One Day at the Cheese Factory

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Pepper Baker folded his book and turned off the projector. Chemistry class was over. I quickly gathered my books and hit the door at close to a run. 

I was attending Southwestern Oregon Community College. Chemistry class was held in some old Navy buildings near the North Bend Airport. If I was fast, I could make the drive to Myrtle Point in thirty-seven minutes. If I could punch in on the time clock by thirty-seven minutes after the hour, I would get paid from half past the hour. To a young college student paying his way through school, that meant over an extra hour each week.

I threw my books in the back seat beside my lunch box and work clothes as I jumped in the little Corvair and sped out of the parking lot. The class was released early, and I had a couple of minutes to spare as I pulled onto Highway 101 and heading south.

I made the turn off of 101 onto Highway 42 and increased my speed. I had a few more miles of a four-lane highway, and there were seldom any police on this section. Glancing at my watch, I was still several minutes ahead of schedule.

As I approached the highway’s merge section as it narrowed to two lanes, I slowed my speed and looked in the rearview mirror. Here came a state cop with his lights on. Where had he been hiding?

I pulled over and got out of the car to greet the cop.

“Do you know the speed limit on this highway?” the state cop asked as I handed him my driver’s license.

“I know it’s fifty-five,” I said.

“Do you have oversized tires on this car?” he asked as he leaned down to look at my tires.

“I know I was going fast,” I said. “You see, I go to college in North Bend, and I work at the cheese factory in Myrtle Point. I was in a hurry because if I punch the time clock at 2:37, I get paid from 2:30.”

“You wouldn’t be pulling my leg, would you?” the cop asked.

“No, my books and my work clothes are right there in the back seat,” I said.

He looked in the back seat. “Okay, it looks like you are telling the truth. We need more kids who work for what they have. But you need to slow things down a bit. I work this section of the highway often, and a ticket will eat up that extra hour a week.”

“Thank you, sir. I will slow it down.”

I had learned early in life to take your medicine when you got caught in the wrong. I started down the highway at a legal speed—no need to hurry now after losing those minutes with the cop.

I punched the time clock at the Safeway Cheese Factory at 2:45 and headed to the break room to change clothes. I noticed a strong odor from the production area but didn’t think much about it.

I pulled on my boots and headed out to get to work. This was my fourth year of working after school and summers at the cheese factory. It was an excellent job, and I could pay my college expense and maintain a car with no problem.

I pushed through the swinging doors onto the main production floor, and a rancid odor hit me. I stood for a moment, trying to assess the situation.

“What smells so bad?” I asked old Paul Davis, who was waiting with his forklift, to retrieve a cheese pallet.

“The pasteurizer broke this morning,” Paul said. “Nothing to do but to make the cheese today with unpasteurized milk. Gives you an idea what cheese was like a hundred years ago.”

“What are we going to do with it?” I asked.

“We have a truck coming in the morning. It is all going to a plant in San Francisco. They will use it to make pasteurized processed cheese.”

“Looks like it is going to be a fun afternoon,” I said.

“Yes, I think George has your vat just about ready for you,” Paul said, pointing down the row of five large cheese vats.

I walked down and signed in on the vat sheet and said hi to George Gasner as he was heading back to the lab. George was the head cheesemaker, and he managed the vats until the hard work was to begin.

George filled the vat with 6000 pounds of milk. Heated it to the prescribed temperature with the steam jacket in the vat while running to two large mechanical agitators. He added twenty gallons of starter culture. After a timed interval, he would add the rennet to coagulate the milk. After cutting the soft curd, he would cook this vat before turning it over to the cheesemaker for the cheddaring of the cheese.

I stopped the agitators and removed the paddles, allow the soft curd to settle to the bottom of this sizeable twenty-four-foot-long vat. As it dropped to the vat floor, I hooked up the drainage pipe and started draining the whey from the vat. When half the whey was removed, I began to form the soft curd into two large mats using a stainless steel rake, one on each side of the vat with a ditch down the middle. These mats were twenty feet long, thirty inches wide, and six inches deep. After they were allowed to settle and become solid mats, I would cut them into loaves about six inches wide. Once cut, these loaves were turned over and heated with the steam jacket to make them more solid.

Then the real work began. The speed was determined by the acidity of the cheese. We checked the acidity at every step. Adding heat would speed the developing acidity. At the start of the process, the acid test would be around a pH of six point five. And the ending pH would be close to five point three.

After the loaves were turned over, they were stacked on themselves. This gives a row that two high on each side of the vat. These were then turned. Turning over the top half loaf and then placing the bottom loaf on top of it. This progressed down the line on each side of the vat.

The next step, with the aid of another cheesemaker, the loaves on the left side were thrown over to the right side, and the stacks were now four high.

Based on time, heat, and acidity, the rows are turned and stacked five high and then six high. The loaves started out six inches by six inches by fifteen inches after the second cut. They are now twelve inches wide, two inches thick, and thirty inches long.

These loaves are now run through a mill that chops them into the familiar cheese curds. These are salted and heated again and then scooped into molds. When pressed for a couple of hours under hydraulic pressure, they yield forty-pound blocks of cheese.

These fifty blocks are then removed from the molds, wrapped and heat-sealed, then boxed and moved to cold storage for aging. By the time this two thousand pounds of cheese is loaded on a pallet, it has been handled by a cheesemaker ten times. In one vat, the cheesemakers moved twenty thousand pounds of cheese. 

It will be nice to get back to a functional pasteurizer tomorrow and see this stinky cheese shipped to the processed cheese plant.

This is a link to some pictures of a small scale cheddar cheese making process:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manufacture_of_cheddar_cheese

This is a link to a 1962 article in the Myrtle Point Herald newspaper on the Safeway Cheese Factory:

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

3 thoughts on “One Day at the Cheese Factory

    1. I think we were the only one. It was my understanding that Safeway could label all their cheese as Safeway as long has they had one factory. It is no longer a Safeway plant and it now makes a concentrate for ice cream. In those days, everywhere there was a pasture, there was a little dairy. Some might only have a half dozen cows. All those little farms are gone now, just a few large dairies in the county now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I grew up in a rural Connecticut town, with two small dairies up the road, and one down the road. One of them delivered milk direct to the houses on our street, and our milk at school came from that one, in glass bottles. I remember when the owners died or got too old, the sons were not interested in continuing the dairy farms, but times were already changing.

        Like

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