Mankato Free Press Cover Story
We’ve been getting some attention lately, all of it welcomed. This article appeared in the Mankato Free Press today.
Getting it right when making fresh cheese is a combination of art and science.
Keith Adams works with precision inside a small production facility in Mankato’s Old Town as he tries to perfect the Camembert-style soft cheese he began making last spring under the Bent River brand name.
He heats the organic milk to precise temperatures to pasteurize it, allows it to sit for the specified time to separate the curds and whey and reach the proper pH levels, and he moves quickly at the right moment to remove the blend from a large vat, using stainless steel pails, to pour it into round molds and begin the aging process.
“It took me a while to get the recipe and formula correct. It’s part of the journey, I guess, but it was frustrating,” Adams said.
His new venture, Alemar Cheese, is meeting with success where it counts — the cheese buyers and upper-end restaurants who are adding his cheese to their menus.
As co-owner of the former Bagel Bros. bagel shops, Adams’ new business brings him back to two things he desires: Being his own boss and working with food.
Alemar is a blend of the names of his teen daughters, Alex and Mari, and the Bent River brand of his first cheese is in reference to the famed bend in the Minnesota River at Mankato.
Camembert cheese is one of the most famous of French soft cheeses. The thick, gooey cheese is popular on bread and paired with fruit. While it needs to be refrigerated to be stored, it tastes best served at room temperature.
Adams made a about a dozen batches of cheese before he felt he got it right and began shopping samples around. St. Peter Food Co-op is so far the only area outlet for the Bent River cheese. He’s also selling it at several co-ops and some restaurants in the Twin Cities area.
Mike Phillips, chef/owner of The Craftsman restaurant in Minneapolis, sampled Bent River and added it to his cheese menu, which rotates between 15 and 20 cheeses during the year.
“It’s really good, but it’s also getting better all the time,” Phillips said. “Like anything with food or cheeses, results aren’t real quick. It takes some time to perfect it.”
Phillips said that while he gets cheeses from the vaunted cheese-making state of Wisconsin, Minnesota cheese production is growing. “There’s quite a bit in Minnesota. We’re seeing a good increase of really good, quality cheese.”
Adams gets organic milk — 1,000 gallons per batch, which makes about 130 pounds of cheese — from Cedar Summit Farm in New Prague.
The process of making and aging the cheese is four to five weeks. The fresh cheese has a shelf-life of up to a month after that.
Soft, fresh cheeses have a higher moisture content, while moisture is forced out of hard cheeses, giving them a long shelf life.
After the Bagel Bros. bagel shops Adams helped run closed in 2005, he worked in sales at Coughlan Publishing for three years, something he described as a good job, “But as far as gratification, it left me lacking. I had this feeling to do something I felt a passion for.
“I really enjoyed the food side of the (bagel) business and being my own boss came naturally to me.”
A California native, Adams considered wine making, something some of his friends there do. “But the startup cost to make wine in Minnesota is huge. I thought cheese making is something similar.”
He studied cheese-making intently and attended the American Cheese Society conference where he met a California cheese-maker who agreed to mentor him.
He drew up his business plan and began raising seed money last fall. He found a small building on North Riverfront Drive, a former Domino’s Pizza store, that had the infrastructure for food production. After renovations, he began producing his first cheeses in April.
“I think I broke even last week for the first time.”
For now, he wants to concentrate on producing good product for his current customers, but plans to add a new cheese variety each of the next four or five years.
Adams expects his cheese will be available at a Mankato outlet in the near future.
He will sell the cheese via his Web site — www.alemarcheese.com — in the future. The cheese retails for about $21 per pound.
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