Direct to the Vat Cheese Cultures, Part 1

Volume 132, No. 42 - Friday, April 18, 2008

While direct to the vat cheese cultures have played various roles in cheese making over the past 30 years, one has got to give a lot of credit to Chr. Hansen’s for the aggressive approach to the newest developments and marketing trends over the past several years.

Why this opinion? Chr. Hansen’s approach was to offer direct-to-the-vat cheese cultures and essentially discontinue the support for bulk culture systems. In my opinion, a very bold move, but a committed direction in a market they believed in, a market they desired to be the leader.

The position Chr. Hansen took was not met with very much favor to the cheese industry, especially those cheese manufacturers making American cheese varieties. The position allowed many of Chr. Hansen’s competitors to extend their market share in bulk starter systems. However, persistence and patience seem to be paying dividends.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Dean Sommer to gain his perspective on the newest state-of-the-art in cheese culture technology. Dean is currently a cheese and food technologist with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, Madison, WI. In addition, he has led several cheese research and application-focused projects through Dairy Management Inc.

However, what intrigued me the most was his work directed to cheese culture technology. Dean worked at Alto Dairy Cooperative and was instrumental in working with the early development of the current
direct-to-the-vat culture technology.

Dean opened our discussion by stating “a cheese factory’s core purpose is to make cheese, not to grow starter culture”. This statement is essentially unanimous among other cheese plant managers I have spoken with.

Pertaining to the expertise necessary to have a skilled employee in managing a bulk starter program, others I have visited with add, “it is one less person that has to be trained”, “a position that is hard to cross train for illness and vacation replacement”, “one less room to clean”, “another inventory that does not have to be managed on a daily basis”, “less equipment to maintain, manage and keep in repair”.

However, these all being very good justifications to use direct-to-the-vat culture, there are many other managers that have a much different opinion.

Continuing with our discussion, Dean added, “Historically, the industry grew its own starter because there weren’t any cost-effective alternatives”. Dean is certainly one of the individuals that feel that the cost of the new direct-to-the-vat cultures is a cost-effective alternative to current bulk starter systems.

Certainly, over the past 18-24 months, the surge in price for NFDM, whey and lactose markets has narrowed the margin of difference in bulk starter cost versus direct-to-the-vat cultures. Personally, I have reviewed the price of the two alternatives and still can’t see the economic advantage of direct-to-the-vat cultures.

However, other tangibles can be measured and will be discussed. I agree the new direct-to-the-vat technology has narrowed the gap by 3-4 times over older direct-to-the-vat technology alternatives. Many of the other cheese plant managers I have surveyed for this article agree with Dean relative to being more “cost-effective”.

Yet, many still can’t justify the expense. To best answer the starter cost controversy you can review one of my previous articles where I stated “if starter works, it cost nothing”.

Sommer made a statement that perhaps identifies what is typical as well as alarming to a lot of the cheese market and is becoming a large concern to the industry in general: a lack of qualified personnel.

“If you look at the industry, particularly in some of the new plant start-up areas, you lack a lot of experienced people”. Sommers continued, “It takes experienced people to grow bulk cultures and do it well. Some of these plants have people making bulk that have less than one year’s experience.”

Most of the plant managers I have spoken with agree with Deans’ assessment of industry experience in general. “If you don’t have a lot of experience on staff”, Sommer said “the direct-to-the-vat cultures can neutralize the lack of experience to a large degree”.

Others agree with Sommer, comments from recent start-up managers “training is hard enough to convert milk to cheese, complicate that with teaching about bacteriophage, sanitation, equipment operation, calibration and there is no doubt that direct-to-the-vat cultures streamline the educational curve”. “Open a bag, pour it in, what easier training is needed”? These were a few of the comments I learned from other managers who have selected direct-to-the-vat cultures for use in their operations.

While we had the opportunity to discuss some of the costs or comparable economics regarding the current direct-to-the-vat cultures, considerable time addressed the quality and performance of the program especially as relates to the manufacture of American cheese varieties.

During the past 20 years or so we have observed that in general the flavor intensity of cheese has decreased. The flavor profile to less sharp flavor took time to develop acceptance but eventually the preference for less flavor intensity has been accepted.

Sommer said, “all those different strains in the cheese, some undefined, helped to get more intense flavors”. Dean continued, “with respect to starter cultures there is no doubt in the old system there were more strains in there,” but hesitated to use better flavor because there were better flavors in some cheese, but worse flavors also existed.

However, in general, the flavors were typically more intense. Why? Reasons can be explained or debated because of faster make times, “cleaner” milk supply, culture selection, less aging for quicker inventory turns are but a few of the reasons for the trend for less sharp cheese flavor. Flavor intensity, for a large part, is sacrificed due to basic economics.

When flavor intensity increase is necessary, development and isolation of specific flavor bacteria and/or enzymes are introduced into the process as adjuncts to compensate for the above mentioned flavor reductions. The consuming public, to a large degree, over time has come to accept the existing flavor profiles in the United States cheese market. Good or bad, this is a fact.

Much the same can be said for the new direct-to-the-vat cheese cultures. Sommer said, “the traditional bulk starter had so many more cells and enzymes which intensified the flavor of the cheese which cannot be duplicated with some of the new ways of growing starter” and adds, “I’m a firm believer that if you really wanted to make the best flavored cheese today, very few people would do it because of consumer demands”.

“You cannot negate the principles of biology and chemistry when you make cheese,” Sommer said. “We’re trying to make a flavorful cheese in 2½ hours rather than the traditional 3 to 5 hours. It just doesn’t work.”

Most other managers agree with this statement. But realize the market demand trends for milder cheese and that is what they will provide. This weighs a heavy advantage for the acceptance for the new direct-to-the-vat cheese cultures.
Rapid acid production, less cell density, less residual enzymes will provide a milder, less intense sharp cheese 

Mike Comotto will be writing several articles on culture technology for Cheese Reporter. In addition to his many years of dairy ingredient representation, he has served as cheese judge and grader for a number of international, national and regional cheese contests. You can get in touch with Mike by e-mailing:

The views expressed by Mr. Comotto and other columnists that appear in Cheese Reporter do not necessarily reflect those of the editor and Cheese Reporter Publishing Co. Inc.

Mike Comotto's Past Columns

Starter Culture Development
Mother Cultures
Initial Thoughts


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