It is a balmy and bright Thursday morning, and over in Fairview, just outside the hustle and bustle of the city, Jennifer Perkins is unlocking the door to the small creamery she runs with her husband, Andy. The building is conveniently located next door to their house and 2-acre yard.
“Our process is slightly different than a lot of other cheese-makers. We’re obviously not a dairy,” she says, pointing to the creamery’s lone goat. “We’re not a farmstead operation; we buy or trade everything for products from local farms, we bring it here and we make cheese.”
Looking Glass Creamery opened its facility in 2009. Perkins had been working as the cheese maker at the famed Blackberry Farms in Tennessee. When “it got to a point where we were going to have to move out there full time,” she says, her reluctance to sell their home in Fairview led her to give up her work at the respected agritourism destination and start a creamery of her own.
Now, the business is a daily practice that stays close to home. “Twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I go to Round Mountain Creamery, where I buy up to 200 gallons of goat’s milk,” she explains. “We don’t have a cold tank, so we have no way of storing the milk, so once it gets here, we have to start making it right away.”
When I show up, the milk is already loaded and ready to go. The milk first has to be pasteurized, which is done in a big, temperature-controlled machine. The cheese we are about to make is Looking Glass’ popular Elliston variety, a soft and creamy brie, so Perkins says no other heating or treatment is needed. For harder cheeses, like cheddars or Parmesans, the milk is heated and cooked, which forces out whey. Brie-style cheeses, on the other hand, are maintained at a lower temperature keeping the moisture and a lot of the whey in the cheese,
Once the milk has been pasteurized and cultures have been added, rennet is thrown into the mix. “A rennet is an enzyme from the lining of a cow’s stomach,” Perkins casually mentions, “and that is what starts the coagulation of the cheese. Of course, we make those in labs now. What you’re doing with cheese-making is essentially controlling your spoilage. You’re making it inhospitable for bad bacteria, and making it open for the good bacteria that you want.”
Looking Glass cheese is made in 60-gallon batches, but the yields are small. “Roughly, a gallon of milk will make about a pound of cheese,” she says. Keep in mind, a gallon of milk can weigh up to 8.8 pounds.
Perkins and her small staff of two employees, Ashley Ioakimedes and William Goldberg, scoop up the curds in big metal sieves and pour them into large cone-shaped strainers where the curds drain their whey over the course of days until they are left with a perfectly shaped cheese. “You can see how big these are,” says Perkins, pointing to one of the straining molds. “But you lose a lot of this throughout the process. From the start to the finish, you lose about two-thirds of your product by the time it’s done.” That’s an easy explanation for the high cost of a quality product like artisanal cheese.
Unlike most cheese-makers, Perkins doesn’t shop her cheeses out at local farmers markets. Instead, she relies on distribution through local grocers and, like several other regional cheese makers, has opened a shop at the creamery itself. “We just needed a way to connect directly with the customers,” she says.
The shop also sells an assortment of local crackers and cured meats as well as reasonably priced bottles of wine, allowing visitors to take advantage of the scenic acreage for picnics and to enjoy the end result of the creamery’s labor.
But the challenge of reaching a public accustomed to just picking up any generic cheese from the grocery store poses a significant obstacle for area cheese-makers. Fortunately, folks like Katie Moore of the Cheese Store of Asheville are there to shine a spotlight on local producers. Moore moved here from Los Angeles in 2013.
“When I was looking for a change, I came here, saw there was no cheese store, and I thought, ‘Maybe I should do that,’” she says. “There are a lot of great cheese-makers in this area, and it would be really nice if people knew about them.” Her shop features a rotating variety of more than 60 cheeses, a third of which come from local producers.
Moore has been working with Rachel English Brown, whose family runs English Farmstead Cheese, to build the WNC Cheese Trail, a guide to the mountains’ remarkable local cheese community. “It’s about getting the word out about them, their work, the cheeses they make, encouraging people to buy from the makers and to visit the makers. We also do a lot of education about what cheese is, why it’s important to buy locally,” says Moore.
With 11 local creameries on the map, the group has built a fun and simple guide to where to go and whom to buy from in the region when it comes to local cultures. “We have goat cheese, cow cheese and people that do both,” says Brown, “We have people who have animals on-site and people that don’t, who buy it from other local farmers. But the main thing is that while everyone is starting with the same thing — milk — everyone puts their own spin on it, and I think that is why it works so well for us.”
“Part of the trail is conceptual, and part of it is real,” explains Moore, “There is a website and map that gives you an idea of the cheese-makers in this region. Some of them are just not open for visitors, because they are basically working farms, and it’s really hard for them to have guests. A lot of them are open to visitors with an appointment, and there are a couple that have little shops on premises like English Farmstead and Looking Glass, so there are some that are really opening themselves up for visitors.”
To find out more about local cheese-makers, head to wnccheesetrail.vpweb.com.
Jonathan Ammons is employed by Weinhaus, the storefront that houses the Cheese Store of Asheville, a separate business.