American, Artisan Cheese; Why You Should Eat It

Recently I had an interview that required a 15 minute presentation. I spent a good deal of time on it so instead of only 5 people seeing it, I thought I would share it here. Enjoy!

Specialty cheese sales have grown over 5 times as fast as the overall cheese category in recent years and it’s thought that 46% of the 19 billion dollar natural and specialty cheese category is being produced by smaller cheesemakers. We’ve seen more shops open that just cater to selling only American, artisan cheese and the consumer knowledge base around these domestic products has grown immensely yet there is still a common misconception that France makes the best cheese, full stop. While I’m sure the French would fight me on this, I truly believe that the United States is currently making the best cheeses in the world. I do admit to not having tried all of those cheeses but I stand by my statement.

My time behind the counter over the last 16 years has seen the rise of this more educated consumer and the rise of more domestic cheese producers. I’ve personally seen the shift of people asking specifically for French cheese “because it’s better” to asking for cheeses made locally or the best being made domestically. This shift has been exciting to me personally as I’ve seen the quality of domestic cheeses improve throughout the years and believe they are at the caliber of competing on a global scale. I do tend to root for the underdog though.

When people ask me why I’m passionate about American, artisan cheese, these are the reasons I give:

1. I believe we are on the forefront of science in cheesemaking

2. We’ve had the ability to have free expression in our cheesemaking leading to new flavor profiles and to new and creative ways of experiencing cheese

3. They bolster the local economy

4. Deliciousness is the obvious answer that I won’t even get in to here.

So, Let’s get to it!

Bacterial microbiomes. Sounds scary, doesn’t it? It definitely can be! Thankfully, American artisan cheesemakers are really on the forefront of research when it comes to bacteria. With places like Jasper Hill Farms investing in a microbiology lab on site, the understanding of cheese science is far beyond anything imagined even 10 years ago. This movement is key to making cheeses safer than ever before and for companies to be able to recover from, what would be in the past, a devastating end of business if harmful bacteria is found.

Cheesemakers now have the ability to track and trace the bacterial organisms present in the surroundings and while many small cheesemakers can’t afford to have a microbiology lab on site, there are more options for testing than ever before. Continuous testing from animal to aging room is imperative. As an industry that plays with bacteria that many regulatory offices see as “dangerous”, it is key that the information and scientific backing is there to argue the case of safety. There is now so much information that can be shared between cheesemakers to make sure that the local USDA/FDA are not over reaching and tossing thousands of dollars worth of product and time without due cause. The cheesemakers can often be the education piece between the regulations and the reality with a solid and firm science.

The industry saw this when it came to aging cheese on wood boards. JHF had already been working hard and documenting the safety of the long-held tradition when the FDA decided to start cracking down on its use. Because of their hard work, the industry as a whole benefitted from that information and cheesemakers were able to provide scientific documentation to their local inspectors resulting in the FDA backing off.

Another example I’ve heard recently is from Cherry Valley Dairy in Duvall, Washington. Mostly known for their award-winning butters, they’ve had a hard time making anything with a bit of age to it. They’ve come up with some ways to get things to age out a bit longer but with some testing and guidance at ACS this year, they’ve found a fungus that is prevalent from the flood tables on the pasture itself. It doesn’t show itself on younger cheeses but trying to age anything over 4 months has caused truck-loads of cheese to be discarded. Having this information now though has lead them down a different path. They now know their age limit and they have started playing around with washing the cheeses instead of coating them. It’s only been a couple of months but they are already starting to see clear results. Instead of fighting this fungus, they just have to figure out how to harness it to produce the best tasting cheese for their milk.

Without generations of time for trial and error like European counterparts, our cheesemakers are looking through the microscope to create new flavor profiles and innovating the industry. Cheesemakers in the US haven’t been bogged down with centuries of tradition so the industry has always flourished with new takes on old recipes. The American originals category at ACS has grown considerably over the last few years with cheesemakers making products that don’t accurately fit in to labels that represent European recipes. It’s more of a dash of this, and a dash of that. For example, Humboldt Fog stands on its own as a classic American, artisan cheese though you can see reflections of the past in each wheel. It conjures thoughts of Morbier with its ash line but it also feels reminiscent of Loire valley goat cheeses with their soft coating of ash and delicate paste. These are not two styles of cheese you would normally think of in one wheel.

Currently, projects like the Cornerstone project are starting to really take off and it should be interesting to see how this could change the landscape of cheesemaking in the US. In case you’re unaware, the Cornerstone project is a collaboration between 4 cheesemakers in the north eastern part of the United States. They are all making the same cheese but creating their own native cultures to inoculate the cheese. Between the cultures, the land, and the hand of the cheesemaker, the differences in the wheels make them essentially different cheeses though they are all using the same recipe. There are few “culture houses” for makers to buy cultures from so at times you’ll taste similar flavor profiles in domestically made cheese but this project could change the flavor landscape of American cheesemaking all together.

Even when talking about pairing cheese we are seeing innovation and creativity on every level. Mushroomy, soft ripened cheese wrapped in nori, fresh chevre coated in matcha powder, pickled brussel sprouts with alpine style cheeses. We are taking flavor profiles to the next level and pairing them with things never before seen. There are no rules and everything is open to trying. Potato chips have become a staple on cheese boards, articles have been written about pairing Whitman’s chocolates with cheese. Everything is up for grabs! Conversely, the flavor added category has become one of the largest categories of judging at ACS. Not all of them are good but makers are trying new things and trying to think outside the box to create something delicious and unexpected.

Collaborations between cheese and beer companies doing seasonal iterations of well-established cheeses are becoming more common also. There is added excitement about how the beer addition changes the flavor of the cheese and the joint marketing between the two entities is beneficial to both parties. These collaborations tend to stay local, utilizing companies that exists in the same region. It creates the taste of place but also helps the local economy grow which is exactly my next point.

American, artisan cheesemakers bolsters the local economy.

Maybe you’ve heard about the cheese glut affecting the United States right now. It’s a complicated issue that has nothing to do with my thoughts about buying domestically made, artisan cheese but at the same time it has everything to do with it. I’m talking about the cheeses we would naturally think of as “Artisan”. I know that word has lost a bit of meaning in the last few years with places like McDonald’s having an “artisan” menu but I’m referring to companies not on the commodity cheese market. The smaller companies that are more likely found behind a cut to order case.

This cheese glut is affecting all cheesemakers but stands to affect the artisan companies in a different way. The commodification of farms is leading to all time high milk productions. Large corporations like Dean Foods and Walmart, are actively consolidating their milk sourcing to one large farm instead of multiple smaller family farms so without those guaranteed contracts, many small/medium sized farmers are going out of business. These large farms are producing at levels that smaller farms just can’t. Milk prices are tenuous and so these large companies are putting their excess milk in to value added products like cheese, inevitably driving down prices at the retail level. Consumer knowledge around this issue is minimal so when they hear of these lower prices, they often wonder why they can’t get artisan cheeses in the same price range. The expectation is that if some prices come down, all prices should come down.

The loss of these smaller farms is detrimental to our rural areas because some recent global studies have shown that smaller farms are more productive per unit of area than larger farms. They usually produce a more diverse selection of products and they tend to be the ones feeding the poorest in the area, including their own families. Also, smaller family farms do more for the local economy because it is estimated that 95% of farm purchases from these farms are made locally. That means they are also creating stability in the area by ensuring that other small businesses are kept afloat.

Partnerships between small farms and cheesemakers are crucial right now because it can benefit both sides of the equation. A cheesemaker working with a small farm can help fine tune the feed of the animal to produce a milk rich in nutrients the cheesemaker needs to create the cheeses they are looking to make. Oftentimes, cheesemakers will pay a considerable amount more for the milk than can be received on the fluid milk market. These cheesemakers are usually proud to work with certain farms and are willing to talk about where the milk comes from instead of just being another unnamed farm in the mix. This shared marketing program creates more consumer knowledge about both sides of the coin and creates more brand loyalty in their local buying habits.

Between science, free expression, and boosting the local economies, American artisan cheese is a powerful thing. We’ve seen enormous growth over the past few years and some fear we may have started to reach our plateau. While I don’t think that is the case, the changing retail landscape will continue to make us innovate but thankfully, innovation is an American tradition.