May 2, 2012

Cornell Develops Big Red Cheddar

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The same week that students debuted their Cornell signature beer, Ezra Red, Cornell Food Science researchers unveiled a tasty, Cornell-brand creation of their own — Big Red Cheddar.

Robert Ralyea M.S. ’98, a senior extension associate in the Department of Food Science, led a team of local cheese makers  to create a new white cheddar cheese, made with all-natural ingredients, milk from the Cornell dairy and a new aging process.

In order to create the cheese, the team studied various bacterial cultures and their aging processes.  After coming up with three different cheeses, 30 test tasters — local experts, connoisseurs and University researchers — sampled all three and voted on their favorite at a tasting on April 24 in Morrison Hall.

Cornell Big Red Cheddar will be sold at the Cornell Store and Cornell Dairy, and will be used in food prepared by Cornell Catering, Cornell Dining and the Statler Hotel, according to May Chinavanichkit grad, an intern in the department.

According to Jason Huck, plant manager for Cornell Dairy, the dairy will begin selling Cornell Big Red Cheddar when Cornell Dairy facilities reopen this December.

In September 2010, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences began construction on a $105 million building project to renovate the 86-year-old Stocking Hall. The endeavor will replace the college’s dairy processing plant with a new facility that provides improved research and production space, and refurbish the aging laboratories and classrooms of the historical building.

According to Ralyea, a growing market for Artisan cheeses in New York State encouraged the Food Science Extension to hold workshops for local cheese-makers in collaboration with the New York State Cheese Manufacturers Association. He said the idea for creating a cheese exclusive to Cornell was inspired by Dave Brown, a former senior extension associate in the Department of Food Sciences who died in 2008 and, who according to Ralyea had always “dreamed of doing something like this.”

Ralyea said he decided in November that it was about time Cornell invented its own cheese.

“One night, I thought, who better to make a hand-crafted cheese for Cornell than the food science department at Cornell?” Ralyea said.

The team began the process of creating the cheese last fall.

“Our target aging period is six months, so we had to wait it out, all the while flipping cheese every four days for even aging,” Ralyea said.  “We looked at various bacterial cultures and their nuances: benefits, drawbacks, culture characteristics and how they react over time during aging.”

As to what is special about the new aging process, Ralyea called it “the ‘top secret’ secret behind Big Red Cheddar.”

In addition to creating the cheese itself, the team behind Big Red Cheddar has also begun creating business model for distributing the cheese. Chinavanichkit was responsible for developing the project’s business plan.

“The two main questions I have to answer as I compile this business plan is ‘how much does it cost?’ and ‘how much do we need to produce?’” Chinavanichkit said in an email. “I met with potential customers [and] distributing partners to get an estimate of their mild cheddar cheese usage. We also had to find out what price points they are looking at so we can match [them].”

Chinavanichkit, who had no prior experience in designing a business model, became involved after she showed interest in the project while working on an independent study with Ralyea.

“The project is challenging because there is no set guidelines for what I have to do … I think that this experience is very reflective of what many start-up business owners have to go through,”  Chinavanichkit said.

One challenge specific to the business of cheese-making is timing orders correctly, she said, which the Cornell team tackled by preparing enough cheese to sell for the first few months well in advance.

“In order to make sure we have enough cheese to meet demands, we have made sure that we produce enough cheese six months in advance,” Chinavanichkit said.

She said she anticipates the team will sell about 4,200 pounds of the cheese in the first year alone, according to a University press release.

“It has … been really rewarding to be a part of a project from the start and see it grow,” Chinavanichkit said in a press release. “[Cornell Big Red Cheddar] will launch in Nov. 2012 and I can’t wait to see it on the shelves.”

Original Author: Carolyn Krupski