Silhouetted by slate-colored shingles, antique timbers, and hilly pasture, the Grey Barn and Farm creamery is churning out cheese even before the milking cows are brought to the parlor in the morning.
It’s a good thing master cheesemaker and creamery manager Joe Alstat is an early riser — he climbs into his smock and hairnet around 4 am, and fills the milk vat to start his day.
For Alstat, who invited The Times to the creamery for an early morning cheesemaking demonstration, working at Grey Barn has been a dream job. “It’s just a lot of fun — I enjoy working with food and making something that people totally love,” Alstat said.
Particularly on Martha’s Vineyard, finding success in such a niche market can be challenging. But Alstat explained that because of the vision Grey Barn owners Molly and Eric Glasgow had for the creamery, all the right ingredients were there for a great operation.
“They were able to invest the money necessary to set up an operation like this and have it perform at this level — I think it’s a really nice benefit to the food culture on the Island,” Alstat said.
Having the necessary resources and equipment to craft the eight different artisan cheeses the creamery produces has enabled Alstat to refine recipes and make better and better products over the years.
“I probably put out one new cheese each year, and I started seven years ago,” Alstat said.
Right when he was brought onto the team and began running the creamery, the cheese began winning awards.
The delicate, washed-rind Prufrock was the cheese that started it all. After years of refining the process and recipe, Grey Barn Prufrock is now a well-decorated cheese — placing high in the New York International Cheese Awards, the Good Food Awards, the World Cheese Awards, and the American Cheese Awards.
Grey Barn has been making its signature creamy, nutty Bluebird bleu cheese for years, but when Alstat found a block of Bluebird sitting at the back of one of the aging caves, he had a lightbulb moment.
“It was still perfectly good,” he said. “I made a slightly dryer bleu recipe where the cheese is meant to be aged in the cave for six months instead of three.”
And with that, the stronger Bluebird reserve was born.
Making a new cheese is all about experimenting, but Alstat said adjusting different variables like culture levels and milk pH to the conditions he is working under is just part of the process. Even when developing a brand-new cheese, the process is thought out, and based on the same core principles.
“Milk goes into the vat at 100°, we add the coagulant and the right bacterias. Wait for the curd to form and make sure the milk is at the right pH, then it’s into the hoops, the refrigerators, then to the caves where it’s aged,” Alstat said.
While rennet (a coagulant) added early on helps separate the milk solids (curd) from the liquid base (whey), cheese knives agitate the mixture inside the vat and break the curd into small, popcorn-like pieces.
After draining the vat of the liquid whey, the curd is then placed into different-shaped and-sized containers called hoops.
Depending on the type of cheese being made, the hoops are flipped and the water drained until the desired moisture level is reached, and the cheese is either dipped in brine or salted directly, using brushes.
“Some cheeses you do want to be really salty — It’s all about percentages and balance,” Alstat said.
After years working with these science-based methods, the process has become routine for Alstat, and he appreciates that fact. “I know what I am going to do pretty much seven days ahead of time, but I am doing something different each day. Here at work, everything has its place, you have your process flow, your rules to follow — but I really like the pace. It’s almost meditative,” he said.
The final resting place for the almost-finished product before it’s sent out to hungry cheese lovers is the refrigerated aging rooms, called caves. Racks of cheese age for different lengths of time. Bluebird bleu cheese ages for about three months, and Prufrock is a washed-rind cheese, meaning you scrub the outside coating with a brush to remove the surface layer of bacteria while it’s aging.
A batch of 300 Prufrock cheeses takes Alstat about 45 minutes to an hour to wash in entirety, but the time flies by for him. “I just throw on a podcast and go to work. By the time I know it, I’ve scrubbed the last cheese,” Alstat said.
If for whatever reason a cheese doesn’t look aesthetically pleasing after it ages, the Grey Barn bakery will use it in tasty breads and Danishes so that no good food goes to waste.
One surprising thing about the creamery is how much cheese it ships to off-Island distributors.
Although the cheese is incredibly popular on the Vineyard, thousands of pounds of cheese are produced year-round — significantly more than enough to satiate demand here.
Every other week, Alstat assembles a shipping pallet with anywhere from 30 to 100 cases of cheese stacked on top, and it’s sent out to Long Island, where it’s divided up for the creamery’s six distributors.
“That’s anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 worth of cheese. Yeah, we don’t mess around,” Alstat laughed.
One unique and primary element of why Grey Barn cheese is so good is the milk they use; It’s extremely fresh, certified organic, and all of the approximately 45 milking cows are pasture-raised and pasture-fed. “Good milk makes good cheese. With some cheeses, it’s fine to make with lower-grade milk. Like with Kraft cheddar, it’s going to taste the same no matter what,” Alstat explained. But for a higher-end cheese, the taste and quality of the milk is essential to consider.
In most creamery operations, milk is purchased from the market and brought to the facility to be processed. But Grey Barn has plenty of cows, and plenty of wide-open pasture for grazing.
They even run foraging machines to create their own hay bales that are used as food for the livestock.
According to Alstat, preparing for a cheese competition is often a daunting task, and taking home ribbons for cheese involves a lot of planning and some razzle-dazzle.
“There’s definitely a little bit of gamesmanship in these competitions. There are so many categories — usually about 26 different categories for cow’s milk alone,” Alstat explained.
After choosing the category he wishes to enter, Alstat boxes up the cheese and sends it away for judging.
“Of course I always pick the cheeses that are peaking and are like halfway through their life, and I always choose the prettiest-looking ones out of the bunch, but everyone does,” Alstat said.
But just because a cheese doesn’t do well in competition doesn’t mean it’s not a great cheese, and people don’t love it.
Eidolon — Grey Barn’s grassy and fragrant bloomy-rind cheese, for example, has never won an award, but Alstat can’t keep the farmstand stocked with it because it’s so popular. “Some judges say it’s too runny. But what the judges complain about is what people like the most about it,” Alstat said.
Whether he is preparing for a competition, planning a new cheese, or simply going about his regular routine each morning, Alsta said he can’t think of anything else he would rather be doing. “It’s definitely a lifestyle. I kind of geek out on striving to make really good cheese,” Alstat said. “I love working with food and making unique things that people enjoy.”
Visit thegreybarnandfarm.com to learn more about the artisan cheeses crafted there.