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Montana couple start solar-powered cheese factory

Published on March 4, 2012 3:01AM

Last changed on March 4, 2012 10:08AM


Missoulian via Associated Press

POLSON, Mont. (AP) -- Joe and Wendi Arnold watched it happen with beer, and thought, why not with cheese, too?

Why not make specialty cheeses locally, to be sold locally, much like small microbreweries have carved out a market for themselves in the land of Budweiser and Coors?

The Arnolds -- and this might be a good time to point out that Joe is from Wisconsin -- have been making cheeses for themselves and to give away to friends for years, two gallons of milk at a time.

Of course, going from two gallons to 300 gallons a whack would require a few minor adjustments.

So they built a three-level plant in their backyard in Polson to house the equipment they would need.

The aging room in the basement has a couple dozen cheese experiments going on as the Arnolds try out different types they may produce. The main level houses the shiny stainless steel equipment, much of it adapted by Joe to suit the Arnolds' needs.

In fact, about the only thing that doesn't work is one of the few things they bought brand-new for their cheese factory -- a chart-recorder to keep exact track of the pasteurization process.

Wendi says they expect to obtain their license to operate very soon. As soon as the chart-recorder is functioning properly, they can make cheeses to sell.

All will wear the Flathead Lake Cheese label.

It will, so far as the Arnolds know, be the first American cheese factory run on solar power.

"The only other solar application we've found so far is in Australia," Joe says, "and it's a large operation that wasn't relevant to what we're doing."

The facility also has a backup propane boiler, but the goal is to power everything by the sun as much as possible.

"We're trying to find and use existing technology in a different way," Wendi says. "Most everything we've used has been repurposed or recycled."

Case in point: In the future packaging room, there's an old hand-operated KutLett-brand industrial lettuce slicer Joe picked up somewhere. Set a head of lettuce on it, push down on the lever and the head is forced through blades, chopping the lettuce.

It can slice 50 heads of lettuce in 10 minutes.

"I looked at it and thought, 'If I add needles up here (on the surface that pushes the lettuce through the blades) and replace the blades with a plate that has holes for the needles ... "

Eventually, you'll learn that blue cheese needs small holes punched in it to allow air in, and mold to grow.

You can do this with one needle and make 15 or 20 holes by hand -- or, if you're Joe, you can see an industrial-strength lettuce slicer and envision a way to make all the holes for blue cheese in one motion.

Their Blu Malou may become their signature cheese.

They'll also make Goudas, curds and feta -- "Joe makes a wicked feta," Wendi says -- and they have other plans as well.

With the help of a local fisherman, they're experimenting with smoking some of the Goudas -- not with the liquid smokes most manufacturers use, but in a smoker.

They're teaming up with one of those microbreweries, Glacier Brewing of Polson, to make beer-flavored cheese Glacier will sell exclusively in its tasting room.

They hope to place their products in local grocery stores and sell to area restaurants. They're in discussions with a Missoula hospital and the University of Montana about supplying them cheese.

And they'll be at farmers markets from Whitefish to Missoula and, of course, in Polson.

Flathead Lake Cheese will buy its milk locally, and sell its cheese locally. The goal, Joe says, is to play a small part in breaking down what he calls the "centralized food empire" by getting consumers to purchase locally grown - and, in this case, made - food.

There are, the Arnolds say, only three other cheese-makers in Montana, in Bozeman, Belgrade and Victor.

The Arnolds understand the risks of their venture.

"You know the old saying," Joe says. "The best way to make a million dollars in Montana is to start with $2 million."

"But we like another saying better," Wendi says. "The best way to predict the future is to create it."

The Arnolds were living in the Phoenix area when they decided to start making cheese for themselves. Friends who tried it loved it, and wanted more.

At the time, she was a call center manager for Frederick's of Hollywood. Joe? Well, he built "goofy" stuff for a living, as he puts it.

He worked for firms that built temporary (not to mention fancy) bars that served corporate VIPs at three Super Bowls. And display cases for cosmetic conventions in Italy. "When GM would roll out a new Buick or Hummer, we'd build and light the rotating tables they displayed them on," he says.

The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks took a toll on their careers long before the recession did, Wendi says. Times became more stressful. Cheese-making was originally a way to relax.

Then, they decided to buy a home in Montana. Joe earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Montana, and spent 15 years in Missoula before going to Arizona. They spent two summers remodeling the new home before making the move.

The commercial cheese idea got rolling when Joe stumbled on a Groen-brand kettle -- he calls it a "cheese chalice" -- in Seattle destined to be beaten down and shipped to China for recycling.

He picked it up for the salvage price, adapted an empty beer keg and old Burks irrigation pump to heat and distribute water around the kettle, and suddenly, the Arnolds could make a lot more cheese at one time.

Not that they could sell - that requires an enclosed vessel -- but it's allowed them to try different things as they prepare to open.

Of course, they won't necessarily have everything on the market the next day. The Goudas and blue cheese must be aged anywhere from two to six months before they're ready.

"It's kind of like kids," Wendi says. "Making them is the fun part. Raising them, that's the work part."

But they will eventually have what they call "artisanal handcrafted cheeses from the wilds of northwest Montana."

Hey -- it worked for beer. Why not cheese, they say.


Information from: Missoulian, http://www.missoulian.com

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.


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