A Wonderful Experiment
Colby cheese was invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. It was named for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built the first cheese factory in Clark County three years before.
"At his father's cheese factory about one mile south and one mile west of here, Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885 developed a new and unique type of cheese. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before."
Ambrose and Susan Steinwand and their children moved to Colby in 1875. They bought a quarter-section of railroad land in Colby township and in 1882 built a cheese factory, a small wood building that produced 125 pounds of cheese a day. Their eldest son, Joseph, assisted his father in the factory from age 16, quickly learning the cheese making process.
Joe Steinwand was inquisitive, and when his father sent him to a cheese making course in Madison, he began to experiment in the Colby factory.
He made minor changes in the cheese process, but these were enough to create a cheese both milder and moister than cheddar. The new cheese was named "Colby" and became almost instantly popular.
What is Colby Cheese?
Colby is considered to be one of the first truly American cheeses, since it was developed by an American in the United States, and it was not intended to be an imitation of a European cheese.
Colby is NOT a young cheddar. Today's Colby is similar in flavor to cheddar but is softer, has a more open texture, and is higher in moisture. The curd is washed in cold spring water which prevents them from knitting together and gives it a more open elastic texture and a sweeter flavor than any cheddar.
Traditionally Colby was made in the "Longhorn" shape (a tall cylindrical shape) and pressed as 13 pound horns. These were then waxed for sale. Today's plants mostly make Colby in 40 pound blocks.
"Washed Curd" Cheese...
After cooking the curds, most of the whey is drained off (saving it for Ricotta, of course) and then replaced with fresh 60F water. Not only does that lower the temperature of the curds changing the moisture content of the final cheese (colder than 80F makes it moister, warmer makes it drier) but it also washes the milk sugar (lactose) from the curd and helps prevent the acidity in the curd from rising, so the cheese remains soft and springy, with a sweet and mild flavor. Colby has a higher moisture content than Cheddar and feels more elastic. It is also sweet, rather than savory and retains the true character of a quality milk.
This gentle, mild cheese does not age well and tends to become cracked and dry. It should be eaten as young as possible (4-6 weeks), making it an excellent choice of cheese for commercial production since dairies do not need to invest in a large aging area for finished cheeses.
How it has Changed
Traditionally the making procedure determined that Colby should have a curdy texture with natural openings in the body. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, the cheese had a mild dairy, milky note.
This was the way things remained until sometime after the mid 1970s, when the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture decided to amend the state standard of identity for Colby cheese, by adding the following sentence "Wisconsin certified premium grade AA Colby and Monterrey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body."
This change, especially the portion highlighted in red, has led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by "modern" dairy producers. Because mechanical openings are no longer required of Colby, many processors are making a cheese that is closer to a mild cheddar and labeling it as Colby.
In addition I think today's cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese.
Another significant change is the curd wash. Many large manufacturers today do a curd rinse with no hold after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60 whereas in the past Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press.
The most obvious reason this changed was that larger dairy plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.
As time passed the retailers pressed the makers to heat the milk higher and add twice the original rennet. They also had them cut the curds finer (producing a drier cheese). In all reducing the process to 2 hours. The final result has produced a cheese much closer to a young Cheddar than a true "Old Fashioned" Colby cheese.
The Essentials of Making Colby Cheese
- Allow natural or packaged cultures to acidify the milk at moderate temperature (86-90F)
- Add rennet to coagulate the milk
- Cut the curds to medium size (3/8-5/8")
- Cook the curds to 102F
- Drain whey to curd level
- Add cold water to increase curd moisture and to remove lactose resulting in a sweet curd.
- Drain curds and pack in forms
- Salt in Brine
- Age for 4-6 weeks