DUVALL–When Blain Hages hired on with Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Seattle at the tender age of 22, it wasn’t long before he decided the craft would be his life’s work.
"Everyone seemed to be so happy there," he said. "It was a cheerful place to work."
Now 34, Blain is the head cheesemaker for Cherry Valley Dairy and is clearly passionate about his job. He and his assistant Anne Becker enjoy plenty of creative license in the production of their flavorful artisan cheeses, resulting not only in praise from consumers but in an award last year from the American Cheese Society of Wisconsin.
They entered several cheeses in the competition and 8 out of 10 of their entries qualified for judging, said Blain. Their winning entry earned them a 2nd place ribbon for their flavored Jack cheese with carrot and nasturtium.
"It is very competitive there ... it is Wisconsin, after all," Blain explained with a grin.
The cow herd is all Jerseys which are coveted for the high butterfat content in their milk, testing between 4.8 and 5.2 percent, which is where making an award-winning cheese all starts, Blain says. "That and this wonderful environment of the Snoqualmie Valley and all that good grass."
No surprise there, since it’s the same environment that lured dairy farmers into this valley for over 100 years. But times and economics do change and the larger dairy farms have mostly disappeared, as their owners relocated to Eastern Washington where they could more easily expand and be closer to feed sources. To fill the gap, smaller niche operations such as vegetable and flower farms, cheese producers and others have moved in and saved many of the old farms, including this one, from eventual deterioration.
In this particular case, Cherry Valley Dairy is a fulfillment of a vision of "eco-preneur" Gretchen Garth who purchased the 80-year-old farm with its classic dairy barn in 2005. Her plan was for a small operation with a focus on keeping a healthy, pasture-grazing herd, crafting traditional, natural dairy products and using environmentally-friendly techniques as a management tool.
The two-year-old cheesemaking operation has indeed given the farm a second act in life. The new incarnation of the 120-acre farm that once held hundreds of cows sports a nicely renovated milking parlor, loafing shed, feeding area and plenty of grass for the herd of about 40 Jerseys, 20 or so of them in milk at any given time.
Blain’s day starts particularly early, because he has to drive from his home in Georgetown in order to arrive in time for the 5 a.m. milking.
As soon as the first of the fresh milk from the Jerseys begins its trip from the pipeline to the inside of the pasteurizer located in the cheese making room, Blain and Anne are ready to get started.
After pasteurization at 155 degrees, the whole milk is pumped into the cheese vat, where rennet and cultures are added and it is cooled to 88 degrees. And that’s when the real work begins. Blain and Anne begin working the cheese into curds while drawing off the whey that goes into a drain in the floor.
The whole process takes about 4 1/2 to 5 hours. The cheese on that day was a Dairy Reserve, which, after being salted, was then pressed into "hoops," wrapped and sent to a cool room where it ages for 4-6 months at 95 percent humidity and 38 degrees F. The rounds are placed on shelves and flipped on a schedule. Everything is used. Even the whey is captured and sold to a pig farmer.
Blain explained that cheese yield is about 10 percent, so 900 pounds of milk would produce about 90 pounds of cheese. If the dairy ends up with extra milk, the rest goes to Beecher’s. "That’s why it’s nice to be a farmstead creamery," said Anne. "They take what we can’t use."
Blain and Anne are also pretty upbeat about the improvements on the farm which recently achieved its Salmon Safe Certification. As a result, Anne pointed out, three salmon were recently seen in Cherry Creek. Blain says the dairy has been working with the Snoqualmie Tribe to improve the stream on the farm and they also hope to add an anaerobic digester to generate energy.
The dairy makes several different products including flavored butter, one of which is called Candy Cap Mushroom. "A local forager turned us on to it," Blain said.
Ann Marie Stickney is the farm manager and gives the herd plenty of tender, loving care. As a youngster she worked at a Guernsey dairy in Monroe. "I learned a lot there," she said as she pushed alfalfa toward the waiting Jerseys. "We have a very healthy herd."
She and her assistant, Johnny Padilla, do the milking, feeding and all the other farm chores.
Even though Blain’s early morning commute from Georgetown only takes 38 minutes because of light traffic volumes, he hopes to move his family to Duvall sometime in the near future.
"The community of Duvall is great, I’m excited about the future and I feel there are endless opportunities here," he says.
Cherry Valley Dairy products are available locally at Duvall Coffeehouse, 21 Acres in Woodinville, Beecher’s Handmade Cheese at Pike Place Market, farmers markets and other outlets.
Their Facebook page provides information on venues where their cheese can be purchased. On Jan. 18 they will be at Isenhower Cellars, located at 15007 Woodinville-Redmond Road.
Blain Hages and Anne Becker scoop cheese curds into hoops. The curds will then be weighed and pressed before being sent to the aging room. Photo by Lisa Allen/Valley View Editor