WEBSTERVILLE, Vt.-The aged-cheese facility at Vermont Butter & Cheese is a visually appealing building. Attached to one wall is a glass anti-room that serves as a visitor’s gallery, where several small windows allow a view of the cheese make room.
The glass room also provides an excellent setting in which to showcase the multitude of awards the company has garnered since it was established in 1984 as one of the pioneers of American artisan cheese. Visible from the parking lot, are more than a half-dozen trophies from the Fancy Food Show. They stand at each end of the room like sentinels, telling visitors there is something special happening inside.
Adeline Folley, operations mgr. at Vemont Butter & Cheese, says the 4,000-sq ft facility is the brick and mortar result of the efforts by owners Allison Hooper and Bob Reese to take American specialty cheese to a new level.
About five years ago they began producing goat cheeses in the tradition of those made in the storied Loire Valley region of France, beginning with an ash-ripened cheese they called Bonne Bouche, which loosely translates to “good mouthful.” Folley, a French national, studied cheesemaking and microbiology at the national university in Savoie. She first came to Vermont Butter & Cheese for an internship in 2002, returning to join the staff in 2003.
“When I came here I saw that Bob and Allison were making the Bonne Bouche in the same room with the other products, ” Folley says. “I told them, you really can’t do that-you have to build a separate room.”
Since that meant that the growing company would have to suspend production of the new product and invest more than $1 million in the project, Folley half expected to receive a ticket back across the Atlantic. Instead, she was hired to oversee the design, build, start-up and operation of the new facility, which is just under half the size of the company’s main plant.
It took more than two years to complete, but the results are stunning.
Bonne Bouche was reintroduced in 2006 to overwhelming applause. It was soon joined by two other products-Bijou and Coupole-to form a new Specialty Line. The cheeses are a unique addition to the broad array being produced by American artisans. They are made by hand, with painstaking adherence to the techniques and traditions of the classics that inspired them.
All three are wonderfully executed, beautifully packaged and technically brilliant. The Bonne Bouche took second place in its category at the American Cheese Society competition in 2006; it took best of class in 2007 at Wisconsin’s U.S. Cheese Championship, and at the Fancy Food show last year it was recognized as the most outstanding cheese or dairy product.
Meanwhile Folley hosted tours of the facility last summer when the American Cheese Society was held in nearby Burlington. The facility is nearly as impressive as the cheeses.
To ensure the best results from each batch of cheese and a necessary degree of consistency, the company outfitted the new plant with state-of–the-art production and affinage technologies. In particular, that meant an automated computer-monitored air transfer system for the drying and aging rooms. The system, installed by a French supplier, provides precise control of the temperature and humidity in those crucial rooms.
Production remains-by design-a manual process, allowing the company to retain its status as an artisan cheesemaker. But the materials and installations in the make room provide the plant with a level of hygiene that is as high or higher than one would find in most facilities 20 times the size.
Like those larger facilities, the Vermont Butter & Cheese plant is built with the future in mind.
“It was designed so that we can take out a wall and expand it outward,” Folley says.
As the demand for American artisan cheese continues to grow, the need for that expansion could come soon. If nothing else, Vermont Butter & Cheese will need to make room for more trophies.