September 7th, 2006
Name: Faribault Dairy
Owners: Jeff Jirik, Randy Ochs, Mike Gilbertson- these are the three employee shareholders and there are also two non-employee shareholders
Location: Faribault, MN
Animals: The creamery gets their milk via a milk coop who collect milk from numerous dairies.
Cheeses/Products: Amablu, Amablu St. Pete’s Select, Amablu Gorgonzola
More info: www.faribaultdairy.com
When Jeff Jirik says that the Faribault Dairy is a national treasure I wholeheartedly agree. Although the space was first used to produce beer, as a result of its natural characteristics it is ideal for maturing cheese. Faribault Dairy is located in the small town of Faribault, MN. The buildings that are visible from the outside run along a small river and the majority of the facility is built into a tall sandstone bluff. It is not your run-of-the-mill sandstone, rather, it is St. Peter Sandstone. St. Peter’s Sandstone is beach sand deposit from the glaciers of the last glacial age. This sandstone allows water to migrate through it both horizontally and vertically and has a natural capacity for absorbing ammonia just to name a couple of the traits that make it valuable for cheese maturation.
In the late 1930’s Felix Fredrikson, a food scientist for KRAFT, stumbled upon the facility which had been used as a brewery since 1854 and he immediately understood the value of that particular real estate for food production. Blue cheese and this facility have a long history that began with Felix in the late 1930’s (it was the first blue cheese plant in the U.S.) and carried right on through into the early 90’s when the plant was closed down by the conglomerate that took ownership of it in the 80’s. The cave capacity have been expanded over time. The majority of the caves (14-ft wide and 22-ft tall) were dug with basic tools like 4 inch wide chisels. The total cave capacity at the time the facility was closed in the early 90’s was 29,000 square feet. During the time it was open, the creamery produced one of, if not the most appreciated blue cheeses made in the US. The creamery collected milk from approximately 70 local family farms and employed many residents in the community.
One of the employees was Jeff Jirik. He got a job at the creamery after graduating from college. He started out in the group that scraped mold off the outside of the wheels of cheese to make them look more appealing before being sold. Managers quickly realized that Jeff had skills that were useful to them- like knowing how to use a microscope and speaking German with equipment vendors. He advanced steadily in the company, working in many different areas to gain a full understanding of how the business and processes worked. When the plant closed in 1993 he was disappointed- seeing it as a huge loss to the industry and his local community. During the next seven years, Jeff couldn’t get those caves out of his mind. The caves and the attached facility passed through a number of hands after cheesemaking ended and Jeff kept track of the use of the land during those years. When Jeff decided that he wanted to get a blue cheese plant up and running again he decided to call the the property’s owner- a long shot- to see if he was interested in selling.
Call it fate or a big coincidence, that owner was looking to sell. Jeff contacted two of his former colleagues from Faribault and then signed on the property only to begin the mammoth task of cleaning the facility. They did this work in addition to holding other jobs. What made the re-establishment of this facility so intense was the sheer volume of space involved. Once they had finished hauling out mud and junk they sanded and cleaned all of the caves and other facility surfaces. The former cheese plant colleagues were clear that they needed to start in this facility with an absolutely clean slate. Every surface was carefully sanitized before being whitewashed (caves) or covered with USDA approved coatings (work areas).
In early January of 2001 they made a small vat of cheese at the University of Minnesota for a market test. The response was positive and exactly one year later they made their first vat in the old plant. Although it was not possible to contract for milk with the family farms that had supplied the creamery in former years, Jeff secured a sound relationship with a milk coop. This relationship gives Faribault the opportunity to expand their operation and also to specialize batches… for example one of their current projects is to develop a line of organic blue cheeses with local organic milk. Faribault continued with many of the practices that made the former plant so successful- a prime example of this is their testing program. They have an in house lab where they examine moisture and salt contents but they also test every load of milk not only for antibiotics but also for any potentially harmful pathogens. They feel that as producers of raw milk cheese, this is their responsibility to ensure a safe product for their consumers.
I have immense respect for the commitment of Jeff and his colleagues. When you talk to them about their own paths through the cheese industry they all give tremendous credit to the individuals who taught them. There is immense respect for those that came before them and many of those former employees stop by to visit because they are so happy to see the plant running again.
With three large vats designed to crank out over a hundred wheels each day, Faribault intends to put its blue back at the top of the American Blue Cheese list. They began with Amablu- their classic blue- and from that they developed a blue for the more adventurous palette- St. Pete’s Select. The most recent addition to their product line is their Amablu Gorgonzola. These are cheeses you can look for in your local stores- possibly even some supermarkets. Faribault’s access to large quantities of milk and expanding space for aging cheese benefits all of us cheese enthusiasts because it means that their cheeses will be more widely available across the country.