One of the Oldest Cheeseries in Sweden—Welcome to Almnäs Bruk

If you want a piece of gourmet Swedish cheese that comes complete with a hefty dose of history, look no further than Almnäs. At this old manor house and accompanying fields and forests, cheese production is done the old fashioned way—the cheesery first opened its doors in 1830, but the cheesemaking tradition they use dates back to the Middle Ages.

We had the pleasure of interviewing Tommy Larsson, who is one of the staff running the “Lagret” where the cheese is matured and some of the logistics for the company. He told us about the cheesemaking process, the importance of good bacteria, and what makes a gourmet cheese a gourmet cheese.

The Death of Small Dairies

While Almnäs cheesery dates back to 1830 and the farm itself to 1225 (and is connected to all sorts of interesting Swedish historical moments), the cheesery ceased production for a while back in 1961.

“In the 1960s came what’s become referred to as the “mejeridöden” (“dairy death”) when the big industrial diaries were set up and took over production. Before that, just in Skaraborg, there were over 50 dairies. You needed to use the milk you got from the farmer and the best way to preserve it before there were refrigerators was cheese. When things became industrialized it suddenly became popular to eat “food out of a tin” and small diaries couldn’t survive anymore.”

The Reinvention of Great Cheesemaking

Back in 2008, the owner of Almnäs, Thomas, decided to relaunch the dairy using private funding, a lot of patience, and passion for traditional cheesemaking (and an aversion to the big industrial companies who produce not so high quality cheese).
Thomas went to see Hans Stiller, then 84, who had worked at the old cheesery and put his knowledge and the old recipe of Wrångebäcksost to the test. It was a long road ahead and involved bringing in expert guidance from cheesemakers in Switzerland.

At first they thought the Wrångebäck cheese (they also offer Anno 1225 and Almnäs Tegel) would take at least 24 months to mature. That turned out not to be true, but it gave them some time to travel and meet cheeseries around Europe at various cheese exhibitions. Tommy told us it’s an “extremely friendly business.”

Tommy ended up working at Almnäs by pure chance (or fate). “I was working for SJ (the Swedish railway) at the time, but was longing for a change, but had told myself if I were to change professions, I’d do something artisanal. I wanted to get educated in a real craft. Then, after a funeral I was standing with a group of men, one who was incredibly stressed out. Not just by the funeral, but by the fact that he was in HR and needed to recruit a number of different people in different industries and right after the funeral had to hit the road to look for such people in Malmö, Copenhagen, and so forth. 

One of the guys asked him what he was looking for and he went around the group of men, pointing to each one saying who he needed to recruit. When he came to me, he said, “I need a dairyman for Almnäs” and I said, “I’ll take that job.” A few days later, Thomas called me. I’ve been here for fifteen years now.

The Difference Between Cheese and Cheese

“Industrial cheesemaking is all about effectiveness and scalability. You have to be able to create a lot of cheese fast and might use a different bacteria to add to the cheese to speed up the process. You want to keep as much of the liquid from the milk in the cheese as possible. When it comes to small, artisanal, dairies, it’s all about quality. You also don’t use preservatives, so you have to have a process that ensures the cheese preserves itself.”

For people with lactose intolerances, hard cheeses made the traditional way are perfect, because all the lactose is eaten by the friendly bacteria added to the cheese in the cheesemaking process. That’s how bad bacteria is kept at bay—there’s nothing left for it to eat.

Another difference is that big companies often use homogenized milk, meaning they have literally broken up the fats in the milk so that the milk gets an even texture (as opposed to a layer of fat on top). But that’s not good for making great cheese.

How to Make Cheese

Cheese is made by gently heating milk in a big bucket. Different cheeses call for different temperatures.

“We use a copper pot from Switzerland to make our cheese. It heats up fast and the heat is more evenly distributed. It also has antibacterial properties. As for temperature, some of our cheese is heated to about 55 degrees Celsius. Some heat helps prevent some bacteria.”

As the milk gets heated you add lactic acid bacteria. There are different strains of bacteria and the bacteria you need depends on the recipe.“If you have a cheese with big holes in it, you use a bacteria strain that creates a lot of gas. Our Almnäs Tegel cheese has those big holes created by the helvetica strain. The helvetica strain produces a cheese with sweet notes, like toffee and it works at higher temperatures.”

After you’ve added the bacteria (which eats the lactose in the milk) and heated the milk for a while, you add rennet. This turns it into a mass, similar in texture to panna cotta. Then you cut it up—for some cheeses, you cut it in big pieces, for others you cut it so it ends up looking like rice. You have to be careful as you don’t want to break up the protein as then it disappears with the whey.”

How you get rid of the whey varies. You might empty it out of the pot. For the Almnäs Anno 1225 cheese they use a traditional method, “We move the whole thing to handmade baskets made from willow. There is no better way to get rid of the whey and this is how cheese was made back in the 1200s.”

It Takes Good Bacteria to Make Great Cheese

“We store our cheese in the old distillery from 1770. The planks the cheese is stored on come from the original cheesery and have active bacteria that’s at least 150 years old. We had them lab tested. This is the bacteria that forms the “shell” of the cheese and protects it. You can eat it if you wish, which adds a different flavor profile. Each cheese is flavored by the bacteria in your specific region.”

Almnäs has just built a new barn for storing and aging cheese, but this is making Tommy both excited and nervous.“Growing the right kind of bacterial culture takes time. With the new storage facility it’s exciting as it’s built to Swiss standards and will have a robot turning the cheese as it’s a time intensive work of labor and, frankly, we are getting too old and can’t find new staff who want to walk around just turning cheese. We will be able to make more cheese and it will be less labor intensive even though everything else we do is still by hand. We pack all the cheese ourselves. No machinery is used for that. That’s why we tend to sell big cheese blocks, not individually cut pieces, we just don’t have the manpower for it.”

The bacteria that’s used to create the hard shell for the cheeses creates either brown or white mold. “We don’t produce blue cheese because the green mold spreads very easily.”

Bad Bacteria

I asked if Tommy wasn’t scared of bad bacteria entering the process?

“If something’s wrong, you smell it or see it. Plus, people do the most of the resources they have. If they can’t afford contamination, they might pasteurize the milk they use. We don’t do that, but we heat the milk to about 50 degrees Celsius which prevents some bacteria. But also traditional cheesemaking allows for very little contamination as we give the good bacteria the time to eat the lactose. That means there’s nothing left for the bad bacteria.”

“The only bacteria you’re worried about is listeria and salmonella. You have to do stick tests and when you do, be honest. Listeria comes from the soil. You’ll find it in the cheese closest to the ground, so don’t test a batch close to the ceiling. And you make blue cheese by pricking the cheese so that the bacteria gets inside, but if you get the wrong bacteria inside, you’ll contaminate all the cheeses that were pricked at the same time.”

It’s All About the Cows 

The cows at Almnäs are well kept—all 225 or so of them (which produce about 80 tonnes of cheese yearly!!).

“When a cow is calving she’s put in a special stall that’s as big as a condo. That’s where the calf, or calves, spend the first period of their lives. Then the calves are taken to their own stall, before being released into the fields with their mothers. The problem is, the calves tend to enjoy being indoors and at the least sign of rain, or if it’s too sunny, they don’t want to go outside! There’s a lot of care going into the calves so that they don’t get sick.” Right now, Almnäs is also replacing their Holstein cows with Brown Swiss cows, but this is a work that takes five generations or so.

“We don’t buy new calves for this, we got Brown Swiss bulls that impregnate the cows. But it takes about five generations to get a cow that’s considered Brown Swiss.”The reason for the changeover?“ Brown Swiss produce less milk, but it’s milk that’s better for cheese production, as it has a better ratio of fat and protein. The protein, casein, is also better for making cheese. The type of casein found in the milk from the Brown Swiss cows can better handle the cheesemaking process.”

What You Feed a Cow Is What Ends Up in the Cheese

Almnäs isn’t just a cheesery—it has its own cows and farm where the food for the cows is grown and harvested.

“What we feed the cows is super important for creating great milk. We’re an organic farm and the food we feed our cows comes from the farm. You have to have the right mixture of grass and grains, with just the right amount of protein. When you harvest crops is also important—you want to harvest the grass for straw just when there is the most amount of nutrients and protein in it. And we bring in specialists to check the blends we make for the cows and there are lab tests done.”

Having interviewed Björn at Viking Fågel and Erik at Löt Gårdsmejeri, we’re starting to see a trend—they all say that happy animals make for tasty products and that making gourmet foods start with treating and feeding the animals well.

When It Rains, It Pour

Did you know that two weeks of rain might delay the production of your favorite cheese?

“In summer when the cows are roaming outside it’s an issue if it starts raining a lot as the grass they eat isn’t as good quality and they end up dirty. That dirt can’t get into the milk. As a result, if it rains a lot, we often have to wait a week or two before getting the milk we need for the cheese.”

The State of the Swedish Cheese Industry 

We asked Tommy about whether there were cheeses in Sweden that could compare with the famous cheeses from Switzerland, France, and Italy. “Absolutely. It just depends on what specific flavor you’re looking for. But the good cheese all comes from the small dairies. I can’t say I enjoy the cheese from the larger ones. Not here, not overseas.”

We also asked if it was hard to become KRAV certified—the Swedish certification for being organic. “For the small farmers, yes. As we were already doing dairy, it wasn’t hard for us to do the same for the cheese. It’s pretty much the same process so we had everything and knew to prepare in advance with the paperwork and so forth. Many smaller dairies actually struggle now that livsmedelsverket have taken over certification for producing cheese—that alone includes so much paperwork people get lost and spend too much money on doing everything that’s required and documenting it. It’s hard being a smaller dairy.”

“Export is also tricky. We got KRAV certified in China, but that was thanks to subsidies—someone stepped in an paid for us—and we needed a whole team to fill out the paperwork which was, sometimes, very confusing. And while we used to export to England we stopped, as the paperwork they require is mile long. We still export about 35-40% of all our cheese, though.”

A World-Class Cheesery and the Distinctions to Prove It

Almnäs has won a lot of awards and distinctions for their various cheeses
  • At the Birmingham, England World Cheese Awards in November 2012, Anno 1225 received a Gold Award.
  • Wrångebäck was the first cheese in Northern Europe to receive Protected Designation of Origin status.
  • In 2018, Wrångebäck cheese won the Silver at the World Cheese Awards held in Bergen, Norway.
  • At The World Cheese Awards 2018 held in Bergen, Norway, there were 3472 cheeses from 41 countries and Almnäs Tegel ended up at 4:th place and received a Supergold.
  • At the World Cheese Awards 2019, the judges gave Almnäs Tegel a Gold. Held at Bergamo, Italy.

The Future Is Filled with Promise
When asking Tommy what lies ahead he said, “You can never get lazy. You have to criticize yourself. You can’t ship a product you don’t like. We offer a premium product. We need to become even more critical.”

He’s also excited and a bit scared about the new storage space for maturing the cheeses. “The new storage is a big deal that’s coming this spring. It’ll allow us to produce more cheese, but we also have to get the bacteria in there right and make the robot work properly! We also need to get new staff—we’re getting old, which is one reason the robot is crucial.”

Tommy also mentioned the development of a cheese that will be matured for over two years! One thing’s for sure–we’re sure to see development, growth and new inventions coming from Almnäs. No matter how old their history, they continue to grow and develop, making them a great brand with a promising future.

Fun facts Almnäs Gård 

Almnäs: A Taste of Swedish Cheese History

Established in 1830, Almnäs embodies centuries-old traditions of cheese-making, rooted in Swedish history dating back to the Middle Ages.

The cheesery was revived in 2008 by owner Thomas, driven by a passion for traditional methods and a rejection of industrial cheese production.

Despite a decline in small dairies during the 1960s, Almnäs persevered and now stands as a testament to the revival of artisanal cheese-making in Sweden.
Craftsmanship and Tradition

Almnäs employs traditional methods, focusing on quality over quantity, in contrast to large-scale industrial cheese production.

The cheese-making process involves careful attention to detail, from the selection of bacteria strains to the aging process in the historic distillery from 1770.

Caring for Cows, Crafting Quality
The welfare of the cows is paramount at Almnäs, where organic farming practices ensure high-quality milk for cheese production.

The transition from Holstein to Brown Swiss cows reflects a commitment to enhancing milk quality, ultimately influencing the flavor and texture of the cheese.
Awards and Recognition

Almnäs cheeses have earned numerous accolades, including Gold and Silver Awards at international cheese competitions.

Notably, Wrångebäck cheese holds Protected Designation of Origin status, highlighting its unique heritage and quality.

Almnäs embraces innovation while staying true to its heritage, with plans for expansion and the introduction of new cheese varieties, including aged cheeses matured for over two years.

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