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The Future of American Cheesemaking Is in Vermont

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Winnimere cheese. [Photograph: Lark Smotherton Photography, courtesy Jasper Hill cellars]

Twelve years ago, two brothers, Mateo and Andy Kehler, bought a farm in Greensboro, Vermont, and set out to make beer; it's a good thing they failed.

Then they tried their hand at tofu, and it's a good thing that didn't work out either. This isn't schadenfreude; what happened next is that the Kehler brothers turned their attention to cheese. That worked out really, really well. In a mere decade, they have gone from novices to leaders in one of the one busiest cheesemaking states in America.

The Kehlers devoted themselves to the study of dairy farming. Mateo went to Europe and worked with masters like the folks at Neal's Yard in England, and he learned the ins and outs of cheesemaking, aging cheese, and its marketing and distribution. Andy studied dairy animals and their care, and he developed and implemented a business plan.

In 2003, they started making cheese and my, the cheeses were amazing. Their Constant Bliss is rich and creamy full of biting flavors. Those who know the cheese—and how can anyone forget a name like Constant Bliss—probably have Pavlovian recall of its intoxicating blend of cauliflower, fungal, earthy overtones. Their Winnimere is woodsy, dense, and mushroomy; it is washed in a lambic ale as it ripens. Their Bayley-Hazen Blue is buttery, peppery and earthy in perfect proportion; it will improve anything you put it on—a salad, a burger, endive, or a steak—but it's really, really good alone on a baguette with a Belgian style wheat beer.

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Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. [Flickr: sisterbeer]

Last, but far from least, the Kehlers' best known cheese, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, doesn't even bear their name. It was the result of a collaboration with the Cabot dairy collective, whose products are nearly ubiquitous in finer retailers. They set out to make traditional clothbound cheddar in the English tradition, and once the Kehlers began working with a single herd of animals, they accomplished their goal. It's a complex cheddar, full of rich, earthy flavors, and a sharp, horseradishy finish. In 2006, it won Best in Show in the American Cheese Society prestigious judging, an award which honors the very best cheeses in the United States. It's an exceptional accomplishment for such a new endeavor.

If this was a Hollywood movie then this is the glorious conclusion where the brothers stand on a hilltop overlooking a bounteous green landscape, a gleam of success in their eyes and their spines stiffened by a sense of accomplishment. But this isn't the end of the story, it's the beginning.

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Andy Kehler at the Jasper Hill cellar. [Flickr: Live Simply]

Not satisfied with hurtling down the fast track of American cheesemaking, the Kehlers embarked on something far more ambitious. They began creating a 22,000 square foot facility with seven chambers to age different types of cheese. At the time, Jasper Hill made about 75,000 pounds of cheese annually, but their goal was to age and distribute not only their own cheese but that of their neighbors. This is how many leading European creameries operate and it has enabled affineurs, the masters of cheese-aging like Rolf Beeler in Switzerland, Herve Mons in France and those folks at Neal's Yard in England, to become synonymous with high quality cheese. The Kehlers built the Cellars at Jasper Hill in order to join this tradition.

Unfortunately, it has taken some time for their neighbors to get on board. "The response has been a little underwhelming," said Zoe Brickley, the director of sales and marketing for the Cellars at Jasper Hill. While several fine creameries in the Greensboro area including Ploughgate, Landaff and Von Trapp Farmstead have joined the fold, many Vermont dairy farms are taking a wait-and-see approach. What may persuade them is how well-distributed Jasper Hill cheeses have become. Many Vermont cheeses only make it to such northeast hubs like Boston and New York, but Jasper Hill's goodies are sold nationwide.

We're entering the next phase of great cheesemaking in America. For more than a decade, Americans have been making cheeses that rank among the world's best. Only the stodgiest, most provincial European would deny that cheeses like Pleasant Ridge Reserve or Rogue River Blue or the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar belong in the Pantheon of cheese. And there are dozens more of that caliber being made every day. The next issue is getting all these great cheeses to large numbers of Americans, like the Kehlers aim to do. It may take a few years before their story reaches the point where the music swells and they stand on that hilltop, but until then we get to enjoy their cheese.

About the author: Martin Johnson runs The Joy of Cheese, a series of informal cheese tastings that take place at four New York City bars and the 92nd Street Y. He has worked in and around cheese for 26 years, and he spends his weekend afternoons and evenings on the counter of the Bedford Cheese Shop in Brooklyn. He blogs at thejoyofcheese.wordpress.com

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