Friday, August 27, 2010

Which Whey World

I was on a whey panel today at the American Cheese Society annual Conference, a gathering that brings together hundreds of cheese makers and sellers and aficionados in one place. Everyone from small farmstead producers to companies that sell millions of pounds of cheese a year is here. So many wonderful cheeses to sample, so many interesting cheese makers to talk to. It’s almost overwhelming.

For a cheese maker, whey is the source of many headaches. You spend hours making cheese, then you end up with almost as much liquid in a tank as came into the plant originally as milk, and you have to get rid of it before you can start making cheese again, which is in a few hours, typically, because those cows or goats or sheep keep making milk and you keep getting milk to make into cheese.

Raw whey is a watery yellow liquid, salty, a bit foamy. It used to be that cheese makers could feed it to animals – pigs love it. Across Italy you still see small farmstead cheese plants with a pen of pigs outside. The trouble is, once you start making any significant volume of cheese, you need LOTS of pigs. Where there are LOTS of pigs, there is LOTS of manure, and manure is something you really don’t want in a cheese plant. So you buy some land, or find a farmer who has some land, and you start land-spreading your whey as fertilizer. Until you have raised the phosphorous content of the soil to the point where it can’t produce crops anymore, or until the ground freezes in the winter, you land-spread your whey, it thaws, and runs off the frozen field into a nearby stream and kills off the fish that the trout unlimited volunteers have painstakingly restored over the past ten years. It’s somewhere in this process that the regulators from the state natural resources department start showing up at your plant, and its at this point that you start shipping your whey to a separate plant that converts it into something else.

It’s no wonder that by the time people start shipping their whey to us to make into teraswhey,, they are already irritated about the whole process and just want their headache to go away. The good news is that as this whole new world of whey products has evolved, the value of the whey as a by product has increased and money has a funny way of making head aches go away. The bad news is increasingly the product requirements for the whey protein is pressuring cheese makers to change how they make their cheese. Cook temperatures, natural colorings added to make cheese yellow, acidifiers, all components of the cheese making process, are increasingly inconvenient for whey bound for nutritional supplement products. Which means that a new whey headache is cropping up for cheese makers: the tail is threatening to wag the dog. For people trying to make really authentic cheeses, conforming to the whey ideal is a particularly vexing.

Not all of these product requirements for whey actually impact the quality of the protein. Some of them only impact flavor, some appearance. If we want to live in a world where all of our whey protein is identical, then we need to live in a world where all of our cheese is too. Is that really the world we want to live in?


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