Last week we told you about the second half of our day in the Constitution State, drinking sour beers at Two Roads Brewery. Today, we have the daunting task of sharing with you the incredible wealth of knowledge that is Brian Civitello.
We started our day with Brian, on the beautiful rolling hills of Lebanon, Connecticut. Tucked deep in some dense woods, the landscape opens up suddenly to reveal the vast expanse of fall foliage and pastureland of Graywall Farm. Herds of cows were lapping up a drink at a small brook and it was peaceful and quiet—the only sounds we heard were cows grunting lazily, a flock of birds singing on the roof of the barn, and breezes rustling the orange treetops.
This utopia is where Brian keeps the two shipping containers that house the Mystic Cheese Co.
These “cheese pods” are what inspired us to drive to CT, and they are what has set Brian apart from pretty much any other cheesemaker in the U.S. right now. Having worked for large-scale cheese producers in Europe and both coasts of this country (he ran the Calabro mozzarella cheese program and made gorgonzola in Italy), Brian has plenty of experience and spent the past few years consulting to other cheesemakers. During this time, he saw a need for a modular portable cheesemaking operation, for people without farms who still wanted to make cheese.
He told us all of this as we stood outside the two pods, raised up on a cement base right next to Gray Wall’s milking parlor and across from an open enclosure full of the biggest cows we’d ever seen. Brian informed us that these Holsteins were originally bred tall so that the farmers could fit a bucket and a stool underneath them for milking, but because they’re more often milked by machines now, breeders are starting to bring their height back down.
This is the type of fascinating technical knowledge we were getting non-stop from Brian, who is like a more laid-back version of Bill Nye. “People complain sometimes, they say ‘you sound too technical,’ but we’re just very consistent. That’s my variable,” Brian remarked, gesturing out towards the cows, “what happens out there on the farm.” This claim is validated by the fresh, unadulterated nature of Brian’s cheeses, prepared with such precision that changes in the milk flavor result in changes in the cheese. Brian can tell when the cows have had a change in their feed that day, or if the pod receives milk from cows in a different period of the 4-stage lactation cycle (Mystic uses milk from cows in the protein & fat-rich second and third stages). Since 85% of the cows’ feed is produced on site at the farm, one could expect tiny shifts in the cheese’s flavor profile to occur seasonally.
The fresh milk enters the pods through a direct pipeline from the milking parlor, first thing in the morning. Over the course of a typical 10-12 hour work day, Brian will use 1000 pounds of milk (Grey Barn itself produces 25,000 pounds per day). Working 4-5 days a week, this amounts to about 1200-1400 pieces of Mystic Cheese produced weekly. That’s a lot of cheese to store in just two little pods!
“I researched what cultures I could use that would continue to evolve and improve away from the pods,” Brian said when we asked about storing all those cheeses. It turns out yogurt and butter cultures keep better, which explains why his fresh Melville cheese has a buttered popcorn flavor and the familiar tang of yogurt. Brian also cultivated the yeast for Melinda Mae himself, after harvesting it from the local environment. When we walked into the pod’s ripening room where 500 pieces of Melinda Mae were resting, the air smelled sweet, fruity & yeasty.
On the opposite end of the pod from the ripening room, all of the cheesemaking goes down in a room no bigger than an average bedroom. The largest contraption in there stirs curds, using a paddle that Brian designed himself to be more effective than the usual model, based on things he saw in Europe. Ordinarily, a single paddle rotates to stir, whereas Brian’s features four paddles that move in a figure eight. It can go faster without damaging the cheese, and won’t fling any material up on the walls to get stuck out of the rotation.
The pristine white room smells a little bit like a pool, and has a similar humidity in the air. An air purifying tube runs along the ceiling, based on French technology and built by Brian for a fraction of the cost. The floors are pitched 1° toward the custom-made Mystic drain covers, in case of spills. A dial on the wall in between the cheesemaking and cheese-ripening rooms controls humidity and temperature in them both, so that all Brian has to do is flip a switch for one room to go into fermentation mode (a stable 72° for three hours to activate cultures).
It’s easy to forget what’s outside when you’re in this insular space—with four inch thick walls, eight inches of foam insulation under the stainless steel floors, and the technology to capture heat energy from outside & convert it to washing water, you can really tune out the world in there. “We always joke there’s gonna be a zombie apocalypse,” Brian said, “and we’ll just be making cheese.”
These high-tech structures were built out in Missouri before being lifted by crane, full of their equipment, into the spots at Graywall Farm. Graywall was actually the last place on Brian’s list for a spot to house his operation, but as he got to know the farm’s history, he knew it was a good fit.
Graywall is owned by the Chesmers, a first-generation English family who ran a gift shop down the road, but had always dreamed of running a dairy farm. When the dairy crash hit, cutting Connecticut’s dairy farms from 50 to about 12 over the course of the last century, the Chesmers were able to afford the Graywall property and scooped it up. They built it out with immaculate design & matching Essex green buildings (apparently a very British thing to do, mimicking the look of farm property in the motherland). They also started the Farmer’s Cow, a co-op of CT farms that produces milk, cream, and ice cream, and starting hosting regular big farm dinners on the property.
According to Brian, they are excellent marketers and business people, who he couldn’t be happier to work with. The family and Brian have talked about building a cheese factory, and the Chesmer’s architect son has a vision for five or six more buildings to match the ones already in place. The Farmer’s Cow wants to make a cheddar, while Brian has hopes of making a rich, spoonable gorgonzola dulce soon. The relationship between Graywall and Mystic goes both ways—the Chesmers were stoked to get Brian onto the property as soon as possible, and even split the site cost with Mystic. They were happy to be part of this unique enterprise, and their farm gets exposure from the attention paid to Brian’s one-of-a-kind operation. And to really sweeten the deal, any whey leftover from cheesemaking goes into Graywall’s manure, which speeds up fermentation and gets waste off the property faster! Everybody wins!
Brian also brings a lifetime of farm knowledge to his work on the Graywall property. He grew up on a dairy farm in Salem, CT until the dairy crash, with an Italian family who got him acquainted with Italian table cheeses early on (which Brian refers to as “session cheese”). He went on to live in Cambridge, Milan, and Rome, where he got used to the siesta lifestyle he has now worked into his daily schedule at Mystic.
Brian wanted his cheeses to be as accessible as the ones he ate as a kid, which is part of why the boxes housing his cheeses have such a whimsical, approachable look. Designed by a children’s book editor, each cheese is assigned a character for people to identify with. Melville is from Brian’s favorite book, Moby Dick, which he reads once a year. Melinda Mae is from a Shel Silverstein poem about finishing what you start. Sea Change is from Shakespeare, but also Brian’s favorite Beck album. And a potential upcoming Mystic double cream release, Frost, would be a reference to Robert Frost and the first snow of the year (he is still trying to secure the raw cream for it).
All of Brian’s cheeses share a similar pure, milky quality, despite their unique styles. “We realized right away we weren’t gonna be producers of funky cheeses because our milk was too much of a clean slate,” Brian said, “It’s butter-forward, milk-forward and bright.”
We carry all of Brian’s cheeses at the shop, so stop by often and try them all! And if you’re interested in seeing the pods or visiting the stunning property of Graywall Farm, I bet they’d love to have you.