In the Fall of 2013, the Cellars at Jasper Hill built a state-of-the-art microbiology lab inside of their expansive cheese aging facility in Greensboro, Vermont. In June of 2014, Sayer Dion joined the Jasper Hill team as the first on-site microbiologist in the United States working on artisan and farmstead cheeses. I talked to Sayer about what projects she is working on in her new position as well as how her background as a home brewer and former employee of White Labs influences her approach to cheese microbiology.
What is your role at Jasper Hill as the microbiologist?
My role is hybrid and ever-evolving in nature. I aid with QC/QA and I help maintain a food safe product. But most importantly I am conducting research in order to educate and thereby elevate our cheese to the next level of deliciousness.
What types of projects are you currently working on?
One project I am working on is creating a detailed field guide of cheese-related microbes. The field guide will include cell-level photos, colony-level photos, photos of the microbe growing on the cheese, and data on preferred growth conditions (salt tolerance, pH tolerance, ideal moisture range, ideal growth temperature range, etc.). There is literature out there, but it is sparse and spread throughout hard to access journals. I think it will be very beneficial to the community to have all this important information in one place. I am also working on designing a process in which we can hydrate commercial cultures, thereby allowing us the opportunity to grow and reuse cultures without having to continue to purchase them. Once solidified, this procedure can then be applied to our own indigenous microbes – in house, unique cultures we have banked for future cheese making.
What is one of the greatest microbial challenges for artisan cheese producers?
Finding ways to diversify and heighten the product you are making. Commercial culture companies really limit producers to a small collection of cultures, thereby constraining your product and its potential for complexity. This is why I really enjoy the work I am doing here at the Cellars – I am designing custom indigenous cultures to heighten our cheese and make them stand apart.
How does your background in the brewing industry (White Labs, home brewer, etc.) affect how you approach the microbiology of cheese? What are some of the similarities between beer microbiology and cheese? Differences?
Initially, after accepting the position, I was feeling very confident about the switch from brewing to cheese making. I assumed there would be many similarities in the process and technique of cell culturing and propagating between both industries. However, I’ve been very surprised at the level of complexity involved in cheese making, specifically at a microbiological level. In brewing beer, the catalogue of inoculated microbes is much smaller. Occasionally, a wild yeast or lactic acid bacteria culture will be blended for a more unique palette, but typically the headliner is Saccharomyces cerevisiae. In cheese making, you have a community of microbes interacting with each other, from starter lactic acid bacteria to ripening cultures like smear surface bacteria or pigmented yeast and of course mold- which is avoided at all costs in brewing. So one of the most challenging hurdles I am currently trying to overcome, is learning the plethora of beneficial and non-beneficial microbes involved in this industry. I am learning what they can tolerate, what promotes their growth and what inhibits it and what are their sensory byproducts and attributions to the final product. Even more challenging is understanding the interactions and relationships they have with each other.
What is your favorite microbe?
It used to be Lactobacillus helveticus because I enjoy all things sour: my beer, sauerkraut, kombucha and bread. But now I am really enjoying working with the fungus Geotrichum candidum. I joke around and say “it’s my new best friend” because it’s been such a pleasure to work with. Geotrichum is so easy to culture and interesting in the way it can vary in morphology from strain to strain, from mold-like to yeast-like. And it tastes great on our bloomy rinds!