June 6, 2017 — As the whey is drained from the curds, everybody gets into the act of pulling the curds to the sides of a large vat at CalyRoad Creamery in Sandy Springs. Left to right: Creamery owner Robin Schick, cheese-maker Margout Abatto, and intern Peyton Ryan. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Make cheese? Yes, please

It’s an art, it’s a science, it’s … hard work

We gathered at 8 a.m., four professional cheese-makers and me. By rights, I should have used the door labeled, “Cheese Connoisseur Entry.” Instead, I came in the door marked, “Cheese Makers Only.”

I was in Sandy Springs at CalyRoad Creamery to watch CalyRoad founder Robin Schick, head cheese-maker David Rospond, Margout Abatto and Bill Hayes turn gallons and gallons of milk into buttery, tangy, luscious cheese. Or to put it another way, to watch them spin straw into gold.

Yes, I am a cheese connoisseur.

Robin Schick, owner of CalyRoad Creamery in Sandy Springs. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: For the AJC

The cheese-makers’ entrance leads to a small room with everything needed to change from street clothes into the garb required for sanitary handling of food. There are scrubs, hair nets and waterproof boots all neatly arrayed. For me, in sneakers, there are shoe covers. Later, as I waded through gallons and gallons of whey rushing to the floor drain, I would wish I had a pair of those waterproof boots.

Open the door to the thousand-square-foot “make” room and enter the world of cheese-making. You walk on the sanitary powder that’s sprinkled on the floor at every doorway. Water — and there’s plenty of water in cheese-making — activates it.

The right kind of bugs make delicious cheese. The wrong kind of bugs can make you sick. There are 101 ways the folks at CalyRoad work to make sure only the right bugs make it into their cheese.

Schick is meticulous about sanitation. “I do it so I can sleep at night,” she said. “It’s critical that we prevent the introduction of anything that could affect the cheese.”

The room is a steamy 79 degrees. A COP/CIP tank is steaming away at 150 degrees Fahrenheit. This huge stainless steel tank allows the cheese-makers to “clean out of place” (COP) by putting equipment into the reservoir of water mixed with an acid-based detergent that “eats” soils and fats, or to “clean in place” (CIP) by piping that water to and through stationary equipment.

Across the room a stainless steel vat pasteurizer holds 150 gallons of milk. It’s slowly heating the milk to 145 degrees, where it will hold for 30 minutes, the first step in making the 100-plus pounds of mozzarella on the production schedule for the day. It takes roughly 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese.

CalyRoad purchases 100 percent grass-fed, non-genetically modified cow’s milk, certified by NSF International (an American product testing, inspection and certification organization) to meet public health and safety standards. This milk comes at a premium price, not much different from what you or I would pay per gallon.

The cheese-makers’ table stands to one side, covered with paper logs, a tablet to record all the steps in making that day’s cheese, a pH meter used to check each stage of the milk’s readiness, and a scale for weighing the salt and cultures that go into the cheese. On the walls are three chart recorders, making paper records of the temperatures of the milk and the COP/CIP tank, records required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

The cheese-makers quietly go about their work. It will be at least an hour before the pasteurization is done. During that time, every piece of equipment is meticulously cleaned and sanitized. “There are four steps in washing: rinse, wash, rinse, sanitize,” explains Schick. They clean and sanitize the equipment before they use it, they clean and sanitize it after they use it, and then they clean and sanitize it again before using it the next time.

Head cheese-maker David Rospond checks the pH level frequently during all phases of the mozzarella cheese-making process at CalyRoad Creamery in Sandy Springs. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: For the AJC

Abatto is next door in the packaging room preparing 8-ounce logs of chevre. Some will be sold plain while others will be coated in a mixture of sundried tomatoes and herbs or chopped nuts and dried blueberries.

Rebecca Greenberg, one of the interns at CalyRoad, dons a down parka and goes into the three aging rooms that hold cheese at temperatures from 39 degrees to 56 degrees. Hayes is steadily wrapping the individual chevre logs.

All this activity is the productive “quiet” before the storm. When those 150 gallons of liquid milk have turned to curds that are ready to be stretched, it will be all hands on deck.

That week, the creamery would make the mozzarella and go on to produce 120 1-pound rounds of Bit O’Blue, 240 aged goat cheeses and 200 fresh chevre logs, most of which is flavored by rolling it in a range of seasonings. On schedule for the next week? Feta, 170 pounds of it, along with 150 rounds of WayPoint, and the weekly routine of 240 aged goat cheeses and 200 chevre logs.

About a decade ago, Schick and her sister, Cathy, thought they would build a life raising goats. “We wanted to be close to the land and to animals. ‘Let’s make soap,’ we said. Then we landed on cheese and took classes at the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese.”

Internships at goat farms with cheese-making operations had them rethinking their plan. They decided they’d let others raise the goats and they’d make the cheese.

CalyRoad Creamery head cheese-maker David Rospond supervises the phase where large mixing paddles are used to further break up the curds and whey in the mozzarella mixture. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: For the AJC

They opened the creamery in 2010. For the first seven years, Schick wore all the cheese-making hats. The recipes for all CalyRoad cheeses are hers. She had her hands in every batch of cheese. Now she has help from three full-time staffers and occasional interns, such as Peyton Ryan and Greenberg.

Everyone involved this day will tell me that they, too, are cheese connoisseurs. “I eat cheese every day,” says head cheese-maker Rospond. A University of Georgia graduate with a food consumer major and a food science minor, he said, “Cheese is one of the few food products I wanted to work with.”

Now that the milk is pasteurized, and the temperature and pH are checked, the cultures are added that will turn this sweet milk into delicious, tangy mozzarella. The milk sits again in a process called ripening.

The cheese-makers keep watch, checking the pH periodically to know when it’s time to add the rennet that will curdle the milk, causing it to separate into curds and whey. Once the rennet is added, the cheese “hardens.” And again the cheese-makers keep watch. The pH has to be right before the cheese-makers will cut the curd and begin the process of draining and shaping the cheese.

Watching these steps, you begin to understand that cheese-making is art as well as science. Decisions have to be made about temperature and pH, and each decision will affect the way the cheese turns out. Schick and Rospond tinker with that day’s batch. They want mozzarella that’s milky and sweet but with the cheese’s characteristic tang. It should be creamy and soft, but not too soft. Stretchy, but not tough.

And another hour trickles by.

About four hours after we started, the milk has set into curds. It looks like milky custard, wiggling a little and pulling away from the side of the vat when touched.

A nearly finished ball of fresh mozzarella is plucked from the machine that stretches, cooks and forms the cheese at CalyRoad Creamery. (Chris Hunt/Special)
Photo: For the AJC

Working in tandem, Schick and Rospond use stainless steel cutters in various grid patterns to cut the big vat of curds into small cubes. Now the physical part of cheese-making begins. Each cutter weighs about 8 pounds and it takes strong backs and arms to lift the cutters in and out of the curd.

Once the curd is cut, Rospond begins to drain the whey from the tank. Now there are gallons of whey swirling out of the tank and to the floor drains. And it’s all hands on deck. Six of us don rubber aprons and food handler’s gloves and bend over the sides of the tank, moving the cubes of curd so the whey can drain. We stack the cubes into a wall on each side, then use a knife to slice slabs that can be stacked and drained. Backs ache and arms strain. It’s tough physical labor.

We move the slabs from the vat to a stainless steel table and divide them into 30-pound batches that will be fed into the mozzarella stretching machine. Here, rotating arms do the work that once required two sets of people, stretching and folding the curd until it becomes smooth and elastic.

The stretched curd drops into little forms that shape 8-ounce balls, and we pull those out and drop them in ice water so they will keep their shape. Then we move the balls back to the vat pasteurizer, which has now been filled with ice water. They’ll stay there until they’re completely chilled.

Once drained, each ball will be individually wrapped and labeled, and finally it’s ready for sale.

I’m exhausted. And all we did was make a little mozzarella.

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