Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Brazos Valley Cheese in Texas

Winner of two ribbons at the American Cheese Society competition!

As you already know, several of us from New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. went to Seattle a few weeks ago to the annual convention.  While we were working our table in the registration area, we met Rebeccah Durkin and Marc Kuehl from Brazos Valley Cheese in Waco, Texas.  Rebeccah told us that our book, Home Cheese Making got her started 12 years ago and now, here she was-entering the competition for the first time.

I snapped a picture of Rebeccah and Marc with Ricki and then ran into them again at the Festival of Cheeses several days later.  They were very excited to have won second place for their Brazos Select in the "Soft Ripened Cheeses Open Category Made From Cow's Milk," and third place for their Eden in the category- "Brie Cheese Made From Cow's Milk."  This is a great honor, as you probably know.  There were over 1400 cheeses submitted, so the competition was fierce.

It's difficult to see their cheeses in the pictures below, because they were attacked by ravenous cheese eaters as soon as the festival began.  But, the Brazos Select is a brie that they paint with sorghum syrup and wrap in a thin band of mesquite wood and top with a mustang grape leaf.
Eden is a brie with a line of black vegetable ash in the center and wrapped in fig leaves.
Here are a few pictures Rebeccah took of the auditorium before the Awards Ceremony and the Festival of Cheeses:

I snapped a picture of a beaming Rebeccah as she showed us her ribbons and asked her if we could do an interview.  She agreed, so, a few weeks after the convention, I e-mailed her a few questions:

How did you begin making cheese?

I started making cheese 12 years ago when I was 19. Our community milks five Jersey/Brown Swiss cows for our own use and in the spring they were producing so much milk that we were throwing it away. I grew up making butter and yogurt but got to thinking about making cheese. I remembered that a few years prior, my younger sister raised goats and my parents had given her a book called "Cheesemaking Made Easy" by Ricki Carroll for Christmas. (Note:  Now the book is called Home Cheese Making.)  We were never able to get enough goat milk to experiment with. Eventually we sold the goats and moved.

So I found the book buried in the cabinet and dusted it off. I made mozzarella first which resembled the texture of rubber bands as a result of substituting vitamin C for citric acid and having an inaccurate thermometer. I had my brothers build me a press with plywood and dowels, and early one morning I asked a worker in Wal-mart where to find barbells! (He eyed me a little curiously.)

I cut the top and bottom off a 1 gallon tomato can and made a few holes in the side for a homemade cheese mold. 

I made pepper jack followed by colby and parmesan. I aged my first wheels in an old refrigerator in our storage shed. Then I had to wait 2 months for them to age. Finally the day came when I was able to cut into my waxed wheels and they were delicious!

From there I showed some of our cheeses at our annual Thanksgiving weekend craft fair and everyone was very interested. I experimented more and the next year bought milk at a supermarket to make feta which I marinated in jars with olive oil, fresh basil, garlic and dried tomatoes. This was the first product we sold.
In 2005, my cousin Marc Kuehl came from Denver for a visit and decided to stay in our community. He needed a job and one day I told him that I dreamed of having a cheese business. He wanted to help make that happen.

(Note:  Marc and Rebeccah manage Brazos Valley Cheese now. Marc makes cheese part time and delivers to all the major cities in Texas.)

With my Dad's help we got a 36-gallon soup cauldron and started making cheese in our community's commercial kitchen 2 days a week. We hauled milk from a dairy in 4 gallon buckets! We began selling cheese at farmers markets, our community's deli and even a restaurant in Austin.

In 2008, we moved into a larger building and got a 200 gallon vat pasteurizer, a walk-in aging cooler and a 4-piston cheese press.

Now we sell to restaurants in all the major cities in Texas and at fairs our community puts on across the country. We supply our deli with cheese and give cheese making classes, which students attend from all over the country.

Besides Marc and me, 7 people work part-time with Brazos Valley Cheese. We make a 200 gal. batch every day, Monday through Saturday. We joined the American Cheese Society when it met in Austin last year. This year we attended in Seattle and won our first two awards!  We are excited about going to Montreal next year for the 2011 conference.

What is the community you live in?

Our community started in 1973 in Manhattan, NY as an inner city mission church. My parents met and married there. When I was a baby in 1979 a handful of us moved out west to Colorado to learn an agrarian way of life. Shortly after we had a sister church start in Austin, Texas.

In 1990, this land here in Waco became available and we consolidated here. About 40 families have their own homesteads on 510 acres of land. Many other members have their own farms in the area. This piece of land we call Brazos de Dios which is the original name of the Brazos river that borders our property. It means "Arms of God."
We have a craft village open 6 days a week to the public and about 50,000 people come through a year.

We have a cafe that serves all- natural dishes using our cheeses, gristmill products and grass-fed beef.

Other shops in the Homestead Heritage craft village include woodworking, pottery, blacksmithing, weaving, and a restored 1750s gristmill. 
One of our community businesses is dismantling and restoring old barns from New York.  (www.heritagebarns.com). We have reassembled these all over the country and have several here at Homestead Heritage, one which serves as our gift shop. We are a sustainable farming community.  We farm with horses and grow most of our own food.

We also have a school where we teach homesteading and craft skills to folks from all over the country; woodworking, cheese making, sewing, gardening and pottery to name a few.  (See www.cfeeschool.com)(Note:  Here are a few pictures of their cheese making workshops):
What is your role in the community?

I am 31, not married and still live with my parents and 2 of my 6 siblings. I stay pretty busy making cheese and filling orders at the shop plus keeping track of all the brining, flipping, wiping and aging of the cheese once it is made. I teach a two-day cheese making class one weekend a month and also sing in our community's choir and play clarinet in the orchestra (not at the same time!). My family has a restored barn guesthouse so we host a lot of guests. I also have a cleaning job at a ranch an hour away that I do one day a week, and when the owners are in town I cook and clean for them in addition to providing them with cheese!

Over the years this family has been a big encouragement to my cheese making.  They lived in Washington DC and Texas for eight years and often entertained foreign heads-of-state, to whom they promoted my cheese.  One time they offered the president of Italy some of our cheese, and he commented (in a rather condescending tone) that he did not think there was good cheese in America.  They cajoled him into trying our marinated feta, and to his surprise he really liked it.

I also like to sew and garden.

How do you think growing up in this community has influenced you?

I am very thankful that I was raised in this Christian community. I have loving parents and a whole community of people who care for and serve each other. My siblings and I were given a quality education by my mother who home-schooled us.  The cheese business would not be possible without the support of the community. At the age of 20 I didn't have the money to start a cheese business but the community provided the necessary start-up funds.

The community has about 36 businesses (from home building to jelly making), which many of the members work for.  Most young people in today's society grow up thinking that to be successful they have to go to college and learn to be a professional. And now we are flooded with people who are trained in these fields and can't find jobs. There is a sense of fulfillment in working with your hands and creating something from start to finish, whether it is a wheel of cheese, a pottery vase, a chest of drawers or an entire house.

 How does one join the community?

Well, we do it relationally. We encourage people to get to know us and what we are about before deciding if this is really what they feel they are called to do. We have people join us all the time, but they first visit and participate in community activities and the life of the community. We are now over a thousand in number so we also meet regularly in smaller groups of about 100 for closer fellowship.  That way we can get to know each other better.  For example, if someone is moving, folks in their home group will help them or if they are sick, someone will cook them a meal.

If you are interested in tasting Brazos Valley Cheese, you can find it at retail shops and restaurants in Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and Houston.
More info at www.brazosvalleycheese.com.

Brazos Valley Cheese
608 Dry Creek Rd.
Waco, Texas 76705
For wholesale inquires and additional varieties call:
(254) 230-2535

Or, you can purchase their cheese at the Homestead Heritage Visitors Center- Open year-round, Monday through Saturday-10 A.M. to 6 P.M.

Here are a few mouth-watering pictures of Brazos Valley Cheeses:
Blueberry Havarti
Horseradish Pecan Cheddar


FarmingandRanchinginRighteousness said...

Yum!! Where's the goat cheese? Yumm!! I love Homestead Heritage! We almost bought a horse there and spent the whole day. Also took the sustainable horse farming course this fall. So much fun!!

Jeri said...

Make your own- it's easy!

Rachel Murphy said...

Ok how do we come and stay and learn for a week. Do you have a class, or field trip? VERY INTERESTED!!!!

Jeri said...

Here's where you'll find their school- www.sustainlife.org.

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