It’s Sunday Morning: Time to Talk Cheeses – Interview with Beecher’s Handmade Cheese’s Kurt Dammeier – Marcella The Cheesemonger International Guilde des Fromagers
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It’s Sunday Morning: Time to Talk Cheeses – Interview with Beecher’s Handmade Cheese’s Kurt Dammeier

UPDATE 8/3/2012: Beecher’s Flagsheep takes “Best of Show” at the 2012 ACS Cheese Competition!!! Congratulations to Kurt, Brad and Jena!!!

Beecher’s No Woman was the catalyst that created my blog which over the last four years has morphed into this website.

When The Lady first began slinging cheese, she brought home a wedge of that divine cheese and it captured my heart. So captivated, I felt the need to write about it and with The Lady’s assistance (she helps with the spelling), my weblog began…

Beecher’s is home to several award-winning cheeses: Flagship, Flagship Reserve, Marco Polo and Flagsheep. They also make amazing cheese curds that are especially tasty when warm and squeaky.

Beecher’s began at Pike Place Market in Seattle where they make small batches of handmade cheese every day behind windows allowing tourists and cheese geeks the chance to watch the process.

June 2011, they expanded east and opened a store and cheesemaking facility in the Flatiron District of Manhattan. Like Seattle, in Manhattan, you can watch the making of their famous cheeses.

In 2010, Oprah Winfrey named Beecher’s World Famous Mac n Cheese as one of her “favorite things”…

Also in 2010, The Lady had the honor of “making” cheese at the Pike Place Market shop… “making” refers to being allowed to do tasks that won’t mess up the cheese… just saying… making cheese is not for sissies… to mis-quote Bette Davis…

Recently, The Man, The Lady and I traveled to Seattle and I sat down with Kurt Beecher Dammeier of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese to interview the man who makes my favorite cheese.

Spaulding Gray: First of all, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions for my website. I feel honored to meet the man who created No Woman, an addicting cheese.

As you know, the first “specialty” cheese The Lady let me taste was No Woman and hundreds of cheeses later it remains my favorite. When The Lady brings it home, I literally scamper up her legs to get to it. Does No Woman have a bit of catnip? If not, can you tell me what spices are added that make me love this cheese so much.

Kurt Beecher Dammeier: No, there’s no catnip in No Woman. I suspect your love of this cheese may be the same reason that humans also love it: it tastes very meaty. I like to refer to No Woman as “a cheeseburger without the burger”. The Jamaican jerk spice mixture we use was designed originally for marinating and flavoring meats like beef and chicken. We have die-hard fans of No Woman, such as you, who swear it’s the best cheese in the world and when I ask them why, it’s the umami flavor profile that they love.

Here’s a fun pairing for you. It’s hard to pair cheeses with Cabernet Sauvignon. No Woman is one of the few cheeses that stands up to the tannins in Cabs and pairs very well with them.

SG: Tell me about how Beecher’s Handmade Cheese came to be. How did you and Brad hook-up? It seems like a wonderful partnership that continues to make world-class cheeses.

KBD: I was planning to open a winery but at the last minute, I changed my mind partially because some of those in the wine business are a little too stuffy for my taste. Even a little foofoo.

After making that decision, I knew I still wanted to do something in the specialty food arena and started thinking about making a cheese that Seattle would love and be proud to call “local”.

Before Beecher’s, if you asked the average Seattle resident to name a local cheese, they would say “Tillamook” and it’s made all the way down on the Central Coast of Oregon.

I grew up eating Tillamook; it was my favorite cheese and I preferred it over Kraft. My grandfather, whose first name was Beecher, bought a whole wheel of Stilton every Christmas so I grew up eating quality cheese.

In 2002 I was walking at Pike Place Market and came across the storefront where we are now making our cheeses. It was for rent. In that moment, I saw it all; the perfect place to make a local, specialty cheese.

At first I thought I would be the cheesemaker and took the 3-day cheesemaking course at WSU. It concentrated on the industrial-side of cheesemaking and three hours into the course, I knew I didn’t have what it took to be a hands-on cheesemaker.

Brad’s (Sinko) family owned the Bandon Cheese Factory which Tillamook had bought and closed. Brad was looking; I was looking and we were fortunate to find each other.

SG: How important is terroir in the cheesemaking process?

KBD: Terroir is real. It starts with the soil which affects the grass that the animals graze on and different soils produce different grasses which create different flavor profiles in the milks (and the grapes that make the wines in the region).

That being said, cheesemakers can choose to let the terroir express itself or they can use techniques to impose their will on the milk to create the outcome they want.

Areas influence the style and flavor profiles of cheese. New Zealand has a distinct style of cheddar; English Cheddars are hard, crumbly, earthy and musty. American Cheddars tend to be softer, sweeter and nuttier. At Beecher’s we use adjunct cultures which help manipulate the profiles we want for Flagship and the other cheeses we make.

Spaulding: Raw vs. pasteurized. Which do you prefer and why?

Kurt: We knew we wanted to sell cheese curds out of the Pike’s Place Market store. Since they are fresh, no more than a day old, we had to use pasteurized milk and that pretty much set the tone for us. Also with pasteurized milk, you get a consistency in flavor that the customer wants and expects. Many of our customers buy Flagship regularly and they want the same profile year in and year out.

Spaulding: I have had your raw milk Flagship, so on occasion you make raw milk cheese.

Kurt: One day our pasteurizer broke down and we didn’t want to lose the milk, so we made a batch of raw milk cheese. Now occasionally, we let the pasteurized “break down” and we make raw milk cheese.

I also find it fun to doing tastings with customers with raw milk Flagship and pasteurized Flagship and discuss their reactions to the two.

Many cheese geeks are really dedicated to raw milk cheese, feeling the taste profiles are more expressive of the local terroir as we discussed above. There are great cheeses in both categories.

The raw foodist, however, feels raw milk and other raw products have more benefits for them from a health standpoint. The good bacteria in raw foods and milk begin to die and be killed once the temperature of the food passes 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

However, what many raw foodies don’t know is that there is “raw milk cheese” and then’s there’s raw cheese. At Beecher’s we never heat the chilled milk above the temperature is was when it came out of the cow. That’s really raw; whereas, in making Parmigiano Reggiano, the milk is raised to the temperature of 131 degrees Fahrenheit.

Legally, any milk that is not heated to 161 degrees Fahrenheit and held there for 15 seconds is considered raw.

SG: How far have you traveled to try a cheese, grilled cheese or mac n cheese that you head about and just “had to have”?

KBD: Can I expand that to include ice cream?

SG: Certainly.

KBD: Last Christmas I was in Rwanda I drove to the other end of the country, more than four hours away, to visit Sweet Dreams, an ice cream shop opened in 2010 by non-profit Blue Marble Ice Cream. The ice cream shop is run by women who were educated in running a business and taught English. Blue Marble opens these businesses to make the women self-sufficient and provide soft-serve ice cream in areas where the people are mostly struggling day-to-day to just live.

Spaulding: The Lady “made” cheese at your Seattle store in august 2010. She told me I was not allowed to attend because you have a “No Pets Allowed” policy. Why is that? I bathe several times a day and am quite fastidious when it comes to keeping my coat bright and lustrous…

Kurt: Your question surprises me coming from one who professes superior intelligence. You know the answer to this question. My hands are tied, you should take this up with your Congressman… oh that’s right, you can’t vote…

SG: I have no comment (perhaps I have to re-direct my blame on this whole “No Pets Allowed” issue…) but I want to thank you for taking the time.

Kurt is also the author of Pure Flavor: 125 All-American Recipes from the Pacific Northwest. You can purchase this book by clicking on the widget below.

Next week, we continue our series with an interview with Mat Willey, Head of Marketing at Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy. 

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