Specialty cheese-making in America is coming of age.
When the American Cheese Society convened last month in Washington, D.C., for its 19th Annual Conference, there were 467 entries in the yearly competition. Compare that to the 20 or so entered in a contest held shortly after the society was formed in 1982. But there's more to this story than the growing number of contestants.
"The biggest trend I see is an overall improvement in the quality of cheese being made," says Laura Werlin, author of The New American Cheese.
While cheese has been made here since the first Europeans arrived with dairy cows in the early 1600s, America has staked its claim to dairy fame on the development of industrial cheeses rather than those made lovingly by hand with milk obtained either from the maker's own herd of cows, sheep or goats or purchased from nearby farms. It is factory-made versions of cheddar, Colby, Gouda, mozzarella and more, designed for stability on grocery-store shelves, together with the ubiquitous "processed cheese" developed by John Kraft in the early 1900s, that have made the United States the world's largest producer.
Bulk, however, is one thing, and the fine art of cheese-making is another. For that, Americans have long looked to Europe.
"We don't have a fine cheese-making tradition here," says Alison Hooper of Vermont Butter & Cheese Co. "For years, we didn't have the technical knowledge, the generations of cheese-makers, to tell us how to do it."
In 1984, having spent time working with goat-cheese-makers in France and with a couple thousand dollars to invest, she and her husband dove headlong into cheese-making. "Americans weren't eating goat cheese and creme fraiche and all the things we now make," she says. "So we said, 'Let's pick an existing European product that we can't find here, and try to make it.' "
Her first attempts at making the fresh goat cheese called chevre were a hit with local chefs in Vermont and Massachusetts, and a business -- one that now sells more than a million pounds of handmade cheese each year -- was born.
Another pioneer among cheese-makers is Paula Lambert, who founded the Mozzarella Cheese Co. in 1982. For her, the model was the Italian cheeses she had enjoyed while living in Perugia, Italy. Her Dallas-based company now produces 250,000 pounds of cow's and goat's milk cheese each year in 20 or so varieties, all made by hand.
"The only mechanical equipment we have is a pump," she says. The vast majority of the new cheese-makers, she adds, are very small companies. "Most cheese-makers make very limited quantities, and sell their wares only locally."
Along with the cadre of cheese-makers for whom European-style products represent the gold standard is a growing number of practitioners for whom experimentation, rather than emulation, is the order of the day.
"Twelve of the 27 California cheeses that won last year's ACS competition didn't even exist four years ago," said Nancy Fletcher of the California Dairy Advisory Board, speaking at a Smithsonian-sponsored event during the conference. The fact that Americans are eating more cheese is a spur to production. "In 1990, Americans were eating 25 pounds of cheese a year," she says. "Now we are consuming 30 pounds per person," a figure she compares to the 50 pounds per person consumed in France.
Wisconsin, California and Vermont are the big three when it comes to artisanal cheese-making. California produces 1.6 billion pounds each year, much of it by hand, says Fletcher. The state is home to notable American inventions like Jack cheese, also called Monterey Jack, which dates back to the 1890s, along with its latter-day cousin, Dry Jack, which is an aged version of the original that develops a sharp, nutty flavor over time.
In Maryland, however, few dairy farmers have ventured into cheese-making, even though cottage industries like this can help even out the profit cycles of milk production.
The reason, according to Bill Zepp of the state Division of Milk Control, is that starting a creamery is an expensive proposition. It's not the cost of the facility itself, he says, referring to the bricks and mortar of establishing a creamery, but the equipment for milk-handling, pasteurization and storage that is out of reach for most small cheese-makers.
"A lot of farmers, especially goat farmers, talk to me about this, but when they find out what it costs, their interest withers," he says.
Dairy farmer David Keyes of Mount Felix Farm in Havre de Grace sees cheese-making as an entirely different enterprise from milking cows. So, he and a handful of other Maryland dairy farmers -- among them Kate Dallam of Broom's Bloom in Bel Air and Tom Mason of Fawnwood Farm in Chestertown, who sells his products under the name Eve's Cheese -- ship raw, unpasteurized milk to Amish cheese-makers in Lancaster County, Pa. There the milk is turned into basic American-style cheeses like Colby and cheddar, often flavored with dill, jalapeno or horseradish.
But Paul Koch of Firefly Farm Organics in Garrett County, a newcomer on the national cheese-making scene, and his partners are making cheese themselves, although not yet in quantities large enough to market.
Koch, who holds a day job as a Fannie Mae executive, spent around $200,000 to build his facility and assemble a herd. Both of Firefly Farm's entries in this year's ACS competition walked off with ribbons, including first prize for Mountain Top Bleu in the blue-veined goat's milk cheese division and third prize for Merry Goat Round, an aged 7-inch wheel entered in the aged goat's milk cheese category.
"What we thought after we attended the conference last year is that the world doesn't need another gorgonzola or camembert," Koch says. "What American cheese-makers can bring to the world is an unknown cheese." His Mountain Top Bleu, formed into a pyramid, aerated as it ages to produce veins of blue mold, and sporting blue surface mold mottled with white mold, is, indeed, unique.
Developing such a cheese is a challenge. "At the start, you make an awful lot of bad cheese," he says, describing a two-year process that began in his kitchen before moving to a creamery he built on one of his partners' farms.
"People underestimate the sensitivity of the process. Early on, we documented humidity, temperature and the timing of cutting the curd, trying to understand all the factors. Our early goat cheeses were just not creamy enough. Then we realized we were letting the acidity go too low, which hastened the curding process." That technical fix, along with the addition of Nubian goats, known for their high-fat milk, to his herd of Saanens, which offer greater milk production, resulted in an award-winning effort.
Such tenacity is paying off. Werlin likens the American cheese scene to that of American winemaking 30 years ago. "At that time," she says, "most people did not take American wine seriously. They looked at the wines coming from Europe as the real thing. The same thing is happening with American cheeses. Those in the know seek it out because they realize that it is good stuff."
With any luck, American cheese-makers will experience their own shot heard 'round the world, as did California winemakers. In the 1970s, the world gasped when, at a tasting in Paris, a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay and a 1973 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon beat the competition from Bordeaux and Burgundy to take first place in a blind tasting. On that day, California leaped into the world wine spotlight.
Although not so dramatically, the word is spreading about the ever-improving quality of American artisanal cheeses. Kathy Strange, cheese buyer for Whole Foods markets and current ACS president, tells of a recent very successful showing of American cheeses in Italy.
"A group of farmstead producers from the American Cheese Society attended the Cheese Art conference in Sicily last year," she says. "Their products were very well-received. There were thousands of people from the European community, and they were amazed at the quality and flavor profiles of these farmstead cheeses from all over the United States."
On the home front, demand for these products is growing, although slowly. Werlin cites two contributing factors. "As a body, American cheeses, while they have vastly improved, still have a way to go. Many people in the cheese-buying world are reluctant to try cheese they don't know because it can be expensive and is not always consistent."
But Strange is encouraged. "We are absolutely selling more American cheese," she says. "And now doctors are beginning to say that cheese in moderation is good for you. The protein and calcium cheese provides and the natural flora it encourages in your stomach are important to good health."
As for the question of emulation or experimentation in American cheese-making, Strange believes both have a place. "Cheese-makers have to experiment to make a name for themselves," she says. They have to stand out in a competitive marketplace. "People like Paul Koch are going to add some new lifeblood into the business. That's very exciting."
However, as important as experimentation is for developing market share, Strange thinks tradition may ultimately rule. "It is wise for producers to emulate the styles of Europe," she says. "Those techniques are centuries old, and the cheese will be very flavorful because of tried-and-true methods."
A few names
There are now more than 200 artisanal cheese-makers in the United States. A few names to look for at your local specialty-cheese counter are:
Cypress Grove Chevre
McLeod Creamery at Oak Grove Farm
The Mozzarella Co.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Co.
Vella Cheese Co.
Vermont Butter & Cheese Co.