14 Crowley Lane
Healdville, VT 05758
I met one of the most amazing cheese makers on our tour…and I totally forgot to ask his name. This is what separates us bloggers from real reporters. Every now and then we miss some details. Luckily he was wearing a shirt with his name on it…or a name on it. Anyhow I will go with that and call him Hutch.
This is not the point; the point is that Crowley Cheese is an American original. They make damn good cheese and have been doing it the same way since 1824. They are the oldest cheese makers in America, and they still make their cheese the same way they did back then, by hand.
Hutch walked us through how they make their cheese. It was by far the best tour we got on our trip. Crowley makes Colby cheese, but as Hutch was quick to point out, Crowley was making cheese before anyone in Colby, Wisconsin. The only reason that the style they make is referred to as Colby is because in the 1880s a survey of American cheeses started out West and worked East. They got to Colby, Wisconsin before they got to Healdville, Vermont. Such is life.
The tour we got was great. The cheese “factory” has more in common with a barn than modern factories which look more like operating rooms. This is not say it wasn’t clean, everything gets bleached down between batches and all of the pipes hold a bleach solution when they are not pumping milk. Instead of looking sterile and inhuman, this building reflected the history and character that this cheese has and the amount of personal effort that goes into making each block.
The whole process starts in the milk holding tanks. They get their milk from a variety of farms, so there may be a difference from batch to batch. Before a shipment gets accepted, it gets tasted and a bacterial count is performed. The first step in making the cheese is pumping milk up from this holding tank in the basement to the a very large tub on the ground floor. This tub is heated by steam from a small boiler in the basement. Once the milk is heated, rennet is added causing the milk to curdle. Rennet comes from the stomachs of calves and it binds together the proteins in milk. These days it comes in convenient 5 gallon plastic jugs, but the old school way of doing it was to hang the stomach over the tub of milk. Thank God for progress.
Once the milk curdles, a sheet of solid curd will form on the top. The cheesemakers then cut this sheet by hand using a comb-like raking tool. The curds are brought up to temperature and then most of the whey (the watery part, curd is the solid part) is drained. The cheesemakers then have to scoop the curds from the tub to a very large sink on the other side of the room. In the sink they wash the cheese with spring water. The curds are mixed with salt and then placed in molds, both rounds and blocks. The metal molds are lined with cheese cloth, and are used to shape the cheese and remove any remaining whey. They are placed in a large hydraulic press, where they have the dickens squeezed out of them. This is one of the few places where anything mechanized is used.
After the cheese has been pressed and has sat over night, it is removed from the molds. It is either cut into smaller blocks using a wire grid or left whole. The next step is to wax the cheese. The smaller blocks are dipped into a slow cooker full of wax, while the larger blocks go into a large cauldron of wax that is heated by steam and dates back to the 1800s. The wax is mostly bees wax and has shot up in price because of all the trouble bees have been having. Some of the cheese will be aged. Crowley has 4 different ages: mild, medium, sharp and extra sharp. Their aging room is in the attic, so all of the cheese has to be carried upstairs…by hand.
Yep. That is how cheese is made. Or at least that is my understanding of how cheese is made. Take it for what it is worth. What I do know, is that the fine folks at Crowley know how cheese is made and do a damn good job of making it. Their extra sharp Colby is amazing. It has full flavor and tang of a English cheddar but it is not as dry and crumbly. It is a great cheese, made by hand in the traditional way, full of history, heritage and character…really what more could you look for. If you find a block, buy it. If you are anywhere near Healdville, Vermont, stop by, they are great people.
So remember way back, about a 1000 words ago when I was comparing bloggers with real writers? Well, I did some Googling and it looks like a real writer, wrote about Crowley. Her story has everything you would want, actual names, quotes, and fact that have a better chance of being correct. I recommend giving it a read.
Here is my last parting tid bit; Crowely is owned by a group of 5 shareholders who bought the company from the Smiths, who bought the company from the Crowleys. The group has owned Crowley since the 1970s and operates it more like a hobby than the treasure it really is. They need to get their butts in gear and work on consistent funding for production, better branding that reflects the heritage of the cheese and how it is produced, and improved distribution. If I can get Grafton Cheddar down in DC, I should be able to get Crowley. These days everyone is looking for food that is “real”; Crowley is it, and it shouldn’t be so obscure. Shareholders, if by chance you read this, come talk to me I have ideas.