Visit Hatillo for a Cheese Making Tour
I knew that Puerto Rico has a thriving dairy industry, but I had never really given it much thought. But cheese is made from milk, and I love cheese … so when I learned about a cheese-making tour offered by Quesos Vaca Negra … it piqued my interest.
This was not a walk through a factory and watch cheese being made through a window tour, but a hands-on cheese-making and tasting tour. Though you have to get up pretty early in the morning (the cows are milked early and they use today’s milk), it is so worth it! We learned a lot and made a 2-pound cheese wheel … with our own hands.
The town of Hatillo is located on the north coast, about 1 hour west of San Juan. It is the Dairy Capital of Puerto Rico, with almost as many cows as people! The town produces about ⅓ of all the milk consumed in Puerto Rico. So it only makes sense that you will find the Quesos Vaca Negra cheese company in Hatillo.
Quesos Vaca Negra makes differnt types of artisanal cheeses, and then flavors them differently. They open their "cheese factory" to the public, not only to learn about cheese-making but also to participate.
We got to Hatillo a little before the tour was scheduled, so we had some time to drive around and see a little bit of the town and the lovely rolling hills filled with with spotted Holstein cows.
The tour started with our guide (and owner) Wanda Otero, talking for about a little about the milk industry in Puerto Rico and how cheese is made. She shared loads of really interesting information about dairy farming and milk production in Puerto Rico.
As it turns out, Puerto Rico dairy cows are "free range" and hormone-free. They produce high-quality milk, but less of it (as compared to the same type of cows in the States), due to heat stress.
As it was explained to us, cheese-making is really pretty simple. Quesos Vaca Negra uses raw (non-pasteurized) milk for all their cheeses, so it still has beneficial enzymes in it. First, the milk is heated and starter cultures are added to begin the conversion of milk into cheese. Next, a milk-clotting enzyme called rennet is added to coagulate the milk. This causes the milk to change from a liquid into a custard-like gel. Next, it is cut into curds and constantly stirred. Finally, the whey (liquid) is removed, and the remaining solids are packed for sale. Usually, the cheese is aged prior to being packed. It all sounded pretty simple and pretty quick. So we donned our hairnets and latex gloves, and went into the back of the building where the cheese is made.
The milk was already in the heating tray, and the cheese cultures and coagulant had been added earlier in the morning. Wanda explained the process, and then let us feel,taste and help cut it into curds.
Next we went into the other room for a cheese-tasting.
They had prepared a large tray of each of their cheeses and crackers, and offered us wine or juice to drink. We were able to try all types of cheeses that Quesos Vaca Negra produces commercially, plus some special flavored ones. Wanda explained the differences in the cheeses, how they were made, and how long they were aged. Man was that yummy!
After our cheese tasting, it was back into the prep room, where we saw that the soft curds had transformed into clumps of thicker curds. Now it was time for us to make our personalized cheeses.
We all got our cheese-making equipment and picked the seasonings that we would add to our cheese. We lined up at the cheese vat to fill our cheese bowl with curds. We added our seasonings to the curds, and squished it around with our hands to make sure the seasonings were evenly mixed, and the clumps were small. We tried to press out as much of the whey as we could.
Since we were making Capaez cheese, it needs to be aged. So we turned our cheese out of the cheese mold. They stacked our cheeses so that some more whey could drain out, then they were moved into the refrigerated storage locker for 60 days of aging. All in all, it was a fun and interesting morning.
The tour includes making a 2-pound cheese wheel and the cheese tasting. The price of this tour is about $85/person — each person makes their own cheese wheel. They also offer it for a special price for a couple — but you make a single 2-pound cheese wheel between the two of you.
Currently, tours are offered on Saturday at 2pm. Reservations are required. They may have more tours in the summer months if there is more demand. They may also do tours for groups on other days.
The cheese that you make has to age at least 2 months. So, you either have to go back and get it, or they can arrange to ship it to you for an additional charge.
Kids have to be at least 6 years old to go on the tour. Younger kids may get bored.
Allow about 3 hours, start to finish.
You can call Quesos Vaca Negra at 787-262-5656 for more information or to make a reservation.
The tour is in Spanish, but they can do a bi-lingual tour. Request that when you make your reservation. If you need an English-only tour, you can arrange a private tour.
Quesos Vaca Negra is located at Carr 493 KM 0.7, in Hatillo. From San Juan, take Route 22 west until it ends on Route 2. Turn right (east) on Route 2 and then a quick right onto RT 493. They have free parking in front and in back of the building.
Travel time from San Juan is a little over 1 hour.
Click on a placename below to view the location on Google Maps ...
PuertoRicoDayTrips.com assumes no responsibility regarding your safety when participating in the activities described in this article. Please use common sense! If your mother or that little voice in your head tells you that you are about to do something stupid … then don't do it!