Wright, owner of Wright Dairy in Alexandria, and Hinkel, who used to run Abigail's Bakery in downtown Anniston, have been friends for several years, ever since Hinkel used to buy Wright Dairy butter to use in his gourmet breads.
Abigail's closed in 2006, but Hinkel was still doing some consulting with local restaurants. It was on one of those trips into town that he and Wright cooked up the cheese idea.
It takes bacteria to make cheese. "David had a bacteria background from making yogurt. I had a bacteria background from making bread," said Hinkel.
They started out messing around in the farmhouse kitchen at the dairy, making three-gallon batches of cheese, until they burned out a couple of elements on the stove.
So they fixed themselves up a cheese room in the processing part of the dairy, and went from three-gallon batches to 100-gallon batches.
Two years later, Yellow Moon Cheese from Wright Dairy — so-named because that's what a wheel of cheese looks like — is selling high-end, handmade cheeses in Birmingham, Atlanta and Chattanooga (and occasionally just up the road at Wright Dairy).
There has been an explosion in American artisan cheese in the last decade. There are now local cheesemakers in more than 40 states.
There are several in Alabama, including Mountain View Dairy in Piedmont, which makes goat cheeses.
Artisan cheeses — made by hand, using milk from local cows or goats, raised on local grass — are complex and intricate in flavor. They taste nothing like the plastic-wrapped blocks in the grocery store.
They cost a lot more — some of Yellow Moon's cheese sells for $20 a pound in Atlanta — but the price reflects months of labor, and uniqueness of flavor.
Hinkel and Wright now spend a couple of days a week making cheese — about 400 to 450 pounds a week. Wright also has a dairy to run. Hinkel is also consulting for a couple of restaurants and teaching culinary classes at Virginia College in Birmingham.
They outfitted their cheese room with a 100-gallon cheese vat — a retrofitted antique pasteurization tank from 1947, replumbed and motorized.
All cheese starts as milk. In this case, milk from the dairy's cows — all grass-fed, no artificial hormones. "You can tell they're grass-fed from the color of the cheese," said Hinkel. "It's yellower, because of the beta-carotene in grass." (Most commercial cheese comes from corn-fed, factory cows.)
The milk goes into the cheese vat and is heated to 92 degrees — "just about the temperature it comes out of the cows," said Wright — and then a bacterial culture is added. There are two or three different types of culture used, depending on the type of cheese.
Then the milk sits. And sits. And sits.
It sits until it reaches a certain level of acidity (pH). Then rennet, an enzyme, is added, and the milk is allowed to coagulate. This is when the solids — the curds — separate from the liquid — the whey. (So now you know what Little Miss Muffet was eating.)
Then the vat is stirred and heated again. "It's all about control of time, temperature and pH," said Wright. "It's a lot of science. You can't be a half-a-degree off. If you let it sit too long, it gets more acid. A little too much heat, or not enough…."
In fact, Yellow Moon's "Wanda" cheese, an asiago-style cheese, grew out of such a mistake. Wright and Hinkel left the cheese to cook while they went out for barbecue. They took longer than expected, and the cheese cooked too hot and too long. They processed it anyway, let it age for about three months, then tasted it. It was really good.
After the cheese is cooked and the curds have sunk to the bottom, the whey is drained off. The curds — which are very soft at this point, almost the consistency of butter — are cut into slabs and stacked, to squeeze out as much remaining whey as possible. This is called "cheddaring."
You can eat the curds at this point. They taste like a very mild, slightly sweet cheddar. They squeak when you chew them. The Wright Dairy store will occasionally have fresh cheese curds for sale. They make great mac-and-cheese or grilled cheese sandwiches.
For the next step, the curds are put into hoop molds and subjected to a hydraulic press, to squeeze out even more whey. The end result is a beautiful, pale wheel of cheese — about 24 pounds to a wheel.
From there, the wheels go to the cheese cave for aging and ripening. In this case, the cheese cave is an old semi-trailer, retrofitted to keep the cheese at 55 degrees, 75 percent humidity.
It's cool and, um, aromatic inside the cave, because of the mold that's working to flavor the cheese. But it's not smelly. More like a strong tang in the air.
The gouda, a softer cheese, is aged for at least three months. The cheddar is aged at least four months, and the asiago ages for six to nine months.
The oldest cheese in the cave is a parmesan, which has been aging since Sept. 23, 2008. "It has a lot of flavor, but it's still not ready," said Hinkel. Every now and they they'll cut into a wheel to taste it. It's looking like it might take two years for the parmesan to mature. It will likely be the one and only batch that Yellow Moon makes.
There's a new cheese currently aging, called "Piedmont." It's an Abondance-style, semi-hard cheese.
The tradition in Europe is to name cheeses after the places from which they come. Abondance, for instance, comes from the Abondance region of France. Cheddar was originally made in the Cheddar Caves of Somerset, England.
Yellow Moon continues that tradition here at home. Its cheddar is named Red Hill, after a hill at the dairy, composed of red Alexandria clay, where the cows like to graze.
The gouda is named Canebrake, which is name of the dairy farm.
And the asiago is named Wanda, after a fondly remembered cow, who was always brought in and milked for the school kids during tours of the dairy.
• Wright Dairy, 241 Cane Creek Farm Road in Alexandria, has been selling its own milk and ice cream for nearly 10 years. The store also sells local eggs and a variety of cheeses from Amish country. (Peppered varieties include "Lightning Jack" and "Desert Storm.") The store will occasionally have its Yellow Moon artisan cheeses for sale, as well as fresh cheese curds. 820-1020, www.wrightdairy.com.
• In addition, Yellow Moon artisan cheese is available at the following specialty shops:
• V. Richards, Birmingham
• Catherine's Market, Birmingham
• Organic Harvest, Birmingham
• Pepper Place Farmers' Market, Birmingham
• Western Supermarkets, Birmingham
• Star Provisions, Atlanta (which Corey Hinkel calls the "cheese mecca of the Southeast")
• Manna Grocery, Tuscaloosa
• Greenlife Grocery, Chattanooga
• Choose a variety of cheeses that offer contrasting tastes, textures and colors. "You want some soft things, some hard things, maybe a blue, maybe a stinky, and at least two milk types, between cow, goat and sheep," says Liz Thorpe, author of "The Cheese Chronicles."
• Limit the platter to a maximum of six cheeses (three or four is optimal). Any more than that, cheese gurus say, confuses the palate and makes matching a wine difficult.
• Try creating an entire cheese board using cheeses from a particular country. Or showcasing different styles of one type of cheese, for instance, creating a platter of blues like Gorgonzola Dolce, Shropshire Blue and Roquefort.
• Cheese can be expensive, but your platter doesn't have to break the bank. Thorpe recommends buying 1 ounce per person per cheese.
• Complement the cheese with two or three high-quality nibbles. Dried cherries brighten up those bloomy rinds. Sheep cheeses go nicely with dried figs. Try gently smoked salmon, sweet sopressata, pickled or grilled vegetables, olives, cornichons, apples and pears. Keep your bread or crackers simple.
• For wines, steer clear of the big reds, which can overwhelm the cheese. Reach instead for white wines that are dry, un-oaked and medium-bodied — sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, Spanish albarino, Austrian gruner veltliner or dry, bracing Australian riesling. Their higher acidity complements elements like salt and fat.