How UConn’s creamery turned to cheese during the pandemic

Photo of Jordan Fenster

At the height of the pandemic, the UConn Dairy Bar couldn’t stay open to walk-ins. Students, essential for the ice cream operations, were sent home.

“They rely heavily on student labor,” said Dennis D’Amico, associate professor in UConn’s Department of Animal Science. “With social distancing, and not being able to scoop, because they didn't have employees, I think they just decided that it was best to shut the Dairy Bar down.”

The Dairy Bar has been a fixture on UConn’s Storrs campus since 1953, and the creamery that supplies it with ice cream since the early 1900s.

“Normally, in the summer, the line for the Dairy Bar goes around the building,” D’Amico said. “Actually, it’s funny, they're open now. There's a queue, and it looks like Disney World now. There's a sign, it says you are this many hours away from getting your ice cream, like they've actually timed it out now.”

There was an opportunity to order ahead, but the iconic ice cream couldn’t be sold in its usual volume. D’Amico saw an opportunity when operations were altered. There was milk, there was time and there was his own experience and education.

D’Amico is a microbiologist. His master's and Ph.D research was on cheese microbiology. He later helped found the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

So D’Amico did what he knew. He made cheese.

Ice cream by the thousands of gallons

The UConn creamery has made cheese in the past. When it was founded in the 1950s, it supplied cottage cheese and milk to local prisons and schools. But, over time, the experience dried up and the creamery was shut down in the 1990s.

“There was a big public outcry because it did become a symbol of the university,” D’Amico said. “Students that went through remember drinking UConn milk and eating UConn cheese.”

When the creamery and Dairy Bar reopened, the footprint was far smaller than it had been and all the cheesemaking equipment was sold.

Since then, a few creamery managers have been in charge. One, D’Amico said, “started making cheese on a very small scale.”

“He bought a 1,000-pound cheese vat, which is very small, that produced about 100 pounds of cheese at a time,” he said.

But when another manager took over a few years later, ice cream took center stage. The recipe was tweaked and improved, and sales continued to grow. The Dairy Bar had sold about 13,000 gallons a year. D’Amico said it now sells close to 60,000 gallons of ice cream every year.

But D’Amico is a cheesemaker, a specialist in how cultures of bacteria create enzymes that transform fresh milk into brie or cheddar or Roquefort.

“When I came in, I said, ‘Let's make cheese,’ and they said, ‘Sure, we'll sneak it in when we can and there’s some downtime,” D’Amico said. “But the demand for ice cream since I got here has been on this crazy trajectory and we got to the point where the downtime was almost non-existent.”

Pandemic cheese

There was ice cream in the freezer and milk being produced by the herd that lives behind D’Amico’s office. And the pandemic offered time in the creamery to make cheese.

There wasn’t, however, the space for aging lots of cheese.

“We have coolers which are set at refrigeration temperature, so 4 degrees Celsius, to store all our cold ingredients. And then we have freezers at minus-20,” D’Amico said. “Those aren't conducive to making 16-year-old cheddars.”

But the temperature inside the creamery was perfect for a process called “forced curing.”

D’Amico explained that temperature is of primary factor when making cheese. If, for example, you have a block of cheddar, “you'd hold that at like 50 Fahrenheit, and in like six months to a year, you'd have like a sharp to extra sharp cheddar.”

Drop the temperature to 40 degrees and the process might take an extra year.

“We just don't have that kind of time to produce product and wait on product,” D’Amico said. “The coolers aren't made for holding cheese, they’re stock full of all of our ice cream stuff.”

When fall came, D’Amico said the temperature in the creamery hit 60 degrees, “And I said, ‘Well, wait a second, we can come up with a plan to use what we have. Let me take what I have and come up with a cheese that I can make with these constraints, and still have it taste awesome to my standards, which, unfortunately, are very high.’”

The cheese doesn’t stand alone

Within his limits of space, staff and time, D’Amico started designing cheeses. One great benefit was the quality of the milk.

“We have a top quality herd in the country,” he said. “So, I knew the milk would be coming in very, very, very high quality, which means a lot of those things you don't want in the milk won't necessarily be there.”

Curing cheese, D’Amico explained, is a delicate process. Let the wrong bacteria grow and whole batches might be lost, of particular danger when you are force-curing a cheese, intentionally keeping it at too high a temperature.

Those bacteria can cause defects like bitterness, or a sour flavor. But with a high quality fresh milk, those bad bacteria can be kept in check despite the higher temperature.

Space, though was still a problem, but one D’Amico solved with some creative culturing. He set up the cheese to develop into two separate styles from a single batch.

“I picked a specific mix of cultures that would produce a very buttery, jack-style cheese if aged for a specific amount of time under the forced cure conditions, and then put in the coolers for a certain amount of time,” he said. “Then if we held it longer in the forced cure, these other cultures would kick in and produce a whole new set of flavors.”

The result is two distinct cheeses. First, a jack-style cheese, then later, something like a gouda (which, by the way, D’Amico said is pronounced “gowda,” not “gooda,” like most Americans tend to say).

It’s not precisely a gouda. D’Amico said “It is actually a new style of cheese I developed that doesn’t really fall into any current category. This was my goal — to make an American original.”

Both cheeses come from a single batch.

“Basically, they both come out of the cooler as two separate cheeses,” D’Amico said. “You'd have one that's really buttery and fresh, like you would expect from a Monterey jack. And then you'd have this one that's totally different, and this one takes on like a really strong nutty flavor.”

Fewer flavors

Now, of course, the dairy bar is back up and running. Ice cream is flowing again. But D’Amico is intent on producing cheese, regardless of the pandemic.

“We've made a commitment to set aside time to make sure that this production cycle of cheese is continuous,” he said. “And if it means we run out of some flavors of ice creams, we've decided that it's part of our mission to offer as many products as possible.”

But he also felt the cheese needed some branding that hearkened back to the founding of the university as an agricultural college.

“We have this wonderful campus with a lot of history. The farm’s right here. They've been here the entire time. There’s just this great story,” D’Amico said. “When you just have this kind of boring label that just says, ‘UConn this cheese,’ it doesn't capture any of that.”

The jack-style cheese is called “Storrs Original Farmstead Jack,” named after the founders of the college and the town it calls home.

“We're a farmstead cheese operation, which is a really big deal in the artisan cheese world,” he said.

D’Amico has made some of the aged, nuttier cheese, but since ice cream is taking center stage again there’s no room for the aging (though they have since acquired coolers intended specifically for the curing of these new cheeses.

D’Amico is calling his American orginal aged cheese “1881 Reserve.”

He’s also making and selling a fresh cheese, similar to a queso blanco, that he’s calling “Old Farm Lane Fresh Cheese because the original road that runs through our farm is called Old Farm Lane.”

They’ve developed a few flavors of the fresh cheese, including bacon, olive, roasted bell pepper and cracked black pepper.

The cheese went on sale at the Dairy Bar in March and, perhaps not surprisingly, they can’t keep it on the shelves.

“We've always had a spot for cheese, we just never had cheese in that spot. And so now our goal is to keep it there,” D’Amico said. “We only release certain amounts. We give them a certain amount every week. It's been selling out, which is good.”