June 14, 2022 at 2:32 p.m.
In present day, they are the trademark of the Caves of Faribault’s blue cheese.
“They brewed beer and were forced to shut down during prohibition,” said Reuben Nilsson, general manager and head cheesemaker. “In the mid 1930s, there was this Midwest blue cheese effort going on, and the founder of the plant, Felix Frederickson, was driving through looking for sandstone caves to make the cheese.”
Caves of Faribault makes 3.5 million pounds of cheese a year in Faribault and is owned by Prairie Farms of Edwardsville, Illinois. All the milk comes from Dutchland Dairy in Rolfe, Iowa.
The plant, started in 1936, was the first commercial blue cheese plant in the United States.
In the early 1900s, researchers at United States Department of Agriculture tried to reverse engineer French Roquefort cheese with American cow milk as opposed to French sheep milk, said Nilsson.
“Commodity cheddar was not bringing in a whole lot of income,” Nilsson said. “These researchers focused on French blue cheese as something that commanded a much higher wholesale price, and if dairy cooperatives could produce blue cheese domestically, that would bring in more money for American dairy farmers.”
Two blue cheesemaking methods were found from this research, one being the Minnesota method which uses sandstone caves.
“The caves have a very stable environment as the walls are at 50 degrees year-round, and the sandstone is porous so water is always moving through the bluff which makes the caves self-humidifying,” Nilsson said.
Before the cheese gets to the caves, it starts out in three 20,000-pound vats. This step begins at 6 a.m. after sanitation which takes place an hour before.
“As milk is flowing to the vat, we separate the cream, homogenize it and then recombine the cream and the skim milk into the cheese vat,” Nilsson said. “It’s a full fat or whole milk cheese as we are not standardizing it, just recombining the two streams.”
At the same time, two truckloads of milk come from the farm for the next day’s cheesemaking.
“At its best, cheese is an expression of what’s going on at the farm,” Nilsson said. “One of our founders, Jeff Jirik, always said good cheese should taste like the milk, as in you should be able to taste the milk when you eat the cheese, whether it’s blue, Swiss, cheddar or mozzarella. That’s something we always keep in our heads as we’re working. We want to be true to the standards of quality that the farmer is setting out.”
After the cream is added back, cheesemaking and mold cultures are added.
“This causes the veining in blue cheese and starts the cheesemaking process,” Nilsson said.
Rennet is then added which sets the milk to a custard consistency, and the cheese is cubed with wire harps both horizontally and vertically. Then the cheese is heated to meet target benchmarks, pumped out of the vat and into wheel molds.
“In blue cheese, you want a lot of openings inside because that is where your veins are going to form,” Nilsson said. “We allow the wheels to come together under their own weight, and we flip the stacks of cheese as they settle so we get a nice even shape with a flat top and bottom and even sides.”
The cheese then sits in the molds overnight and is demolded and hand salted for the next two days. After the second salting, the wheel is pierced and then moved to the caves.
“Blue cheese needs oxygen for the mold to grow so the piercing allows a little bit of oxygen to enter the interior of the wheel,” Nilsson said.
The cheese first goes into one of the five curing caves which are cool and humid to keep the cheese from drying out. The cheese will sit there for three weeks.
“We’ll then seal the cheese into bags and put the mold to sleep by moving those bags into a colder cave,” Nilsson said.
The blue cheese then sits in the seven colder caves for two to four months.
“Cheesemaking is skilled manual labor,” Nilsson said. “There is science behind it, but it’s also a very physical, practical thing which allows you to use your head, hands and body to produce something.”
Nilsson is one of 65 employees of the caves, most of whom come from farms or local communities. They are busiest making cheese four months before Thanksgiving and the Superbowl, said Nilsson.
“This was my first dairy job, and I met the founders of what was then Faribault Dairy Company. I wanted somewhere I could learn how to make cheese, and they wanted somebody to do some lab work,” Nilsson said. “I wanted to produce something that at the end of the day I could share with friends and family. It’s a very tangible reward for the hard work.”
The plant produces four kinds of blue cheese: AmaBlue, AmaGorg, St. Pete’s Select and Felix. Each product is sold nationwide to restaurants and grocery stores as whole wheels, as wedges and crumbles in retail cups, or large bags to food service.
“St. Pete’s Select is what we would consider our flagship cheese,” Nilsson said. “That gets extra aging. We are tasting it at 60 days and holding back our best vats for additional aging.”
Felix recently took a bronze ribbon at the World Championship Cheese Contest in April in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
“At the end of the day or week, we have 65 people who all came together to produce this award-winning cheese that we ship nationwide,” Nilsson said. “For the employees and our plant, receiving these awards is a validation of the hard work that we put in to turning milk into cheese.”