This Company's Secret to Making Award-Winning Cheese? Robots
"In some artisan-cheese circles, there's this idea that if you're not breaking your back, sacrificing your body at the altar of this preconception of quality, you're not for real," says Jasper Hill Farm CEO Mateo Kehler of the hard manual labor typically required in the business. He and his brother Andy—along with their spouses, Angie and Victoria—bought into this ethos when they started making cheese on their rural Greensboro, Vermont, farmstead in 2003.
But the Jasper Hill of today is a far different operation. In the Cheddar vault of its underground cellar, a robot prowls the aisles between 18-foot-high shelves, lifting 36-pound wheels of clothbound cheese—turning and brushing each one weekly to ensure even aging and more consistent results. A pricy French air exchanger in the next vault over filters and humidifies the air so that the right molds will flourish on soft, bloomy-rind cheeses. Not far away is a first-of-its-kind lab, where technicians conduct genomic analyses to identify which microbes contribute to the flavor of each cheese.
Embracing technology has not only spared the Kehlers and their team back-breaking work—allowing them to focus on other areas of cheesemaking—it's also earned Jasper Hill a reputation as one of the most forward-thinking artisan cheesemakers in North America, if not the world. Its staff of 117 now transform the milk from five herds of cows and one herd of goats into more than a dozen cheeses—from the cream-hearted Harbison to the Alpine-style Alpha Tolman and the spectacularly robust Bayley Hazen Blue—that have won enough gold medals from the American Cheese Society and World Cheese Awards to impress King Midas.
Another cheesemaking myth that Mateo has exploded: That the only use for robots and other cutting-edge innovations is to produce cheeses at an industrial scale. Jasper Hill only processes 5 million pounds of milk a year—which would be just a rounding error, he says, for big factories with rates of 10 million pounds a day. The Kehlers are employing robots to make the best cheese they can, rather than the most.
The realization that technology and quality could coexist hit Mateo during a 2005 trip to eastern France. At one cheese cellar he visited, the owners—a couple in their 60s—were collecting and caring for 20 times more product than Jasper Hill, aided by a cheese-turning robot and just a few staff. And their Comté, he adds, had an unbelievable flavor and taste of terroir.
Large-scale cheesemakers pasteurize their milk to create a blank slate, then add commercial cultures to engineer the texture and taste profile they desire. In 2013, the Kehlers set up their on-site lab and partnered with Harvard microbiologists to identify 1,200 species of yeasts, bacteria and molds in great cheeses and puzzle out which yielded specific flavors. Jasper Hill then developed its own starters and began inoculating both its pasteurized and raw milk with these complex blends of beneficial microbes. "Mateo was one of the first to latch onto the idea that the quality of the milk is not the absence of microbes but the right collection of them," says Bronwen Percival, the buyer for famed London cheese shop Neal's Yard Dairy, and co-author of Reinventing the Wheel. "Jasper Hill is pushing the limits in terms of what people in the United States are doing with microbes."
The Kehlers also became the first American cheesemakers to install an Italian hay dryer. The flavor of raw-milk cheese begins in the fields—and feeding herds hay, rather than fermented silage, produces milk with more diverse and welcome microbes. But in cool, wet northern Vermont, it was difficult to dry hay outdoors, so for years they had purchased it from outside the region. They now grow and store their own fodder—thanks to the hay dryer—and have returned cornfields that used to supplement the cows' diets to native grasses.
Not all their practices are high-tech, though. Jasper Hill has resurrected some near-defunct traditions, like culturing Pencillium roqueforti on loaves of rye bread until it turns bright green—a method of producing blue cheese that dates back to prehistory—and then adding these ambient strains of mold to milk to make their new Native Bayley Hazen Blue. (Only one other cheesemaker, in France, uses this technique; the rest use commercially produced P. roqueforti extract.) The resulting flavor—spicier, deeper, more layered—is spectacularly evident. Says Mateo: "What we're really trying to accomplish is a back-to-the-future approach to artisan cheese production—using modern technology to explore and defend traditional practices."
EatingWell, April 2021