When Karen Mickler and her husband Bruce DeGroot purchased a remote 50-acre mountain farm in Robbinsville, NC in 1980, they planned to produce as much food for themselves as they could. Part of that plan included a Jersey cow by the name of Rosebud.
“We didn’t buy this land with the intention of having a dairy farm,” said Karen. “We bought one milk cow, Rosebud, but she gave so much milk that we learned to make cheese. We had so much cheese and then another cow, so we got a license to sell our cheese.”
That was in 1986 and today, Yellow Branch Farm is one of the oldest artisan cheese producers in the country. The licensed cheese making facility produces about 7,000 pounds of raw milk cheese every year from an original recipe that Karen and Bruce developed themselves.
At first, Karen and Bruce were self-taught cheese makers, but learned more from experienced cheese makers in the area. Karen also attended cheese-making classes at both the University of Wisconsin and the University of Guelph in Ontario for more instruction. There, she learned to make a wide variety of cheeses and eliminated the types she wasn’t interested in making. Since the farm is located about 1 ½ hours from the closest major population center, one goal was to create an aged, pressed cheese with good shelf life.
“I took a generic recipe and adapted it to our particular type of milk, which is high in butterfat,” said Karen. “We wanted to make a young cheese that was flavorful.” Karen says that sanitation is the key to quality milk that results in good cheese. “For raw milk cheese, it’s important to start out with clean, fresh milk,” she said. “There are many types of cheese that require different types of milk. Ours is high in fat and there are certain cheeses we wouldn’t be able to make because they require milk with less fat. So milk from Holsteins is going to produce a different product from milk that’s higher in fat.” Karen noted that in general, one gallon of milk yields one pound of cheese.
Bruce, who handles cheese-making duties, explains the process: First, raw milk is heated to 81 to 82 degrees, then culture is added. “Various cheeses use different cultures,” said Bruce, who makes cheese every three to four days. “We keep our own culture, which is like someone who is keeping their own sourdough starter for breadmaking.”
The culture is allowed to ‘work’ for least ½ hour. “The culture starts to change the lactose to milk sugar,” Bruce explained. “But before I add the culture, I do a titration, which is a test for acidity. I let it work for ½ hour and check the acidity level again. I want to see that the acidity has increased – that indicates that the culture is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Next, a microbial enzyme, a rennet-type product, is added. This causes the milk solids to coagulate. Over the course of an hour, the liquid milk is changes to a stiff, yogurt-like consistency, which is the curd.
“After we cut the curd, we have curd and whey,” said Bruce. “I let it rest for about 15 minutes, then I start the cooking process which warms the curd further. At that point it’s about 80 to 81 degrees, and I’ll warm it to 92 to 96 degrees. That causes the curd to shrink more and drive out more of the liquid (whey). Once it’s up to temperature, it sits for another ½ hour or so.”
While the cheese is setting up, Bruce prepares the cheese forms for the final step. He drains the whey, adds salt and any extra ingredients for specialty cheeses, then transfers the soft cheese to the forms and weights it.
Most Yellow Branch cheeses are waxed, but some are natural rind and aged without wax. “That simple difference creates a different cheese,” said Bruce. “Waxed cheeses can be sold at 60 days, but I prefer them to be older than that, I like the Farmstead cheese to be at least 100 days old.” Natural rind cheese ages a minimum of 120 days, it’s a drier cheese and takes longer for the flavor to develop.
About a third of the cheese is sold on the farm in Karen’s pottery shop or through mail order. Bruce noted that the majority of mail order business is around Christmas. The rest is sold wholesale, primarily in Asheville, NC. “Our biggest wholesale customers are restaurants,” said Bruce. “They take between 15 and 20 wheels at a time.”
Cows are maintained on a pasture/forage-based ration and receive a pelleted ration in the milking barn. “I feed calves with milk from the freshest cows,” said Bruce. “That’s the milk that has the total butterfat. There’s an inverse ration between volume and solids. The more milk the cow produces, the lower the milk in fat and solids.”
In order to maintain a consistent milk supply, cows are maintained in a staggered calving system and calve at least 60 days apart. Bruce breeds the cows via A.I. to high cheese merit bulls. “The average industry cheese yield is 11 percent, which is slightly less than one pound of cheese per gallon of milk,” he said. “Our average yield is around 15 percent.”
Visit Yellow Branch Farm on line at www.yellowbranch.com.