The Cheese Doctor is In

Benjamin Wolfe's obsession with mold is going to change cheese making forever. And it's going to be delicious.

(Image credit: Flickr user DJ Mitchell)

In the underground vaults of the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a cheese-aging facility that's part of a farm and creamery in Greensboro, Vermont, the cheese sits on wood or stainless steel racks. Shelved on rows upon rows of wooden towers, bark-encrusted wheels ripen patiently, waiting for their heady aromas and tongue-dazzling flavors to bloom. Just a whiff of the place is enough to make any cheese aficionado's mouth water. But for a fan of microbes, this basement borders on paradise.

"It's so beautiful when you walk in and see mold everywhere," says Benjamin Wolfe, a Harvard University microbiologist who specializes in the study of rotten meats, ripe cheeses, and deadly mushrooms. "Their Cabot cheddar has the most gorgeous Technicolor mold I've ever seen."

Wolfe is easily smitten. "I have a crush on this one fungus," he says. "It makes cheese look like coral!" And although the science might not sound sexy, Wolfe's findings have turned him into a culinary rock star. Cheese makers court him, sending him unsolicited samples for analysis. Chefs beg him to spend time in their kitchens. His enthusiasm for and expertise in microbes that give cheese its flavor make him a guru to any artisan looking for a competitive edge. For his part, Wolfe -who's married to a chef- wants cheese makers to think of microbes as ingredients. "Different strains are like spices," he says. If cheese makers could get a better grip on the science, they could use the microbes as precise instruments, opening up their wares to new palates of flavors. But just adjusting the taste isn't enough for Wolfe; he wants a distinct terroir -fully developed aromas and notes combined with unforgettable textures. Other scientists can worry about building a better mousetrap; Wolfe wants to make a better cheese.

Lupo Lab's "In-vitro cheese." (Image credit: Benjamin Wolfe)

Microbes have a bad reputation. Bacteria, fungi, viruses, and the whole set of microorganisms crudely wedged into this category aren't that cuddly to begin with. But since disease-causing critters like listeria and staph get the most airtime, society has developed a healthy fear of them. The tiny organisms aren't all that bad, though. Microbes surround us. There are thousands of them living in our stomachs, keeping our guts in check. They live as algae in our water and work as fertilizer in our soil. But they're also what make beer, breads, and pickles so delicious. In cheese, microbes are responsible for breaking down proteins and fats and for modifying the sugars to create the savory, satisfying flavors we love in ultra-ripe Bries and runny Camemberts. In fact, cheese is basically a mix of bacteria and fungi and their by-products, all grown in a soupy culture of milk. When you're smelling the pungent aroma of a cheese and delighting in the creamy sharp taste, it's the microbes working on your senses.

Wolfe is on a mission to change the public perception of bacteria and fungi. Along with fellow Harvard researchers Rachel Dutton and Julie Button, the 32-year-old is in the middle of a five-year quest to decipher how gourmet microbes work. The team has spent the last three years peering through microscopes, perched over cheese scrapings in Petri dishes, in an attempt to better understand the dairy product. But there's another reason they've trained their focus on cheese.

(Image credit: Flickr user DJ Mitchell)

The truth is microbial communities are notoriously complex- often, thousands of microbes are reacting to one another in a tiny space. And in all that microscopic chaos, it's hard to decode their individual behaviors. To study microbes, most scientists have to isolate an organism, grow a culture of it, and painstakingly test how it reacts to specific conditions. It's laborious work, and it's difficult to determine, for instance, which of a thousand different microbes have united to spur an inactive virus into reproducing. It could be a single microbe, but, more likely, it's a chain of hundreds of reactions. In cheeses, the impact of a single bacterium is much clearer. As Dutton told The Boston Globe, "When we isolate these organisms in the lab, they actually smell like cheese. A lot of times we'll smell them and say, 'OK, that's [Jasper Hill's] Winnimere!'"

In studying a cheese sample, the team can pick out the dozens of microbial species at work and even trace where the bacteria come from. The origins can be fascinating -some of the bacteria found were previously thought to only exist in the Arctic.

To date, the team has analyzed the rinds of more than 160 artisanal cheeses. Over the next two years, the lab will work to understand exactly how microbes affect the flavor of each cheese -which ones make it nutty or sharp or sweet; which ones add floral, zesty, or musty fruit overtones. The end goal is to catalog the findings in a definitive survey the researchers playfully refer to as "Cheese Awesometown."

Outside the lab, Wolfe pays regular visits to the Jasper Hill Cellars to collect scrapings of rind samples, and he's working closely with head cheese maker Mateo Kehler to fine-tune Jasper Hill's cheese flavors.

(Image credit: Flickr user DJ Mitchell)

"When I describe being a cheese maker, I often say it's like being a god -except you're blind and dumb," Kehler says. "You're creating conditions for billions of microbes to thrive, but you can't see them." Having someone like Wolfe around to peel back the veil of what cheese makers do every day and expose the science behind the art is game-changing. "We've been able to develop a confidence in the microbial integrity of our whole cheese-making process because we see it from a molecular level," Kehler says.

Indeed, under Wolfe's guidance, the Jasper Hill cheese makers have already revised some of their practices. Last year, they stopped adding certain starter yeasts to their milk due to the presence of a particularly delicious bug already in their cheese-making environment. And they've isolated a unique strain of the fungus Geotrichum that will give Jasper Hill cheeses a completely different mouthfeel.

A colony of Geotrichum candidum. (Image credit: Flickr user Yale Rosen)

Other dairies have been quick to follow suit. "Everyone is desperate for more information and really enthusiastic to have whatever tools they can to get their cheeses more in control," says Bronwyn Percival, who manages buying and quality assurance for Neal's yard Dairy in London, a high-end cheese company. Percival first met Wolfe and Dutton at the Slow Food Cheese festival in Bra, Italy, and has since invited them to lead one of her London Gastronomy Seminars this spring.   

"Ben pointing at a rind and being able to say 'That's this kind of mold, and this is how it behaves, and here's how you can encourage it or inhibit it' really helps take our cheese to the next level," Percival says. Microbiology, in short, helps the cheese-making gods practice something akin to intelligent design. Of course, not everyone believes in this sort of meddling.

(Image credit: Flickr user Frédérique Voisin-Demery)

As purists will tell you, cheese making was a craft long before microbiology was a field of study. Recent research suggest the art is at least 7,000 years old. The last major innovation came in the mid-1800s, when Louis Pasteur discovered that microbes were responsible for fermentation, leading to a more industrialized processing. And some feel that was more than enough innovation for the art.

There are certainly those who don't want scientists "probing around in their cheese with fancy DNA-sequencing techniques," Wolfe explains. "They want to keep it mysterious and magical because they've been making amazing cheeses for a long time, and they don't see the need to know what microbes are growing." But there is also a surprising number of cheese makers who have been trained as scientists or engineers, Wolfe says. And now that molecular gastronomy and the science of cooking have invaded the culinary scene, chefs seem reluctant to turn back.

(Image credit: Flickr user ulterior epicure)

David Chang, the fermentation-obsessed wizard behind New York's Momofuku restaurants, has commissioned Wolfe and his team's help in his kitchen laboratory, and he's been known to rave about his favorite microbes. "Sometimes it tastes like cherry, sometimes it's roses, and sometimes it's strawberry. It's a really unbelievable thing!" He gushed about Aspergillus oryzae at a 2012 guest lecture at Harvard. The fact that chefs in cutting-edge kitchens can precisely strike the flavors they want on a microscopic level or use souped-up bacteria to ferment foods faster bodes well for the discipline.

As for Wolfe, it isn't just the professionals he wants to connect with. As more and more people from Brooklyn to Berkeley obsess over their D.I.Y. pickles and cheeses, Wolfe is concerned there's a dearth of resources for amateurs. To that end, he is mulling writing a book to change society's impression of molds, along with a layman's guide to friendly microbes.

"I want people to see them in a different light," Wolfe says. "Mold is in the eye of the beholder."


The article above, written by Jamie Feldmar, is reprinted with permission from the May 2013 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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