Young Farmers Visit Small, International Cheese Company

2/23/2013 7:00 AM
By Jessica Rose Spangler Reporter

WINFIELD, Pa. — When you think of cheese, you might envision Wisconsin’s dairy industry with its iconic “cheese head” associated with the state’s Green Bay Packers.

But a seemingly small cheese company has successfully brought Wisconsin’s cheese-making knowledge to a quiet town in central Pennsylvania.

A contingent of 70 members of the Pennsylvania Young Farmers Association visited Penn Cheese Corp. on Feb. 12 to learn about its operation and migration from Switzerland to Wisconsin to Winfield.

Penn Cheese’s founder, Eldore Hanni, is a second-generation Swiss immigrant who began his cheese-making career in the early 1970s in Cuba City, Wis., just 45 miles from the U.S. cheese capital of Monroe, Wis.

Tapping his Swiss heritage, Hanni found that his talent wasn’t only in developing new cheese recipes, but specifically varying Swiss cheese recipes.

With a popular baby Swiss recipe in hand, Hanni decided to move to central Pennsylvania and turn milk from Amish dairy farmers into cheese. Hanni brought a young apprentice by the name of Thomas Weber with him. Their cheese plant opened May 8, 1979, along County Line Road in Union County.

Initially using milk from the local Amishmen, Penn Cheese made multiple varieties of cheese while focusing on the baby Swiss recipe. Baby Swiss is younger and milder than the generic Swiss varieties found in a grocery store.

Penn Cheese’s variety is “a little sweeter with a nutty and buttery flavor,” according to its website, www.PennCheese.com.

Today, Hanni has moved on to another cheese venture, but Weber remains. He is a part owner of the company with Mike Price, its original accountant. Two of Weber’s sons are also involved in the company — Jonathan is the general manager and Ben works in cheese packaging.

Tom Weber is a licensed cheese-maker and the head “chef” at Penn Cheese.

After Hanni’s departure and a move away from using Amish dairy farmers as its main suppliers, Penn Cheese now focuses on five recipes of Swiss.

“It’s difficult to be all things to all people,” Jonathan Weber said. “Instead of being a jack-of-all-trades, we just wanted to be fantastic at Swiss.”

Penn Cheese makes baby Swiss, reduced fat, reduced sodium lacey Swiss, sweet hot Swiss, smoked baby Swiss and domestic Swiss.

Besides doing private labeling for companies like Organic Valley and John F. Martin, Penn Cheese products are sold under the Pennsylvania People and Winfield Valley brands.

By using separate brines and storage containers, and thoroughly washing the machines between batches, Penn Cheese is able to make traditional, organic and kosher cheese varieties for different customers.

Most of the milk now comes from local dairy farmers who ship to Maryland & Virginia Milk Producers. Some comes from excess supplies shipped to Harrisburg Dairies.

Additionally, Penn Cheese can make “once and done” batches for customers, such as large dairy farmers who have more than 10,000 pounds of milk to be used.

“Depending on the milk weight, packaging, so many variables, it could be anywhere from $1 to $1.20 a pound,” Jonathan Weber said. “We don’t take spoiled milk. All the milk is good quality, Grade A.”

Penn Cheese Corp. may employ only 15 people, but the cheese it makes goes all over the United States and to other nations.

“We export to Canada regularly. We’ve sent around 100,000 pounds to Guatemala by now. We’ve sent to the Bahamas in the past,” Weber said.

The plant is inspected regularly by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, U.S. Food and Drug Administration and third-party auditors.

Turning Milk to Swiss

On average, two trucks carrying up to a total of 100,000 pounds of milk are delivered daily to be turned into 10,000 to 12,000 pounds of cheese.

One batch of cheese takes an average of 48 hours to go from the milk truck to packaging. During peak production in the summer, the plant runs around the clock. At this time of year, it is making cheese only three to four days per week.

The first stop in the process is the pasteurizer, which heats the milk to 163 F for 16 seconds. One batch, 60,000 pounds of milk or more, takes two to three hours for pasteurizing.

From there, the milk is moved into cheese vats — large stainless steal tanks with agitators and cutting tools inside. While in the vats overnight, the milk is turned into cheese by the addition of the cheese cultures and rennet.

It’s during this second step that the variations of Swiss start to form, based on the types and amounts of cultures and rennet added.

Once the cheese sets, the tools inside the vats are used to cut the milk. The curd at that point is similar in size to cottage cheese.

From there, the “cheese” is pumped to a draining/pressing bin, where the whey will drain out and the remaining curd will be pressed for about two hours into a large, long, solid block of cheese weighing 3,000 to 4,000 pounds.

If Penn Cheese is making baby Swiss, the curd is left untouched during pressing. If making lacey Swiss, the curds will be agitated to help achieve the optimum “lacy” texture.

After the correct press time is reached, the giant block is cut into 40-pound blocks, which are placed in forms for further pressing until the optimal pH is achieved.

From there, the blocks — out of the forms — are placed into a salt-water brine, whose cooler temperature will stop the pH from changing. The size of the cheese blocks determines the length of time spent in the brine. Forty-pound blocks, for instance, spend about 20 hours in the brine.

The brine Penn Cheese uses for everything — other than its kosher and organic varieties — is 15 years old. It does get cleaned and pasteurized, but will never be discarded because reaching that optimum salt concentration is difficult.

New brines also can’t provide the desired taste that old, reused brines can, Jonathan Weber said.

Once removed from the brine, blocks are sent to the packaging room where they are bagged, vacuum-sealed, weighed, put in cardboard boxes and placed on pallets.

Up to this point, no iconic Swiss cheese holes have formed.

Next stop is the curing room, which is kept at a constant 65 to 70 F. At this point, the cheese cultures start their work, forming carbon dioxide gas that, in turn, forms the holes inside the cheese.

This is also the point where the art of cheese-making comes into play. The cheese has to be moved from the curing room to the cooler at a precise time to stop the carbon dioxide production and maintain the Swiss cheese holes.

Once in the cooler, the cheese continues to age until being delivered to the customer. Typical Swiss ages for six months before shipping.

Future Plans

In the production of Swiss cheese, whey is a byproduct that traditionally has been useless for Penn Cheese, thus forcing the company to find an environmentally friendly and approved method of disposal.

For the past few years, Penn Cheese has been sending its whey to a farmer in Mount Pleasant Mills, Pa., who feeds it to hundreds of hogs. The farmer, in turn, pays the company a small price for this feed additive.

“It’s great for the hogs. It’s like Gatorade. It has great nutrients for them,” Jonathan Weber said.

But in recent years, the increase in the price of whey has caused Penn Cheese to see a missed opportunity for additional income.

Whey falls under the Class III milk pricing system and since 2006, whey prices have increased from 15 cents a pound to 60 cents on average, according to Weber.

To capture some of this market, Penn Cheese is working to install machines that would allow it to begin the whey drying process. The company will have to use an outside vendor to finish the conversion from whey to dry powder, but in the end, it will have a product that can be sold for additional income.

More details on Hanni’s cheese-making past can be found at www.farmsteadfresh.com.


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