With the advent of the defunct Matanuska Maid dairy in 2007 a lifeline was cast to Alaska’s Matanuska Valley dairy farmers, Matanuska Creamery.
Opening mid-2007, CEO Kyle Beus seized an opportunity to invest in a competition free industry while simultaneously saving the farms of the four Valley dairies. The now two-year long ride has not been without bumps, but co-owner Rob Wells describing it humbly as “not an exceptionally smooth transition”.
Somehow through funding issues, bacteria infiltrates and economic lulls, the creamery has persisted and if anything have flourished, offering milk, cheese, sixteen different varieties of ice cream, and establishing business contracts between themselves and the likes of local favorites like Kaladi Brothers.
Early troubles with the Department of Environmental Conservation left the creamery as well as investors, who had put nearly $250,000 into so called “cheese futures,” in disarray. After early testing on the first batches of cheddar turned up positive for the bacteria listeria, officials ordered the disposal of the over 20,000 pounds of cheese.
At the beginning of production Matanuska Creamery chose not to pasteurize their milk before making their cheese, a common practice among artisan cheese makers who wish to tamper with their milk as little as possible throughout the process. However not pasteurizing the milk can, on rare occasion, culture the harmful listeria.
Despite testing performed in Washington, California and Wisconsin that all turned up negative for listeria, the state overruled and forced the owners, escorted by government officials, to dump the cheese in a land fill. The creamery still has approximately two tons of the raw cheese in their refrigerators.
But that wasn’t the end of the creamery. The vision of the creamery’s owners is limitless. Only months after the listeria incident they began producing ice cream. At first with only a few flavors, then expanding to the current sixteen by using Alaska’s natural flavors to produce a unique and delectable palate experience.
Wells explained that at 14 percent butterfat, the richness of the ice cream is comparable to that of Ben and Jerry’s and other gourmet ice cream producers. What Ben and Jerry’s doesn’t offer though, is Alaskan birch flavored ice cream or Kaladi Brothers’ coffee flavored ice cream; quintessential Alaskan flavors. Birch ice cream might sound odd, but this subtle flavor is wonderful. Made from Alaskan Birch syrup from Kahiltna Birchworks, this is a one of a kind experience adding a spicy-sweet flavor into the richness of the cream. Chocolate Explosion, Wells’ favorite, is a chocolate indulger’s fantasy dishing a double helping of chocolate that melds perfectly with the creaminess of the ice cream. The impeccable flavor of the coffee ice cream can be attributed to the creative genius of the coffee gurus at our own Kaladi Brothers Coffee Company who collaborated with the creamery to develop the flavor.
Distribution to local supermarkets is limited at this point, but according to the owners they are working towards increasing their milk supply, allowing them to increase their ice cream production and distribution. For the time being, however, a trip to the Wasilla Farmers Market is well worth the time and gas.
The methodology and process of cheese making is an age-old art that just now American’s have been able to fully grasp. The artisan cheese making community in America has grown from dwindling numbers to even having an organization of its own, the American Cheese Society.
Matanuska Creamery has joined in on this effort to educate the population on the meaning of good cheese. With owners such as Wisconsin-born Beus, the creamery has the knowledge and creativity to be a forerunner. Their cheddar is eight-months aged minimum and sings the praises of the protein rich grass that the cows are able to feed on during the summer months.
Part-owner and financial officer Karen Olson explained that they are attempting to gain access to the mines in Hatcher’s Pass where they would set up “cheese caves”.
While this still remains a far off goal, the concept of aging cheeses in an open air mine would without a doubt further enhance the cheese with the natural flavors of the Alaskan air, a concept used by makers of dry-cured meats in Italy (prosciutto, guanciale, lardo) and other European and American artisan cheese makers to further infuse the food with the “terrior” (French for a “sense of place”) of the region.
Olson hopes to add different cheese variations by the end of the year. These could include a blue and a soft ripened cheese such as a brie as well as other cheddar variations.
In speaking to Olson it is evident that special attention is paid to the local nature of the business and their commitment to using as much local produce and resources as possible. Including the grass, which can reach protein levels between 28 to 30 percent. That means milk rich in fat.
“Where do the bears get most of their fat for hibernation?” she said. “It’s from the grass.”
And travel doesn’t have to be far to find Matanuska Creamery’s products. In fact, most consumers probably aren’t even aware of why Cold Stone’s sweet cream ice cream and Kaladi lattés are tasting as they never have before; both are made with the creamery’s milk.
“We have something that no one else has,” Wells said.
And really, that’s the truth.