What image does your mind conjure when you think of Dubliner?
If you have no context of the conversation, then the first thing your mind would jump to is a person that comes from Dublin, the capital and largest city of (Republic of) Ireland.
If you’re an avid reader, then the first association would be a book by James Joyce.
If you’re into folk music, were into folk music at any stage of your life, or have ever visited an Irish Pub and had “Seven Drunken Nights” stuck in your head, then you’ll likely think of the seminal Irish folk band The Dubliners first.
And if you know that here at Yummy Bazaar, the context is always about the food, then the first association to pop up in your mind will, more likely than not, be Irish Whiskey.
Well, the joke’s on you because as important as whiskey is to Irish gastronomy, it has nothing to do with today’s topic.
Because today we’ll be talking about Dubliner cheese. Fun fact to kick off the topic: Dubliner cheese has next to nothing to do with Dublin the city, Dubliner people, Dubliner the story, or Dubliner the whiskey.
Rather ironically, it’s the folk band that has the closest (if still just tangential) connection to today’s subject. Want to learn how that happened? Then keep on reading.
What is Dubliner Cheese?
Dubliner is a hard Irish cheese made with pasteurized cow’s milk. The recipe was originally developed (by accident!) in 1990 by John Lucey, a food science Ph.D. student. Lucey sold the original recipe to Carbery Group, which remains the cheese’s most prominent industrial producer to this day. Carbery-produced Dubliner cheese is sold under the brand Kerrygold.
Flavor: Dubliner is well-known for its sweet, distinct, and complex flavor. It’s primarily categorized as a sweet cheese but has relatively robust nutty undertones and a noticeable peppery sharpness. Taking a bite of Dubliner cheese is a transitional experience: sharp notes are initially the ones to come out (though the sharpness of Dubliner is somewhat milder than that of classic Irish Cheddar cheese it often gets compared to), it then morphs into nuttiness, and finally turns to sweetness, leaving primarily sweet aftertaste behind. Overall, it has a mature flavor with a pleasant bite to it, but not overwhelmingly so. It’s often described as combining Swiss cheese’s nuttiness and sweetness with Parmesan’s sharpness.
Texture: Dubliner is typically not consumed when fresh and young. When industrially produced, it’s packaged after being aged for at least 12 months. At this stage, its texture fully hardens, becomes firm and crumbly. Similar to Cheddar and Parmesan, Dubliner cheese may develop calcium lactate cheese crystals, and if it does, the texture becomes granular, with a bit of crunch. The butteriness in Dubliner cheese lends itself well to melting. The cheese has a thin natural rind.
Color: Dubliner cheese color varies from pale to bright yellow, which Kerrygold refers to as a “pot-o'-gold color.” The bright yellow shade is determined by the high beta-carotene levels in the milk used for Kerrygold Dubliner production.
However, when Dubliner is enhanced with added flavoring ingredients, it may change color and become a darker shade. The original cheese producer Kerrygold doesn’t add such flavorings (nor does it use natural dies like an annatto). But as Dubliner cheese doesn’t carry a protected status, other cheesemakers aren’t necessarily beholden to Kerrygold’s guidelines. For example, annatto-died “red Dubliner” can easily be found on the market.
Aroma: Dubliner cheese has a sweet and very buttery aroma with a bit of funky nuttiness to it. It’s somewhat reminiscent of Parmesan but considerably mellower. The peppery sharpness of the taste doesn’t translate into the aroma. The smell is overall noticeable, but not unpleasantly strong, and doesn’t permeate surroundings.
How is Dubliner Cheese Made?
The original Dubliner cheese recipe is still held secret: the creator sold it to Kerrygold (or, rather, to a member of the cooperative the Kerrygold brand belongs to), and both of them have kept it to themselves ever since.
However, many independent producers have been able to recreate it in a somewhat close capacity. It’s never been a secret that the process must be pretty similar to that of Irish Cheddar cheese production, as the creator used the same technology while experimenting with his recipe.
The original Dubliner recipe calls for using grass-fed (hence the higher levels of beta-carotene), full-fat, pasteurized cow milk. However, bear in mind that Dubliner isn’t a protected product, so producers aside from Kerrygold may alter the recipe, skipping the “grass-fed” or “full-fat” part.
Kerrygold Dubliner is also vegetarian-friendly! This fact lets us deduce that the production process doesn’t use animal rennet, instead adding microbial enzymes. But keep in mind that other manufacturers may alter the recipe using animal rennet, so always check the label if you’re avoiding cheese made with animal rennet.
The most important part of the Dubliner cheese process is Aging. Proper maturation conditions play an essential role in forming its distinct flavor profile. Classic Dubliner is supposed to be left to mature and develop for at least 12 months (though it can be left to age for up to 18 months).
Who Created Dubliner Cheese and Why:
Compared to the majority of the European cheese varieties in Yummy Bazaar’s assortment, Dubliner cheese is a veritable baby. The cheese that is currently in contest with becoming synonymous with the term Irish cheese has barely cracked its fourth decade.
Here’s how it all went down.
In 1990, a man by the name of John A. Lucey was working towards his Ph.D. in food science at University College Cork. Part of his research included creating unusual conditions for cheesemaking using the existing equipment (primarily equipment used for making a beloved Irish classic - Cheddar). According to Lucey’s own words, at the start of the experiment, he was “interested in mineral content and texture, not the flavor.”
Despite this, while observing his “unusual” cheese as the experiment went on and it aged, he still got the urge to give it a try. No surprise there: few, if any, people involved in making food products do so without loving food first. Of course, John Lucey wanted to know what his new baby tasted like. He just didn’t expect it to taste as good as it did, as developing the flavor wasn’t the (primary) goal of his cheese experiment. Yet.
The proto-Dubliner was predominantly sweet, with a noticeable peppery tang, and - the most important thing at that point - it very clearly wasn’t Cheddar, despite Lucey using Cheddar equipment in the process.
As any scientist worth their salt knows, one successful experiment doesn’t mean much. It might very well be a fluke.
So Lucey decided to see if he could replicate his not-Cheddar. He replicated the conditions used in his first experiment, made more cheese, and let it age as he did with the first batch. Once he checked the results and got confirmation that the experiment rendered reproducible results, he set about the next step of his research: the focus group.
In his case, it meant that he asked more people to give his new creation a taste and see if they would confuse it with Cheddar. The unofficial focus group agreed that the cheese wasn’t Cheddar.
Lucey claims that his experiment wasn't planned despite what some may think. He wasn’t even planning to create a new cheese. The experiments Lucey was conducting at National Dairy Products Research Centre (where he worked at the time) were just that: experiments that were supposed to influence various characteristics. He didn’t expect to suddenly have a good product on his hands.
And he wasn’t interested in dropping everything to suddenly become a cheesemaker either. Lucey was plenty happy with his chosen career path of a food scientist. But he wasn’t about to table his sudden experimental success either. So he got in touch with the representatives of the country’s cheese plants and invited them to a cheese tasting where he could convince them to put his new baby into production.
Lucey’s cheese had one major thing going for it: the plants wouldn’t need to be re-equipped because the new cheese could be made with Cheddar equipment. So any company that already manufactured Irish Cheddar cheese could manufacture Lucey’s cheese without additional capital costs and grab the attention by putting a new version of Irish cheese on the market, competing against other cheese producers more effectively.
Carbery Group (then just Carbery Milk Products), a leading Irish dairy, ingredients, and flavors business, decided they liked what Lucey was pitching and decided to start manufacturing… Araglen.
How Dubliner Cheese Got Its Name:
Araglen, or Araglin, is a village in Cork County. The cheese had nothing to do with Araglen, but that’s what Lucey chose to name it. Simply because he liked the way it sounded.
Carbery Milk Products (likely) had nothing against the village of Araglin, but they weren’t too keen on the name. They planned to make the new cheese their star export product, so they needed a snappy, loud name that elicited a stronger association with Ireland.
So, when they started manufacturing and packaging the cheese on a large scale several years later, they decided to change its name to Dubliner.
Not because Dublin was the capital of the Republic. Not because the cheese would be made in Dublin (the cheese continued to be produced in Cork Country).
It’s just that one of Ireland’s primary exports in Europe was music, namely music by the folk band The Dubliners. And while the band’s popularity in the 1990s wasn’t the same as it was during their career height, they were still well-known, well-loved, and, most importantly, distinctly Irish. So the PR Department at Carbery Milk Products theorized that changing a name to something more familiar-sounding would appeal to a broader market.
(I wonder how this story would go if The Dubliners never changed the name from The Ronnie Drew Ballad Group. Would the cheese be called Balladeer? Ronniedrew? We’ll never know, but boy, do I want to.)
Carbery Group is a co-member of Ornua, an Irish agricultural cooperative that markets and sells dairy products on behalf of its members. You might know them through their brand Kerrygold which The Irish Dairy Board created as a centralization mechanism for the overseas marketing of Irish dairy products. Today Kerrygold is one of the, if not the, most recognizable Irish butter and cheese brands worldwide, and certainly the most recognizable brand of Dubliner cheese.
The Types of Dubliner Cheese:
Classic Dubliner cheese is a high-fat, high-calcium, mature cheese that has been aged for at least 12 months. It’s supposed to have a firm, buttery texture and sweet flavor with distinct nuttiness and sharpness to it.
Other Dubliner cheese variations include:
Red Dubliner cheese, which is just Dubliner cheese died with annatto. Similar to Cheddar cheese, annatto only changes the color, not affecting either flavor or the texture of the cheese.
Vintage Dubliner cheese, which is Dubliner cheese that’s been aged for around 18 months. It has a more mature, sharper taste with well-pronounced nuttiness and umami notes.
Light Dubliner cheese is the reduced-fat Dubliner cheese. It typically has about 30% less fat content compared to the classic Dubliner.
Flavored Dubliner, which is a classic Dubliner with added flavoring elements. The most well-known among them would be the Kerrygold specialty, a Dubliner cheese with Irish Stout. It’s a classic 12-month-old Dubliner flavored with Irish Stout, adding noticeable malty and bittersweet undertones to the cheese.
Dubliner being comparatively young (practically a newborn baby to the world that’s been eating cheese for over 4,000 years) means the cheesemakers have yet to explore all the alterations that can be made to the recipe. We’ll be waiting to see what new varieties they have to offer in the future.