Monday, August 27, 2012

Wisconsin Cheese Mart to offer 28-Year Old Cheddar

Twenty pounds of 28-year-old Cheddar – presumed to be the oldest commercial Cheddar ever verified and offered for sale in America -- will hit the market on Oct. 6 at an official Block Cutting Party at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart in Milwaukee.

The 28-year-old Cheddar will be priced at $6 per ounce - yes, ounce - and will only be sold at the store’s Cheese Bar. Additional super-aged Cheddars, at 20-plus years old, will be offered for sale in one-half pound wedges at the Cheese Mart shop for $60 per pound.

Wisconsin Cheese Mart owner Ken McNulty says all of the aged Cheddars are in excellent shape, and feature substantial crystallization on the outside of each block. The cheeses are sourced from two different Wisconsin cheese factories. Each block features an exact date of production and letter of verification from the cheesemaker.

“We are extremely lucky to have found these blocks of Wisconsin Cheddar and look forward to sharing them with the public for the first time on October 6th,” McNulty said.

The 28-year-old Cheddar is crafted by Ed Zahn, long-time cheesemaker at County Line Cheese in Oconto. A back injury in 1989 forced him to retire from cheesemaking, so Zahn decided to run a retail cheese shop instead. This spring, Zahn decided to retire for good. While sorting through the store’s inventory, he found a big surprise: many blocks of cheddar that were more than 20 years old. Zahn had made this cheddar at County Line in between 1984 and 1988.

“During the process of transferring cheese from the factory into another walk-in cooler, some of the blocks were misplaced in the walk-in cooler,” Zahn said. In a letter that will be included with every purchase of the 28-year-old Cheddar, Zahn says: “I take pride in the cheese that I made at the County Line Cheese factory from 1960 to 1988. Despite the fact that County Line is now closed, you can still enjoy my superb cheddars.”

In addition to the 28-year-old Cheddar, Wisconsin Cheese Mart will also offer a series of 20-plus-old Cheddars, some also produced by Zahn, and others crafted by cheesemaker Wayne Hintz, owner of Springside Cheese in Oconto Falls since 1973. Well-known for its award-winning Bandaged Cheddar and White Cheddar, Springside Cheese is one of northeast Wisconsin’s longest-running factories.

In a signed letter to be included with each 20+ Aged Cheddar, Hintz writes: “The cheese you purchased today is not only rich in flavor, it is also rich in tradition and history. Hand-made more than 20 years ago, it is one of the most aged cheeses in the world. I hope you enjoy its taste as much as I enjoyed crafting it.”

All Aged Cheddars will be available beginning at 11 a.m. on Oct. 6th at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and its adjoining Cheese Bar, at 1048 N. Old World 3rd Street. in Milwaukee. For more information, visit

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Whiskey & Cheese Geeks

Whisky is not my thing. At least I never thought so until last night. It turns out whisky, when presented with a first-rate storyteller in the form of Craig Johnstone from Bruichladdich, is actually pretty good. And it can be an excellent pairing with artisan cheese.

A few months ago, the fine folks who run the annual Madison Ruby Conference asked me if I'd partner with a whisky geek from Scotland to lead a two-hour cheese/whisky pairing session for 150 of their trade show attendees. I thought it sounded like fun, so when Craig emailed me the three whiskies he had chosen, I did like any good writer who hates whisky does - I googled each, and then blind-paired a cheese based on his tasting notes. I figured -- it's whisky -- how complicated can it be?

For the whisky drinkers out there, you know exactly how complicated it can be, and after two hours of whisky infotainment by Craig, I now have a much better understanding. Hell, I might even buy a bottle or two. Here are the pairings we came up with (all miraculously very good) and a little about each:

1. The Botanist, a small batch, artisanal Islay gin
Okay, so Craig pulled a surprise on me with this one, and I didn't have a cheese lined up to pair with it. But after tasting this aromatic gin (made with 22 wild, native island botanicals, including juniper), I'd pair Marieke Honey Clover Gouda with it. This gin is a relatively new offering from Bruichladdich, and the first batch they made filled 250,000 bottles (a little confidence is a good thing).

2. Laddie 10 paired with Sartori BellaVitano Gold
The first whisky of the evening proved to be my favorite, perhaps, as I was to learn later, it was the least-peatiest (is that a word?) of the Bruichladdich whiskies. This 10-year-old spirit was the first whiskey the company made in its renovated Victorian distillery on the far west of the Atlantic Coast of Islay. It is malted from only Scottish barley, slow-fermented and cask-filled at 70 percent. Its mellow oak sweetness paired well with the fruity BellaVitano Gold, highlighting the lighter, sugary notes of the drink.

3. Port Charlotte PC7 with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona
We learned this whisky has been sold out in Scotland for years, and that Craig had found a stash and bought it at Riley's Liquor to take back home with him. While this heavily peated whisky was not my favorite, I found a few drops of water helped cut the smoke so the taste of the barley and craftsmanship shined through. Bruichladdich is excellent at telling the story of its product, with profiles of everyone from the barley farmer to the crofters, to the export clerk included with every bottle. This whisky paired beautifully - the best pairing of the night - with Carr Valley Sweet Vanilla Cardona, a goat's milk cheese rubbed with sugar and infused with vanilla beans. Yum.

4.  Octomore 3/152 PPM with Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Branded as an iron fist in a velvet glove, this super-peated whisky about did me in. It was, however, the favorite of the whisky connoisseurs in the room. The company owner says it's "like getting hit by a 20-foot wave that has crashed over the peat bogs of Islay." I believe him. The Pleasant Ridge only brought out more smokiness, so while the true whisky lovers in the room loved it, in good news, the rest of us were too drunk by this time to care, and just gravitated toward more cheese. As usual, it's hard to wrong with one of the best artisan cheeses being made in the United States.

Many thanks to Craig and all of the Ruby goers for an entertaining and educational evening. If I can swing it, I'll be bringing Craig and his Bruichladdich artisan whiskies to a future Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival. He's just too entertaining not to share with my fellow cheese geeks.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Deer Creek Cheddar

When a pair of never-heard-of-before "Deer Creek" cheeses nearly swept the highly-coveted Aged Cheddar category at the American Cheese Society awards this month, the audience grew a bit quiet as Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange climbed the stage to collect his ribbons.

"I felt like I could hear crickets chirping in the background as I walked up there," said Gentine, who in the past decade has developed one of the nation's most successful marketing and export companies for American cheesemakers looking to expand abroad.

"First off, I am not a cheesemaker and would never claim to be," added Gentine, whose business is based in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin. "So Cabot Creamery and Beecher's Handmade Cheese (the cheesemakers who have dominated the category for the past three years) -- I really respect them. They are crafting some truly amazing American Originals."

While Gentine may not be a cheesemaker, he is a cheese geek. A licensed cheese grader for the past 15 years, his palate is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a Grade A and Grade AA cheddar. His new line of Deer Creek specialty Cheddars are believed to be the only Grade AA Cheddars on the retail market, and that's no accident. No cheesemaker really wants to go through the hoops to meet the higher standard, as each batch must be personally inspected by one of a handful of official State of Wisconsin certified cheese graders.

But Gentine's got the ambition, passion and geektoidness to make it happen. That's why he's spent the past three years working with Wisconsin cheesemakers, affineurs and cheese graders to develop a specialty, three-year Cheddar called Deer Creek Reserve, and that is why Deer Creek Reserve is now considered to be the best Aged Cheddar (between 2-4 years) in the nation.

Both the Deer Creek and Deer Creek Reserve are made in 40-pound blocks at the Land O' Lakes cheese plant in Kiel, long considered to produce some of the best Cheddar in the nation. The cheese is then aged and graded by Wisconsin Aging & Grading (aptly named), specifically for Gentine.

"We pull some samples from every vat, and then the team evaluates each sample," Gentine said. "We usually narrow it down to a smaller group, and then submit it to DATCP (WI Dept of Agriculture) for their official cheese grader to analyze. From that group, he might say only two or three meet the Grade AA standard. So those are the samples we age out. This is a process we have to go through every time to meet the Grade AA standard."

Gentine also oversees the production of two more cheeses: 1) Deer Creek The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Hennig at Henning's Cheese in Kiel (this cheese took a second in its category at this year's ACS competition), and 2) Deer Creek Vat 17, a cocktail culture Cheddar that was originally made specifically for a customer whose business model changed and could not purchase it (this cheese took second in the Aged Cheddar category).

"The Deer Creek Vat 17 is a really unique cheese," Gentine said. "It's got a cocktail of cultures in it that represent some of the best global Cheddars from the United Kingdom to Canada to New Zealand. It's an amazing cheese to watch and taste, as one culture dies off, another comes to the front and the taste completely changes. We're lucky it peaked at the right time to win at ACS."

So now that he has these amazing, award-winning Cheddars that heretofore no one had ever seen, how can the average person buy it? That's a good question, Gentine says. Because the wins at ACS were a surprise, he didn't have any of the cheese yet placed in the retail market. He's now working with distributors and specialty stores to make it available to the public, as calls are coming in from the publicity garnered from ACS.

As for future awards and accolades for the Deer Creek cheeses, don't expect too many. Gentine says he probably won't enter them into the American Cheese Society competition again, because he felt awkward competing against Wisconsin cheesemakers, many of whom are his clients.

"We'll continue to make it, sell it at retail, and I'm sure we'll be exporting the heck out of it," Gentine said. "But I think my time on the awards stand is done. I'll leave those honors to the cheesemakers. They're the ones who deserve it."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Wisconsin Dairy Goat Industry Drooping as Drought Lingers

The severe drought affecting southern Wisconsin may have a severe impact on the number of dairy goat farms left in the state by year's end.

With a sharp increase in feed costs (due to lack of forages), and a sharp decrease in milk production (due to heat stress), dairy goat farmers are predicting a mass exodus unless the pay prices that cheese plants pay for goat's milk are significantly increased.

"I am doing what I can, and writing to the people who buy the milk to try and deliver the message that we can't keep going when the price we get is less than what we can make it for," one goat producer messaged. "We all need to keep spreading the word so we can save our farms."

A cheese processor, Montchevre in Belmont, Wis., did just that last week, temporarily bumping up the price paid for 100 pounds of goat's milk to $33.50, up $1.50. In a statement made July 31, company president Arnaud Solandt said: "We trust this pricing adjustment will provide some sensitive relief. We also hope it will either influence other goat cheese manufacturers to do the same, or incite goat milk producers to come to Montchevre."

While goat farmers who ship to Montchevre said they appreciated the temporary bump in pay price, others said a permanent increase in milk prices must happen if Wisconsin doesn't want to lose the majority of its 196 licensed dairy goat farms. 

Case in point: an analysis posted on a dairy goat email list by a goat milk producer on August 1 stated dairy goat farmers need another $10 per hundredweight to bring them back to last year's profit levels. 
His analysis showed the following:
  • The base price of goat milk shipped to cheese plants for 2011 was $32.19 per hundred pounds. In 2012, it has been, on average, $33.58, a 4.3 percent increase over last year.*
  • In July 2011, the milk price was $30.50 per hundred pounds. Hay, even with the Texas drought, was $150 a ton for good quality. Grain was around $330 to $340. The break even point on feed costs was 3.5 pounds of milk per goat per day. So a herd of 100 goats would have to ship 1,400 pounds of milk in four days just to cover the feed cost.
  • In July 2012, the milk price was $32. Hay is now going for $250 a ton and grain is now $400 a ton. The break even point is now 4.6 pounds of milk per goat per day. So now, a herd of 100 goats has to ship 1,840 pounds of milk in four days just to cover feed costs.**
Therefore, the dairy goat farmer said, the $1.50 temporary price bump from Montchevre is "like a 1/4 inch of rain on this drought. It helps, but it is not going to fix the problem goat producers have in staying in business."

Another goat producer, who started milking three years ago, was forced to sell his herd on June 30 and rent out his facility to a large goat farm, just to keep making the farm loan payments. He hopes to save enough money in the next four years - if feed prices go down and the drought subsides - to build back the herd. Even with his recent loss, he thanked Montchevre for increasing the pay price last week.

"Thank God Montchevre is trying to do right by their producers, but as of this moment, nobody else is," he said. "I am afraid I will be working for the next four years for nothing, as will a lot of other people."

Kenny Burma, who started goat farming in 1996, retired, and then came back with a new facility, is now running a 600-goat farm in Green County. On August 3, he told the Wisconsin State Journal that a square bale of hay that cost him $45 six months ago now costs $100. Feed pellets that cost $229 a ton a year ago now cost $436.

"Is the increase from Montchevre enough? Maybe not, especially for those farmers who are recent to the business and have loans to pay," he told veteran reporter George Hesselberg. "If you are living milk check to milk check now, you will not survive this winter."

With roughly a third of the 196 dairy goat farms in Wisconsin estimated to be in business less than three years, it is doubtful that they - much like many Americans in this economy - are doing much more than living from pay check to pay check, after paying the bills and buying food for themselves and their animals.

Burma summed it up this way: "You have to wonder if it's worth it. Why am I getting up at 4 a.m. every day and losing money? I could do that in Las Vegas and have a better time."

* The average price was figured by adding up total yearly milk prices and dividing by number of pay periods.

** The total quantity of milk a goat gives each day is considerably less than that produced by a cow. A good dairy goat provides between 6 to 12 pounds of milk a day for about a 305-day lactation. In comparison, a good dairy cow provides almost five times that amount. -- courtesy of UW Cooperative Extension.

Friday, August 03, 2012

ACS Best in Show 2012

In a sign that mixed-milk cheeses are slowly and surely becoming American artisanal cheesemakers' claim to fame, Beecher's Handmade Cheese from Washington captured the 2012 American Cheese Society Best of Show award tonight with Flagsheep, a mixed cow and sheep's milk bandaged cheddar.

Of 1,711 cheeses entered by 254 different companies across North America, two more cheeses took top honors. Earning Runner Up Best in Show was Valley Shepherd Creamery from New Jersey with Crema de Blue, a cave-aged blue made from Jersey cow milk. Emmi Roth USA in Monroe, Wisconsin, took Second Runner Up Best in Show with its Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, an extra-aged Gruyere.

The awards ceremony highlighted the growing diversity of American artisan cheeses, with new companies from Montana to Maine earning ribbons in categories once dominated by Wisconsin cheesemakers. It was great to see cheesemakers across the United States embrace the growing artisan cheese movement.

Of course, several Wisconsin cheesemakers did very well. Perennial favorites Sid Cook of Carr Valley captured 14 awards and Francis Wall of BelGioioso Cheese was practically running laps around the auditorium trying to keep up with his company's awards.

Here's a look at all the 2012 ACS Blue Ribbon winners from Wisconsin:

  • Cambembert, Lactalis American Group, Belmont
  • Pastorale Blend, Sartori, Plymouth
  • Sharp Cheddar, Kraft
  • Deer Creek Reserve, The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheboygan
  • Billy Blue, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle
  • Gorgonzola with Sheep's Milk, BelGioioso, Green Bay
  • GranQueso Reserve, Emmi Roth USA, Monroe
  • Sharp Provolone Mandarino, BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay
  • Asiago, BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay
  • Peppercorn Feta, Klondike Cheese, Monroe
  • Colby with Jalapenos, Widmers Cheese Cellars, Theresa
  • Petit Frere with Truffles, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo
  • Fresh Mozzarella, Prosciutto & Basil Roll, BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay
  • Great Midwest Morel & Leek Jack, DCI Cheese, Richfield
  • Marieke Gouda Foenegreek, Holland's Family Cheese, Thorp
  • Wellspring Cranberry Orange, Montchevre, Belmont
  • Driftless - Natural, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby
  • Canaria, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle
  • Goat Milk Yogurt, Montchevre, Belmont
  • Goat Butter, Nordic Creamery, Westby
  • Sharp Cheddar Spread, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle
  • Horseradish Spread, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle
  • Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville

Congratulations to all the ACS winning cheesemakers! I'm looking to celebrating with you all tomorrow night and eating your cheeses at the Festival of Cheese.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

On Location at ACS: Meet the Cheesemaker in Raleigh, North Carolina

It's that time of year again, where more than 700 cheesemakers, distributors, retailers, educators and cheese geeks like me, gather to talk shop, eat cheese, and find out what's new in the cheese world. This year, we're in North Carolina at "Cheese Rally in Raleigh", the theme of the 29th annual American Cheese Society conference and competition.

Thursday is my favorite day of the conference, as mid-afternoon brings the Meet the Cheesemaker event, showcasing hundreds of cheeses from dozens of companies across North America. After asking this morning's keynote speaker Temple Grandin, noted author and expert on humane livestock handling, what her favorite cheese was (answer: blue), I set out to find her at least two new blues, and in the process, discovered a slough of new cheeses I'll be looking for from now on.

First up: two new Gorgonzolas from two Wisconsin companies. Hmmm ... is it a bit ironic that I have to travel 950 miles to discover new Wisconsin cheeses? I may be losing my touch.

1. Glacier Gorgonzola Cheese, Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin. A few months ago, Carr Valley owner and Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook purchased the old blue cheese factory in Linden, Wis., and renamed it Glacier Point. He's now making all his blues there, and for the first time, is crafting a cow's milk Gorgonzola that is to die for. Traditional and well-balanced, this Gorg has just the right amount of salt content and blue veining. Creamy, yet crumbly, it's got enough bite to make it interesting, but not enough to turn off a blue-veined virgin.

2. Crumbly Gorgonzola, BelGioioso Cheese in Wisconsin. A blend of cow and sheep's milk, this cheese is crafted in 15-pound wheels. Aged 90 days, it carries a full, earthy flavor and buttery finish that probably comes from the sheep's milk. You'll likely find it in 8 oz retail wedges soon in your local store, as it was launched into the retail market just three weeks ago.

Next up: the washed-rind revolution. Remember when you couldn't find a decent washed-rind cheese made in America? Those days are long gone. It seems every company is coming up with a new washed-rind cheese, and many of them are downright fabulous, including the following:

3. San Geronimo, Nicasio Valley Cheese Company in California. Biting into this two-month-old stinky washed rind cheese took me back to tasting St. Nectaire Fernier for the first time in the underground aging caves at Jean d'Alos Fromager-Affineur in Bordeaux, France. Creamy, mushroomy and supple, this new cheese from the Lafranchi Family in Marin County is a winner. Marketed as a cross between a Raclette and Fontina, this cheese is more on the order of a farmhouse French cheese. If you find it in a store, buy it all, hide it in your fridge, and don't share.

4. Alpha Tolman, Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont. Not yet on the market, this washed-rind beauty should hit retail shelves around Christmas. Currently at seven months old, this complex cheese is well on its way to becoming exceptional. Made in 20-pound wheels.

5. Wabash Erie Canal, Canal Junction Farmstead Cheese in Ohio.  At 10 months old, this Alpine style, washed-rind cheese is on the order of a traditional Gruyere, and carries notes of a Pleasant Ridge Reserve with an adjunct culture. Brian Schaltter is in his fifth year of cheesemaking, and this year's ACS conference is his first foray into the national cheese scene. If all his future cheeses are as good as this one, I suspect we'll see a lot more of him.

6. Glacial Lakes, Saxon Creamery in Wisconsin. This company is going through a bit of transition, having just taken on a new investment partner. Glacial Lakes is the first of what I suspect may be a new line of future cheeses. At only 98 days old, this grass-based, raw-milk cheese  cheese is creamy and buttery, with a clean dairy finish. With a little age, this cheese could be a rock star. Jerry Heimerl says he's hoping to age a few wheels to 7 or 8 months old, which seems like an excellent idea to me.

Last but not least, more and more smaller goat dairies across the United States are handcrafting exceptional bloomy rind cheeses. These are the kinds of cheeses that don't travel well, so if you find one in your local cheese case, by all means purchase it and enjoy it. My favorite of all these types of cheese is:

7. Three Sisters, Nettle Meadow Farm and Cheese Company in New York. This 50-acre dairy and cheesemaking company in the Southern Adirondacks milks 350 goats and 60 dairy sheep. Owners Lorraine Lambiase and Sheila Flanagan craft this delicate bloomy rind cheese, made from a combination of sheep, goat and cow milks. One word: yumolicious.

Last but not least, I have to share this amazing marketing piece from the Cellars at Jasper Hill. Packaged like a matchbook, with trading cards inside depicting each individual cheese in its repertoire, this novel little gem is miniature and adorable. Created by Zoe Brickley, sales and marketing manager, the piece replaces brochures that easily become out of date, and if the company adds or drops a cheese, they simply add or subtract a cheese card from the matchbook. Zoe hopes more cheesemakers will adopt the marketing package -- and already, Beehive Cheese Company has - to create a series of American cheese trading cards. Genius, sheer genius.
All photos by Uriah Carpenter.