A local cheese company specializes in Montana Gouda

Story by Clare Menzel | Photography courtesy of Flathead Lake Cheese
One evening almost a decade ago, Wendi and Joe Arnold sat in their hot tub under the Mesa, Arizona stars. They were talking life, the kind of big talks inspired by a clear, endless night sky.

“Businesses were falling apart around us,” Joe said. He was a specialty carpenter and all his clients were going under. Wendi, who had lost a corporate job after 9/11, was stuck in a large company’s middle management.

“We needed a life change,” she said.

That night, they decided to move north to Montana. And they decided they would learn to make cheese. They purchased a simple 4-gallon double boiler for $80 and tried it out. After spending seven years honing their product, they built a 32-by-32 foot cube in their backyard, painted it yellow, roofed it with copper, installed solar thermal panels, and called it Flathead Lake Cheese. Underground is a refrigerated vault; inside is the “tiny” 300-gallon vat for milk. It’s tiny, Wendi said, compared to most commercial operations, some of which have more space for milk than the Arnolds do in their store. Each batch of milk yields about 220 pounds of Gouda, their specialty.

“Our Gouda does not taste like traditional Gouda from Europe,” Wendi said. “It’s a Montana version, it’s our version.”

One major difference in their Montana technique is the rind. Conventional Gouda-makers coat their rounds in a melted wax. This preserves the cheese by sealing it away from microbes that might sully the taste while it ages in the vault for about nine months.

But working with “wax is a complete nightmare,” said Joe. On a trip to Vermont, they discovered polymer, which is painted on with a sponge, a simpler process. They have found that the polymer makes it easier for the cheese to “breathe.” During the aging process, the Arnolds’ cheese expels much of the water weight that makes traditional Gouda so heavy. The end product is drier and sharper, more like English cheddar than creamy Dutch Gouda.

Flathead Lake Cheese also diverges from tradition in its variety. There’s Galiki Gouda, which is mixed with eight varieties of Missoula-grown garlic nibs; Doc Arnold’s Notzarella, a Gouda-inspired version of mozzarella; and Hoppin’ Mad, a hops-infused Gouda that the Arnolds perfected alongside patrons at Polson’s Glacier Brewing Company. Come September, the Arnolds also begin making and selling Big Chai Gouda. The cheese, a collaboration with Polson-based Tipu’s Chai, is made with clove, ginger, cardamom, and black pepper.

“I’ve got a lot of people looking forward to it,” Wendi said. “The flavors are reminiscent of the holidays. It’s quite lovely.”

Most cheeses pair with wine; it’s only fitting that the Big Sky cheesemakers’ specialty is one that goes well with a Montana winter.

Visit Flathead Lake Cheese at 208 1st Ave E in Polson, Montana or online at www.flatheadlakecheese.com.