Beloved Vermont cheddar comes from a plant with historic roots and an eye on the future.

“Consistency is good in the dairy industry,” says Doug DiMento, communications director for AgriMark, the Massachusetts-based cooperative that owns Vermont’s Cabot Creamery.

It’s consistency of product – in particular, an extensive line of aged cheddar cheeses, as well as assorted cultured products – that has made the Cabot brand a household name in New England for the past 90 years and, more recently, across the country.

Cabot makes cheese in two plants in the Green Mountain State, but it’s the flagship plant in its namesake town that gets most of the attention. A visitor center, offering tourists a glimpse inside the plant and an extensive selection of edible wares, has made Cabot a popular vacation stop.

Tourists get to see a short video about Cabot’s history and witness some of the cheesemaking process through glass windows during a brief guided tour. What they see is a combination of time-honored processes, many of which have changed little over the past century, and high-tech handling methods that make it possible for a growing consumer base to enjoy Cabot’s old-world flavor in ever-increasing numbers.

Building blocks

Vermont cheddar begins life in Cabot’s lower plant, where cheesemaking takes place (versus aging, cutting and wrapping in the upper plant). Milk arrives 365 days a year from the co-op’s member owners, from 800,000 to 1 million pounds of milk daily.

“The fluctuation is due to the exact product we make,” explains Marcel Gravel, plant manager. “We don’t always make cottage cheese and dips.”

More than two dozen trucks are received daily, offloading milk (after passing an extensive battery of quality testing) into raw silos that can hold more than 1 million pounds. Out of the same bay, the plant sends out six loads of whey daily to Cabot’s plant in Middlebury, Vt., for processing, as well as cream to be made into butter at the AgriMark facility in Springfield, Mass.

“The biggest thing we produce here is our low-fat cheese,” Gravel says, noting that all the brand’s reduced-fat varieties are made here. “We make low fat five days a week and [regular] cheddar two days.”

Milk is separated and clarified, the cream and excess solids shipped to the butter plant. The milk is then pasteurized and pumped into the cheese vats, a 50-minute process; each vat holds up to 40,000 pounds of milk. Rennet is added and agitation begins, with the blades’ speed adjusted from one to seven rotations per minute during the process. “We continually ramp up the RPMs to get the size curd we’re looking for,” Gravel says, noting the process from rennet to salting takes about 3.5 hours. The plant makes up to 20 vats of cheese daily.

Curds are transferred to the finishing tables, where the whey is drained before the curds are salted by hand. The salter stays one step ahead of the stirrer and breaks up large chunks of curd to ensure even distribution of salt. “Once it reaches the desired pH level, we can add flavors – roasted garlic, habañero,” Gravel says of Cabot’s recent foray into flavored cheddars.

DiMento adds: “This is the advantage of using open vats – the flexibility to make flavored cheddar as well as regular cheddar.”

Curds are fed into an augur, which takes them from the tables to the block-forming towers to form blocks. The automated system tells operators how much cheese is in the towers so they can make sure the next vat is ready with a new batch.

Forty-pound blocks are shrink-wrapped by Cryovac automatic baggers; blocks drop into bags, which are turned and conveyed to a vacuum sealer that draws out the air, making the package skin-tight. “They work fantastically – we’re quite impressed with them,” Gravel says of the automatic baggers.

Wrapped blocks pass through a metal detector on their way to be robotically boxed and palletized. Bar-code labels are applied to each block, which are weighed before being whisked away to the cooling room. “It’s critical to get the temperature down in the right time period,” Gravel notes.

Automation has brought the work force in the cheese make room from 44 to seven, Gravel explains, but because of the new machinery, “we used to have four maintenance people, now we have 16.”

It’s a dedicated work force, Gravel stresses, though different from those of days past. “It would be a lot harder to find the kind of people today to do the kind of labor required 20 years ago,” he says.

All production data is available in real time or as close to it as possible. DiMento says this enables more informed decision making for scheduling, purchasing, order fulfillment and cost management.

Unique among major cheesemakers is the use of wheel presses to hand-make wheels of clothbound cheddar. “We make it first thing in the morning – milk from one farmer, one culture,” Gravel says, noting Cabot makes one vat’s worth of this cheese about three days a week. The cloth-lined molds are filled and pressed for 24 hours to make 38-pound flats, 12-pound midgets and 3-pound wheels, which are dried, trimmed and waxed by hand before they’re aged for up to three years.

All the whey produced during the cheesemaking process here (and the McCadam plant in Chateauguay, N.Y.) is taken to the Cabot plant in Middlebury. Whey from the curd tables first goes through 400-micron filters to reclaim cheese fines, which are sent back to the vats. Then the whey passes through a reverse-osmosis filtration system to raise the solids concentration from 6% to 20%.

Line employees work with their bare hands; Gravel explains it’s more sanitary to work with oft-washed hands than gloves. “Our claim to fame is our quality program,” he says, noting that equipment is routinely swabbed to instantly detect proper sanitation.

Cutting-edge culture

While much of the cheesemaking at Cabot remains steeped in old-world traditions, cultured product processing is on the cutting edge – or at least as cutting-edge as you can get in the glamorous world of cottage cheese.

“Scherping Systems had these prototype vats and couldn’t get anyone to use them,” Gravel recalls, explaining how the manufacturer allowed Cabot to experiment with the equipment. Gravel unleashed his maintenance team on the vats, retrofitting them for the available space and other specific needs of Cabot’s cottage cheese operation. “In three weeks, we had them perfected to make cottage cheese.”

As delivered, the vats featured a catwalk on three levels to reach all the fittings. “Putting it all at one level saved us $100,000,” Gravel says, noting Cabot raised the support legs, lengthened pipes and eliminated pumps by using gravity feed made possible by the vats’ higher level. “We laid it all out, hired a crew to weld it all together and had it ready to go in three weeks.”

The plant expects to install two additional tanks to supplement the ones in use for about five years. “They’re the same principle as the cheese vats, except they’re a little fatter, and with cottage cheese, you let it sour on its own,” Gravel notes.

When ready, cottage cheese is pumped into a tank for washing and cooling, then to a dewatering belt to remove excess moisture. Finally, dressing is added (4%, low fat and fat free) before it’s filled into containers.

The cultured filling room features a four-lane Osgood filler that runs at 180 units per minute and feeds to a SpotPak machine. The room air is HEPA-filtered – a must, according to Gravel. “The air is changed eight times a minute,” he says, noting that air quality “is critical to cultured products.”

Cabot grows its own bacteria for cheddar and bulk starter for cottage cheese; the company purchases freeze-dried cultured for sour cream and dips.

That's a wrap

Cheese from three plants is brought for cutting and wrapping to Cabot’s upper plant, built in 1986 and updated in 2004. Ninety percent of the products cut and wrapped here are for Cabot’s brands, the rest for foodservice and private labels.

“We had a cut-and-wrap and distribution facility here,” explains Ed Pcolar, vice president of operations. “Then we built the distribution center in Montpelier; our farmer owners made a tremendous investment to build that facility and expand here.”

Three years ago, 191 people worked here around the clock, Pcolar says. With the most recent upgrades, the facility is down to 120 full-timers on two shifts, five days a week, “and producing more cheese than we did then,” he says. “Last year was a record year for us and we are looking to do better this year.”

The cut-and-wrap operation maintains a crew of on-call personnel for busier periods, allowing better handling of increased demand and more flexibility for full-timers to schedule vacations. “If we get caught with an immediate need, I could put a crew on a Saturday and bang out 20,000 cases,” Pcolar says. “We have a wide variety of people – teachers, morticians – looking to supplement their income. Through this whole downturn, we’re adding people.”

DiMento adds: “We’re the biggest employer in this area and in the top five in the state.” More than half of the employees have been with the company more than five years, and more than 80% longer than three years. The company also offers after-school jobs to students and invites them back yearly to work.

The operation seeks the most efficiency from its units of cheese. Huge blocks like 640s “benefit us the most,” Pcolar says, explaining these blocks can be cut in formats leaving less than 4% trim. In comparison, 40-pound blocks typically leave up to 12% trim; these cutoffs are used for shredded and process cheese.

There’s room in the upper plant to store 5 million pounds of cheese, and in a week the operation will go through about a quarter of it, totaling about 385 pounds per man hour, Pcolar says.

The fastest line is for 8-ounce blocks, a Hayssen line that wraps 155 units a minute. “Our maintenance team worked on it so we could get a few extra pieces out of it,” Pcolar explains. Cut bars are weighed before wrapping; those not meeting weight specs are kicked out of line. Wrapped bars are pulled at random for leak checks in the “birdbath,” or vacuum tank.

Another line runs Cryovac’ed 8-ounce and 2-pound sizes, while another works on random-weight chunks. “It will run less efficiently,” Pcolar says of the latter, “but when you look at the whole picture, we’re really very efficient.” Finally, a slice line, exclusively for 8-ounce stacks, handles 700 slices per minute.

The upper plant is also home to the waxing operation, still done by hand despite occasional suggestions to update it. As such, it’s an expensive process – 50 to 80 pounds of cheese per man hour, versus 500 pounds on some of the other lines, Pcolar explains. “It’s an old-world thing. I’ve suggested automating it, but they want the old-world way,” he says, acknowledging a machine would leave suction marks on an otherwise pristine waxed block or wheel.

The 8-ounce line features automated case packing, while the others are packed by hand. Pcolar says Cabot will eventually employ more robotics at this end of the line. “We’ll be looking at individual machines that palletize, one for each line,” he says, so a breakdown won’t impact multiple lines.

“We automate as much as we can to help,” Pcolar says, pointing out levelers and lifts that improve ergonomics and minimize repetitive motion problems. Plus, employees are rotated every half hour and given time to stretch. “It helps to have a little break,” he says.

The plant has an actively engaged safety task force with a focus on primary risk areas. DiMento says the result has been a substantial reduction in accidents and workman’s comp rates below industry average. In fact, Cabot recently won a safety award from the governor of Vermont for most days without reportable accidents, Pcolar notes with pride: “It’s a testament to the group we have.”

Food safety is key as well. The plant operates under a HACCP plan and the cutting and wrapping area is a clean room with positive pressure and extra air filtration. “If you don’t have that, you really don’t have a cut-and-wrap operation because you expose yourself to contamination,” Pcolar says.

Ingredient receipts are sampled and analyzed for adherence to specifications, and a thorough finished-product inspection program includes retention of samples to the end of shelf life. The distribution center’s warehouse management system provides complete traceability, DiMento says.

Meanwhile, Cabot is transitioning to SQF, with training completed and initial audits expected later this year.

It all boils down to a high-quality team making high-quality products under high-quality conditions. And to show for it, Cabot has legions of satisfied consumers, fans who flock to its visitor center and a room full of awards from cheese competitions here and abroad. It’s a mighty fine Vermont cheddar, indeed, that comes out on top of judging in Britain.

Kudos go to the team, Gravel stresses. “When we win these awards,” he says, “it’s not my name that goes on them – it’s the individual cheesemakers.”  


Among Cabot’s suppliers are the following companies:

Allen Bradley
Berry Plastics
Delkor Systems
Mettler-Toledo/  Safeline/Hi-Speed
Separators Inc.
Tetra Pak

AT a glance

Cabot Creamery
Location: Cabot, Vt.
History: First plant built 1919, replaced with new building in the 1940s, expansions in the ’50s, ’70s and 2004; visitor center added 1987.
Size: 87,000 square feet
Number of employees: 80   
Products made: Cheddar cheeses, cottage cheese, sour cream, dips, yogurt, crème fraiche.
Total processing capacity: 1 million pounds of milk daily.
Pasteurization: HTST for cheese, vat pasteurization for cultured products, each 50,000 pounds per hour.
Lines: Cheese – Scherping HCVs installed 2001, Stoelting tables installed 1987, Stoelting block towers installed 2002; cultured products – Osgood 4-lane installed 1997, Osgood 5-pound installed 1999, Delkor Spot-Pak installed 1997.
Storage capacity: 1 million pounds raw milk, 500,000 pounds pasteurized whey; 9 million pounds in aging warehouse (in upper plant).