A gouda time: Students offered opportunity to make cheese

Gary Beu, in charge of operations at the Hilltop Creamery, poses for a portrait inside of his office located in the Charles L Taylor Agriculture Center on August 22nd. Gary wakes up at 4:00 a.m., so he can be out the door by 5:00 and start the cheese making process at the creamery at 6:00. Gary works with students at the creamery and teaches them the cheese making process. “I really do like teaching people,” Gary explained. “Seeing them grow into it, it’s a good feeling to know that they got it… When you try a new cheese and it comes out really well, it means that they’ve listened to you.” Gary grew up in Alaska where he ran a dairy farm and cheese plant with his wife. He moved to Edmonson county 10 years ago.

Emma Collins

A small number of agriculture students will have the opportunity to learn the art of cheesemaking this semester at Hilltopper Creamery, WKU’s new cheese production plant.

Paul Woosley, assistant chair of the department of agriculture, said the one credit hour class will be like a co-op, or internship, with students actively participating in the cheesemaking process from beginning to end. He said the four-person class will meet two to three times a semester as a group to review food safety. The rest of the semester, students will work in the creamery and assist with marketing and selling the product.

“Eventually we want to get a more formal class related to cheesemaking and the science behind it,” Woosley said. “That’ll be more of a three-hour lecture course and it’ll incorporate a lot of safety things as well.”

Woosley said the class gives students an opportunity to learn both the art of cheese production and the business aspects of marketing and selling a product. He said students interested in food production will benefit from the class because they will learn more than just how to produce cheese.

“They’ll get to understand a little bit about marketing and the demographics of what kind of people are looking at your products and how to expand your products to different demographics as well,” Woosley said.

Gary Beu, artisan cheesemaker in the Hilltopper Creamery, will be assisting the students in the cheese lab. He said students will learn more than just “classroom stuff” because they work with him in the lab to produce cheese.

“From what I understand they all want to see what it’s really like and do it,” Beu said. “So, there’s interest. It’s not just a class.”

Beu has worked at the creamery since January 3, and he helped produce the creamery’s first batch of cheese on April 19. Since then, Beu and four employees, two graduate students and two undergraduate students, have been busy producing, marketing and selling the product.

Beu said he heard about the job because his wife, Carla Beu, works on the WKU farm as an equine technician. Beu said he was contacted by the chair of the department of agriculture, Linda Brown, after she learned that Beu and his wife used to own a dairy farm where they produced and sold cheese.

“I said, ‘Well it’s been awhile since I made cheese, and I really like it, so okay,’” Beu said.

At the time, Beu was semi-retired and worked part-time inspecting houses. He said working part-time and already knowing how to build a creamery from the ground up gave him an advantage over the other applicants. He said he also understood how to apply for licenses and how to prepare the facility to pass inspections, two things which the creamery had not yet done.

Beu said when he started the job, the lab already had most of the equipment, but he had to take a complete inventory to see what supplies or equipment still needed to be brought in. He also had to make sure the creamery received the necessary permits and passed the final inspections before it opened.

Beu also had to apply for licenses for himself. To work in the creamery, he had to be certified as a lab technician to work in the cheese lab and as a milk hauler and sampler to transport milk from the dairy cows on WKU’s farm to the cheese lab.

“It just goes on and on, and working with government agencies, nothing’s done quickly,” Beu said.

Since the first day of production, Beu said the creamery has increased the types of cheese produced. Initially only fresh cheddar curds were produced, but Beu has since expanded cheese production to include zesty Italian curds, Cajun spice curds and garlic and dill curds. Beu and his employees also make aged cheeses, including bacon cheddar, pepper jack and regular cheddar cheese. Beu said gouda and mozzarella will be made and sold soon .

Beu said he chose which cheeses the creamery would produce at first, but now he allows students to offer suggestions. One of his employees suggested making two varieties of beer flavored cheeses, one made with India pale ale and the other made with White Squirrel Nut Brown ale. They also produce a third beer flavored cheese made with College Heights Ale.

“I’m wide open to trying their suggestions,” Beu said. “Anything they come up with, if it makes any sense at all, we’ll try it.”

Beu said he sells the cheese on Saturdays at the SoKY Marketplace in downtown Bowling Green, and customers can stop by the Taylor Center to buy some cheese. He also sells the cheese to Aramark catering, but the cheese has yet to be sold in any grocery stores.

Beu said all the cheeses sell well; however, the fresh cheddar cheese curds and the bacon cheddar tend to be the best-sellers. He said many people buy the cheese curds and eat them straight out of the package as a snack. Other people batter the curds and deep fry them.

Beu said he likes the cheese curds deep fried or cooked in a skillet with olive oil. When cooking the curds in the skillet, Beu said he cooks them on each side for 20 seconds.

“It just kind of browns the outside, and then take it out, and it’s just kind of crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside,” Beu said.

Beu said the creamery produces 125 to 150 pounds of cheese per week, and the workday can last from six a.m. to almost seven p.m. Beu said long work hours are hard on employees, and it that is part of why the creamery operates only one day a week.

“Most of us can’t take that, especially not two days a week,” Beu said.

Beu and Woosley said the creamery may soon have to expand its hours, however, to keep up with the demand for the cheese. Beu said the creamery also needs to build up inventory for the holidays. He also plans on launching a website to allow for nationwide shipping.

Adam Blessinger, dairy herd technician, said the creamery only uses a day’s worth of milk right now. He said if cheese production continues to increase and the creamery begins to operate more than one day a week, the farm may have to look for a way to increase milk production.

The next phase for Hilltopper Creamery will be the addition of a store in the Taylor Center. Beu said part of the classroom and the kitchen in the Taylor Center will be turned into a retail store where the cheese, WKU beef, vegetables and flowers from the WKU Floral Shop.

“We’ll have all of that before too long, hopefully by next month,” Beu said.

For now, the creamery will focus on continuing cheese production while educating its new students.

“This is the pilot class, so I’m sure we’ll learn quite a bit,” Woosley said.

Reporter Emma Collins can be reached at 270-745-6011 or [email protected].