Valimont said. "I can't do any kind of work with my hands anymore without ripping them to shreds. The fat in the milk just softens the skin right up. I can't work on fences or anything. But other than that I love it."
Information from: Ravalli Republic, http://www.ravallirepublic.com