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Tasty tradition

By Gary Scattergood , 02-Jan-2013
Last updated on 04-Jan-2013 at 12:44 GMT

Heritage and quality are key, Stilton boss Billy Kevan tells Gary Scattergood

There is no doubt 2013 is a big year for us because it is our centenary. However, we're not necessarily making a big thing of it to sell more cheeses we don't really need too, we already sell everything we make but we want to make people more aware of our history and tradition.

We also want to share it with the village, as a 'thank you' for having us for the past 100 years, so we're putting on a bit of a party with food and drink and a live band in June. Then the day after I'll be flying to New York to mark the occasion with some of our clients over there.

This business was set up 1913 as a co-operative and its still run in the same way now. It's not owned by anyone. Share capital was raised by the village GP, Dr William Windley who saw a way of producing high quality cheese with the support of local farmers.

We still have shareholders who get a dividend but it's pennies. When we started here there were 1516 farmer members but now there are four. They are still on the same land. They farm the land, milk the cows, supply the milk and we pay them a bonus for the milk after profits.

I'm only the fifth dairy manager and the fourth who has made Stilton Colston Bassett has ever had. These days we make about 53,000 handmade cheeses a year, with more than 90% of that being Stilton. The rest is Shropshire Blue.

We supply to Waitrose, through Bradbury and Son, and a range of retailers and wholesalers including Neal's Yard Dairy, the Fine Cheese Company, Anthony Rowcliffe and Son, Sheridans in Ireland, Carron Lodge and Iain Mellis. We also sell from our shop at the dairy.

About 15% of our cheese is exported. Neal's Yard has the exclusive rights to export animal rennet cheese, while the Fine Cheese Company exports our vegetarian one. We have a lot of customers in the US, some in Australia, and we have really built up our European exports.

I have been involved in the industry since I was 15. My dad was a cheesemaker he moved here from Scotland my brother works here and my grandad and great-grandad made cheese on their farms when they had surplus milk.

I've only worked at two places here and at Unigate St Ivel down the road in Harby and I've always made Stilton. I started scrubbing floors before moving on to dairy operative, trainee cheesemaker, chief operator and then manager. I came to Colston Bassett in 1999 as assistant manager and I was made manager in 2007.

It's very important to me that I still make the cheese every day. I'm in the dairy at 5.15am each morning. It's not an easy profession by any means, it's very physical, very demanding and very time-consuming. When you are making hard chesses like Cheddar, once it is in the mould after day two or three, that's more or less it. With Stilton you turn the cheese every other day. We can have 10,000 cheeses a time here, so you can imagine what a task that is. My working hours stop any time after 7.30pm when the wheying process has been done. I live at the dairy site so I can go home and come back.

Cheese making is a vocation, not a job. If you didn't enjoy making cheese, you wouldn't do it.

Delicate product

The production process starts when the milk arrives and we pasteurise it before cooling it and putting it into vats. We then add our blue mould to the milk before the cheese sets. After it has developed acidity, we cut it, take the whey off the top, and ladle it. We're the only company that ladles all our of cheese, which gives us a more delicate product. We then salt the cheese and put it into hoops for four days, When the hoops are taken off, we rub the cheese to smooth the outside of it and stop any air getting out. Once it is all smooth, it goes into the dry rooms and then to the store and it is turned every other day. That is how we get the air in. To give you an idea of the timescale, it takes five days to get to the rubbing stage, another 23 weeks for drying before its matured on the shelves up to week 8 to week 14, depending on how we want it.

People think Stilton is very strong when it's old, but it's actually the other way around. When it gets older the PH comes up, so it tastes more mellow and it's a better cheese. A lot of the supermarket cheese these days is between six to eight weeks old, but we don't event get it off the shelf until eight weeks and it can go into cold for up to 10 weeks after that. It's one of the reasons we are at the higher end of the market. We don't go for cheap and cheerful. If we did that, we wouldn't be in business.

Steady trade

Despite the economic downturn here in the UK, business has been very steady. To put that into context, when I first came here in 1999 we were making about 80 cheeses a day, now we average 156 a day with the capacity to make 180.

The biggest problem that is affecting us, not just cheesemakers but everyone, is raw material costs. For us, that comes right off the bottom line, so when the milk price goes up, we have to put cheese prices up. There are also electricity costs, which are significant, but, luckily for us, sales are pretty constant. We are not necessarily volume or retail driven in the sense that a lot of the companies we work with are independent and, like us, want the cheese to be sold in optimum condition, be it in shops or to hospitality. We don't get involved in slicing or wrapping that's not our job we wrap it in paper, box it and sell it whole.

We also have to deal with seasonal spikes. We see a massive increase towards Christmas time. We will sell one third of our cheese in the last two months of the year, so we have to make sure we make as much as we can to get the right age profile of cheese for this period. October and November Christmas sales for America is big for us, as is Easter and Thanksgiving in the States.

Despite the variation in demand, we are able to keep pretty constant staffing levels. Most of the staff live in the local area and many of them have been here a long time. We have people who have been with us for 35 years so we have quite a bit of longevity. People are either cut out for this work or not. They either last two days or 20 years. This is not a job you can go somewhere else and learn. You can't sit down with a textbook, you have to be hands on. We can make people more aware of hygiene and manufacturing issues, but you only learn how to make Stilton by doing the job and that's something we've been doing well for years.

Factory facts

LOCATION: Colston Bassett Dairy, Harby Lane, Colston Bassett, Nottinghamshire, NG12 3FN

STAFF: 23 full-time, three part-time

OPERATING HOURS: 5am to 4pm seven days a week, with earlier finishes at weekends

PRODUCTS: Stilton, Shropshire Blue

OUTPUT: 400t or 53,000 handmade cheeses a year

Personal

NAME: Billy Kevan

AGE: 43

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: "Being made general manager here in 2007."

DOMESTICS: "I'm married with two children, two dogs and a cat."

OUTSIDE WORK: "I play golf and five-a-side football and I have a season ticket at Nottingham Forest."

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