Becki Cochran was looking to be different when she developed her idea for a new cheese flavor at the South Dakota State University Davis Dairy Plant.
Cochran, a senior dairy manufacturing student and dairy plant employee, mixed Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey with mild cheddar cheese to create a new flavor.
The Jack Daniels cheese is one of the most unique combinations Davis Dairy Plant manager John Haberkorn has seen in the last four years.
“I wanted to do something different,” Cochran said. “After talking with John, I heard beer and wine cheeses were made in the past. I wanted to try a whiskey cheese because I felt like it would give it a really different flavor note.”
Every year since 2014, student employees at the plant are given the chance to manufacture their own flavor ideas through the plant’s student edition cheese program. Cochran’s whiskey cheese is one of the 16 flavors students made at the plant this year.
Other flavors made this year are: cumin white cheddar, salami, alfredo, pesto, taco, Old Bay, garlic and herb, brown sugar bourbon, sriracha and black pepper, Cholula and cilantro, sweet garlic dill, bloody Mary, horseradish and chive, chipotle lime and mango habanero.
Making dairy products at the plant gives students real-life skills and knowledge they will use at future internships and jobs.
“We encourage them to work at the plant, because it gives them hands-on experience while they are here,” said Vikram Mistry, head of SDSU Dairy and Food Science Department. “Through the classroom and internships, (students) gain a lot of experience.”
For Carla Bromenschenkel, junior dairy manufacturing and dairy production student, an internship in Maryland inspired her decision to make an Old Bay flavored cheese.
“They make an Old Bay cheese out there called Chesapeake. They don’t sell it out here, and I wanted it out here,” Bromenschenkel said.
Like Bromenschenkel, senior dairy manufacturing student Anna Hemenway found inspiration for her flavor idea from an experience through the dairy program. She picked cumin white cheddar because she studied abroad in Finland in fall 2015. While there, she went to a cheese market in the Netherlands and tried cumin gouda.
“I wanted to bring this [flavor]back and make my own because you can’t find it here,” Hemenway said.
Haberkorn supports the student edition cheese program for two reasons: it allows students to be creative and gives them an additional element on their resume. He started it four years ago when a student approached him wanting to make a maple bacon cheddar cheese.
“I didn’t think it would taste good at all,” Haberkorn said, but he was proven wrong.
Plant employees made 23 pounds of the maple bacon cheddar cheese and it sold out fast.
“Family and friends bought it up, just because of the name on the label,” Haberkorn said.
On average, the dairy plant produces about 500 pounds of cheese each week. Selling the student-made cheeses doubled the plant’s cheese sales. The success of the maple bacon cheddar cheese set the precedent for the student edition cheese program.
Another popular student-made cheese, chipotle and roasted garlic, was the highest scoring student edition cheese at the world cheese expo, Haberkorn said. It is now one of the 20 cheeses that has been added to The Campanile Line, the trademarked line for SDSU cheeses.
Inspired by a spicy student edition cheese, a second student flavor, later named Prairie Fire, has also been introduced to The Campanile Line. Haberkorn said The Campanile Line, student edition cheeses and other SDSU dairy products are available for sale now at 40 locations in this corner of the state, including Hy-Vee and Lewis Drug.
Consumer acceptance and food safety are the main factors to consider when trying to adopt new flavors. Students can create any flavor they choose as long as the ingredients won’t spoil and are acceptable to the consumer.
“Ingredients must be sealed and from an approved supplier,” Haberkorn said.
To make the unique flavors, plant employees use SDSU’s normal cheddar or jack cheese recipe, then add the flavors.
“We add flavoring to 25 pounds of cheese and put it in a 20-pound hoop,” Haberkorn said. “We do two of each flavor, so we end up with about 46 pounds of a student edition cheese.”
About 40 to 50 student employees work to manufacture these dairy products for the plant.
All the milk required to make SDSU cheese, ice cream and butter comes from the university’s own dairy farm, the Dairy Research and Training Facility. Both the plant and farm facilities provide students with experience and knowledge for working within the dairy industry.
“What’s unique is that students are able to see from farm to product and there is a lot of hands-on. There’s a dairy plant and a dairy farm, so job placement is 100 percent,” Mistry said.
Hemenway said her classes combined with working at the plant have set her up to succeed for a real-world manufacturing career.
“It teaches you the mindset of how a facility works,” Hemenway said. “You see material and the flow of a machine on paper, then go into the plant to see how it works.”
Besides the program’s 100 percent job placement rate, another draw for students is that the Dairy and Food Science Department has more than $150,000 in scholarship money available per year. This amount is more than any other department at SDSU, Haberkorn said.
The strong demand for graduates brings companies from all over the country.
“Mistry has more companies interviewing him than students,” Haberkorn said. “You don’t have to go searching for jobs, because the school brings them to you.”
Like the unique cheeses, the dairy program at SDSU is unlike any other.
“It’s one of a kind. There isn’t another one like this around the country,” Mistry said. “The Davis Dairy Plant was built with the help of funds from dairy farmers around the U.S. because they want graduates, so it’s very unique and leads to very exciting careers.”
That’s great news for Cochran and her classmates. All seven seniors in the program have jobs lined up after graduation.
“I grew up on a hobby farm in Illinois and was really interested in the program and the 100 percent job placement,” she said. “After working in the plant, I figured out this is where I wanted to be. I was definitely really happy here and that this was my major.”