Everything You Need to Know About Cheese Manufacturing

Cheese continues to top U.S. specialty food sales, at more than $4 billion in 2017. Increasing profit margins and maintaining profitability continue to be major concerns. Follow along with our industry segments to understand the manufacturing, regulatory concerns, and business issues of cheese making and processing.  

Cheese manufacturing can be broken into two sub-segments, cheese making, and cheese processing. Each of these sub-segments can produce cheese that is intended for direct consumer purchase or institutional/commercial customers. Dependent on the business plans of manufacturers, these two sub-segments could potentially be located in the same facility.

Cheesemaking is the process where milk is received, the fluid milk is processed and transformed into cheese. The cheese is typically formed into larger blocks, being as large as 640 lbs. Many of these large blocks are made for cheese processors where they are often cut down to more manageable sizes, with 40 lb. blocks being among the most common. Smaller, artisan or limited production operations may form their cheese into wheels. Sizes and weights of these wheels will vary depending on the type of cheese and the product scope of the manufacturer.

The second sub-segment, cheese processing, take the blocks of cheese and process them further. Processing includes reducing into smaller blocks, shredding, slicing, and blending cheese. Many of the largest consumer brands in the United States tend to be only cheese processors. The cheese is made by one then processed and packaged within a different facility for commercial use. Cheese Processing will be featured in a later Industry Segment.

Whey comprises 80 – 90 % of the total volume of milk entering the cheese-making process and contains about 50 % of the nutrients from the original milk which includes soluble protein, lactose, vitamins, and minerals. For this reason, whey is a very good source of nutritional supplements. Many cheese manufacturers are reclaiming the whey produced in the initial stages of the cheese-making process. It is often dried and sold as a secondary revenue stream for cheese making operations. Smaller cheese-making operations may sell the whey to local farmers to supplement animal nutrition plans.

According to the American Cheese Society, 76% of cheesemakers reported annual cheese production of 50,000 pounds or less, indicating that the growing industry largely consists of smaller businesses.

Cheese continues to top U.S. specialty food sales, at more than $4 billion in 2017, per the Specialty Food Association, profitability remains a challenge for the artisan and specialty cheese industry. According to the ACS, only 80% of cheesemakers operated profitably in 2017, and average profit margins were slim. Additionally, 92% of cheesemakers reported than maintaining profitability is an area of concern.

Typical Manufacturing Process

The cheese-making process primarily consists of fluid handling. The basic process of cheesemaking follows these steps:

  • Standardize milk to make it as uniform as possible.
  • Pasteurize or heat-treat milk to reduce the potential for spoilage. Time and temperature will vary based on the type of cheese.
  • Cool the treated milk to a temperature that is optimal for culturing (typically 90 F). Again, the temperature depends on the type of cheese.
  • Add starter bacterial ingredients and hold for approximately 30 minutes. The bacteria start to grow and fermentation begins. Fermentation lowers the pH of the cheese and develops the flavor.
  • At the end of the prescribed time interval, Rennet or other enzymes are added to initiate the curdling process. Once these enzymes are added the curd is not disturbed for approximately 30 minutes. During this time it coagulates and continues to ferment.
  • At this point in the process, the product is referred to as curd. As the curd reaches a specific pH (generally 6.4) it is cut into smaller pieces and heated to help separate liquid whey from the curd.
  • When the liquid whey has been separated and is completely drained from the vats the remaining curd forms a mat.
  • Once the mat is formed there are several operations that can occur depending on the type of cheese. Most often the curd is cut into sections. The size of the pieces is determined and piled on top of each other, an operation that is referred to as cheddaring. Cheddaring is also used to eliminate more whey. The curd is left to continue fermenting until the desired pH is reached – generally between 5.1 – 5.5. While the curd is fermenting the mats begin a process called knitting, in which the cheese forms a tighter matted structure. In place of knitting, stretching and pressing may be used, which produce cheese with different textures and flavors. Very soft cheese such as cottage cheese tends to skip this step.
  • Once the curd mats are processed the cheese will be dry salted or brined.
  • Following the salting step, the curd pieces are placed into forms and pressed into blocks to form the cheese. Depending on the sophistication of the manufacturing operation this process may be either manual or automated. A wide range of containers are used to form the cheese such as wood, plastic, stainless steel, or other materials. The shape of the container will vary as well.
  • In large industrial cheese-making operations, the curd is formed into blocks using equipment called block towers. Round blocks are referred to as wheels, but shapes and sizes of the blocks can vary.
  • Once blocks are formed they are typically sent to a controlled environment area for a process called aging. During the aging process, the cheese develops the flavor and texture profiles. The length of the aging process depends on the type and style of the cheese.

When the aging process is complete the cheese is considered finished. It can be sold as a complete block or wheel, or it can be subjected to further processing – such as shredding, slicing, and blending. Keep following along with our industry segments to learn more about these processes, regulatory concerns, and hygienic standards of the cheese-making industry. Learn more about the line of Dorner conveyors that are designed to meet the strict requirements and sanitary standards of dairy and cheese applications.

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