Weekend Warrior: Michael Wrinch has a taste for danger

Credit: Alec Jacobson

Wrinch has learned how to produce brie in his basement “cheese factory”

The Hedgehog Technology CEO says making cheese is a risky business

“I’ve been doing electrical engineering my whole life,” says Michael Wrinch. “I was born this way.” When Wrinch was a child, his mother noticed that he enjoyed taking things to pieces, so she asked the local TV repairman to drop off anything customers didn’t want fixed at the end of the driveway. Wrinch would load them in his wagon, take them to the basement and dismantle them. He estimates he took apart 300 televisions, organizing the wires by colour and collecting the tubes in a box.

The latest passion for the CEO of engineering consulting firm Hedgehog Technologies is making bread and cheese. Inspired by the food he and his wife enjoyed on a trip to France, he started off making baguettes, using a stone mill to grind wheat purchased from local farms.

“As an engineer I make things—that’s what I like to do,” Wrinch explains. So then he moved on to cheese. “Bread has about four steps that you can screw up,” he says. “Cheese has about 12.”

The first he attempted, a brie, took 14 tries to get right—

and each time he had to wait six weeks for the result. He’d consulted books and an online chat room, and got pasteurized milk as fresh from the cow as possible, but eventually realized that what was missing was a cave with 92-percent humidity and a temperature of 10 C. “I needed to create France in my basement.”

So Wrinch bought a bar fridge and built a computer that controls its humidity and temperature. He calls it the cheese factory. “In the cheese world, at 100-percent humidity you get black mould, which I think is deadly,” Wrinch remarks. “At 90-percent humidity, you get the nice, white, fluffy mould.”

Lack of cleanliness or too high a temperature also produce the wrong type of mould. “If the humidity’s too low, you get this horrible thing that happens to cheese,” Wrinch says. “It rumples up and it looks all wrinkly, like a disgusting animal of some kind.” Thanks to such outcomes, he’s learned that “making cheese is about risk management and being careful with how you plan and how you execute on things because if you don’t, it doesn’t turn
out well.”

Born in Kamloops and raised in Victoria, Wrinch was introduced to managing risk while at university. He fought forest fires during the summers—earning the nickname “Hedgehog” because he always had dirt on his face—and did cold ocean research on icebergs at Memorial University of Newfoundland. He has a bachelor’s and MASc in electrical engineering from Memorial and completed a PhD in power systems electrical engineering at UBC in 2008 as a project connected to his company, Hedgehog Technologies.

The cheeses that have turned out best are brie, camembert and feta. “I can say, Hey, we’re going to have a dinner party in six weeks, and I’ll chef up some cheese in the basement and then it’ll be ready,” Wrinch points out. Cheddar takes a year, and he’s never managed to make a good one. “I wouldn’t serve it to you,” he confesses. “It would just be me in secret eating it and crying.”

Another nemesis is cambozola, a blue cheese mixed with a type of brie. “It eludes me to this day,” Wrinch admits. “You make your cheese, and you get this blue mould and you poke it into the cheese, and the blue mould and the white mould fight together. It’s a very tricky thing. That’s right up my alley. In engineering, I like hard problems.”

Warrior Spotlight

Michael Wrinch graduated from Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2001, after the dot-com crash and 9/11, “when everyone thought the world was going to end,” he says. Returning to Vancouver to find no one was hiring, he started an engineering consulting firm, Hedgehog Technologies.

The company, whose 20 staff recently moved into a larger office in Burnaby, does safety critical control; builds things that are dangerous, like submarines, roller coasters and bumper cars; and designs energy, industrial, marine and rail systems that require high performance, safety and exceptional reliability. “Basically, what we are is experts in is risk management,” Wrinch says.