Gourmet cheese: worth the price. —INGRAIN, Winter/Spring 2020
STORY / Cara Condon
As a monger, I used to get the question (or worse, the look), “Why is this cheese so dang expensive?”
It was understandable. Sometimes cheeses can cost as much as $40 a pound, which is crazy compared with the prices of most industrially produced cheeses we are used to buying at the grocery store.
But here’s the thing: It’s not crazy when you consider all that goes into making cheese. You think dog food is expensive? Try feeding a cow. Wait, no, try feeding a hundred of them. How about that recent vet bill that your dog racked up from constantly eating his food too fast? Now picture the kinds of trouble goats can get into (I’ll spare you) and their vet bills.
Since industrialization, Americans have adopted a very disjointed view of where our food is sourced. Food is always available, and it’s abundant and cheap. However, it’s important to recognize that cheese is an agricultural product that is affected by seasonality and is at the mercy of the weather in addition to so many other farming realities. And, dangit, cheese deserves some respect!
Before we can even talk about cheese, we have to look at grass. Pasture-fed ruminants provide milk that is rich with vitamins, flavor, and, most importantly, fat. That phrase the fat of the land? It gets pretty literal when it comes to cheesemaking. As humans, we can’t get much nutrition from these grasses (varieties like ryegrass, foxtail, sorghum, and timothy—the latter often used to make hay bales). We rely on the animal’s ability to process that grass through rumination, their digestive process, and fermentation within its stomach, which together distill the nutrients for our consumption.
Consider Jasper Hill Farm, one of the most highly regarded American cheese producers. The farm has five team members focused solely on the quality of grass and other animal feed they give their on-site herd of dairy cattle. Recently the farm built a state-of-the-art facility to dry hay on-site—the first of its kind to operate in the United States. (Drying hay in a moist climate with limited hours of sun, like in Vermont, is particularly difficult. Typically hay in the area is stored “wet,” but this causes the hay to ferment, which in turn disrupts the balance of microflora in the farm’s raw milk cheeses.) Converting the grass into hay retains the nutritional value and also allows for a quality check of the feed before it is given to the herd.
“A cow’s diet directly influences the components in her milk,” explains Ellie Searles, the Cropping Crew Manager at Jasper Hill. Every day, Searles and her five-member team are out in the fields determining the health of the grasses before cutting and drying them to make hay. They’re looking at the energy and protein content of the grasses, which maximize the nutrient profile and thus the quality of milk. “Forage quality is at the root of high-quality cheesemaking.”
There is no fix or trick to make really stunning cheese from poor-quality milk. Animals take a lot of work to maintain. Their health is very important to the whole operation and can’t be taken lightly. Animals must be milked in the morning and at night, which, if you have a large herd, can take up a lot of time. And we still haven’t even started talking about the cheesemaking process yet!
Like beer, cheese is made from just four base ingredients: fresh milk, salt, starter culture, and rennet. With those ingredients, thousands of different cheeses can be produced. With each step in the cheesemaking process, the cheesemaker must make a decision that greatly affects the final product and, in the end, creates a completely unique cheese. It’s like that SAT question, “How many outfits can you make from four sets of pants and four sets of shirts?”
There so many different styles of cheese, each with their own recipe, but here is a generalized idea of what has to happen to turn milk into cheese.
The cheesemaker begins by adding starter culture to fresh milk, either raw or pasteurized, which triggers the fermentation process.
Next, rennet is introduced, which is an enzyme that jump-starts coagulation and turns the milk into a Jell-O–like substance.
The gelatinous mass is then cut with a screen made from crisscross wires, turning the mass into small cubes (this also helps to expel whey and leaves the curds behind). The curds are where all the delicious fat and flavor hide that the cheesemaker is trying to isolate; the whey is the watery by-product. The whey is drained off for other uses; it’s sometimes fed to animals or sold off to pharmaceutical companies or weightlifters for protein.
Salt is added to the vat of curds and, depending on what style of cheese is being made, the curds are put into molds. To make a soft cheese, the curds are typically placed directly into the forms and are not pressed (or are only lightly pressed). Curds used to make hard cheeses may be milled further, which releases more whey; they are then pressed to compact the curds and create a firmer texture. Then they begin aging.
As with spirits, the time you must wait to eat a cheese after the cheesemaking process varies wildly. Fresh cheeses, like chèvre or ricotta, can be enjoyed the day they are made. Soft-ripened cheeses typically need to age several weeks, while blue cheeses need a few months. Much like an aged añejo tequila, hard cheeses like traditional Parmigiano- Reggiano must age for at least a year and may be aged for up to three years.
Sometimes the aging requirements have to do with flavor or the cheesemaker’s vision. Name-protected cheeses, such as Manchego, have aging requirements that are regulated by the government in order to maintain the integrity and heritage of the product. American block cheddars can age anywhere from a few months to about fifteen years. Fifteen years is extreme, but if you have to wait that long to sell your product, your return is tied up for quite some time. As a customer, you can expect to pay a premium, as one would for bourbon aged for the same length of time.
Usually only well-established creameries can afford to sustain cheeses that age for a long time; many will balance that time commitment by offering younger cheeses for sale as well. “Time is money” gets pretty literal in this case.
After all that hard work, it would be a shame to screw something up. The logistics of shipping cheese aren’t very romantic, but it is extremely important. Consider that it is still common for European cheeses to come over on boats, which can take weeks. Cheese can easily spoil or get damaged in transit, so getting it from place to place can be pricey. Keeping food in a safe temperature-controlled environment is required, along with many quality checks along the way. It’s as if you always had to pick the overnight shipping option when you’re online shopping, except your new sneakers aren’t going to spoil.
So next time you are in front of a cheese case, gazing at all of the little sweeties in front of you, think for a moment of their long journey and all of the people who lovingly handled them. And how, at one point, each and every one started out as grass.
These cheeses are pretty widely available across the U.S. and have a nice entry price point. Plus, they’re unique enough to be exciting while still pleasing a crowd. They’re a great first foray into delicious, honest cheeses. —Cara Condon
Made by a Mennonite who started making cheese in his teens, this American cheddar includes Swiss cultures, which results in a sweeter profile. This cheese reminds me of a piña colada, with bright and tangy pineapple notes complemented by rich dairy creaminess. Beers with more fruit-forward hops, like Mosaic or any of the American “C” hops, work really well here, but this cheese is super friendly with most beers. $10 for 7.5 ounces, igourmet.com
FRESH GOAT CHEESE
Allison Hooper started Vermont Creamery in the ’80s with her friend Bob Reese when a French chef needed fresh goat’s milk cheese and it was next to impossible to find it outside of California. It took many years for Americans’ finicky tastebuds to catch up, but this tangy goat’s milk cheese is now available nationwide. Vermont Creamery’s version is fluffy, bright, and tangy—not chalky or goaty like mediocre chèvre. It’s perfect for wheat beers, Saisons, and anything with a bit of fruit, whether perceived or actually present. $12 for 10.5 ounces, murrayscheese.com
Keith Adams founded Alemar Cheese Company in 2008 and within two years had won third place in his category at the American Cheese Society’s annual awards—basically, the Olympics of cheese. This sort of meteoric rise to fame in the cheesemaking world was absolutely unbelievable, especially for a Camembert-style cheese that is difficult to master. Rich with notes of roasted broccoli, brown butter, and sautéed mushrooms, it pairs best with farmhouse ales and beers with a little funk, like Sofie or pretty much anything from Allagash. $20 for 13 ounces
Shaped like a cake and invented in a dream, Humboldt Fog is one of the most iconic American originals out there. It has an instantly recognizable layer of vegetable ash down the middle. Created by one of the goat visionaries of the ’80s, Mary Keehn, this cheese was ahead of its time. Bright and tangy, with a mushroomy flavor, this pairs great with wheat beers and light Saisons. $25 for a 16-ounce wheel
AGED BRICK SPREAD
Honestly, who can resist a cheese spread? This one is particularly special, made up in Wisconsin by third-generation master cheesemaker Joe Widmer. His grandfather made brick cheese, a uniquely Wisconsin washed-rind style created more than a hundred years ago by Swiss immigrants; Joe carries on those traditions to this day. The spread is a blend of aged brick and cheddar cheese. That’s right: real cheese! It’s funky and tangy, and it begs to be scooped up with the pretzels on the bar and many, many beers. A classic Budweiser or Half Acre’s Daisy Cutter are my go-to pairings, but pretty much anything works here. $4.75 for 8 ounces