The story of early American history is also the story of its cheese. And we have the English to thank (or blame) for both.
Cheddar: The Original American Cheese
In the 17th century England, both cheesemaking technology and news ways to transport it were rapidly evolving. That's also when it saw a migration across the Atlantic to the colonies. The settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony came from the dairying regions of East Anglia, which was the original supplier of cheese and butter to London's growing urban market, and with these settlers came a deep knowledge of, and interest in, dairying and cheesemaking.
The Puritans kept careful tabs on their home country's advances in cheesemaking, and for a long time were the only big name in cheese in America. It took until the mid-19th century, when new waves of immigrants crossed the Atlantic, for other cheeses to take root in the U.S. As the colonies expanded northward (see: Vermont) and eventually westward, cheesemaking traditions followed, laying a strong foundation for cheddar across the Northeast.*
Which isn't to say that early American cheese was only cheddar. Those colonial cheeses were firm, aged cow milk types that today we'd call cheddar-like, but they also bore some similarity to English territorial cheeses like Cheshire.
The legacy remains. These days the U.S. produces over three billion pounds of cheddar a year.
The Rise of the Cheese Factory
In addition to its seat as the originator of American cheddar, the Northeast boasts another critical advancement in cheesemaking: the origins of the first factory operation, founded by Jesse Williams in Rome, NY in 1851.
Prior to the mid-19th century, cheesemaking was a personal enterprise; by acquiring milk on a regional scale, Williams was able to produce more than 100,000 pounds of cheese in his first year, more than five times the average creamery yield. The Civil War further cemented the value of the factory cheesemaking as women, left in charge of their families and farms, found it easier to sell their milk to a local factory than make their own cheese. Doing so also provided them a consistent revenue stream—and often cheese provisions to boot.
A Modern Cheesemaking Powerhouse
All of this is to say that the Northeast's past—its cheddar and factory traditions—ripples out to the present, influencing the region's cheese today even as modern cheesemakers are innovating their techniques and exploring new cheese varieties.
It's hard to talk about cheese in the Northeast without beginning and ending the conversation in Vermont. With one artisan cheesemaker for about every 13,000 people, the highest ratio of any state in the union, Vermont's got it going on. The state also boasts a remarkable diversity of cheeses: All milk types are represented, as are all styles of cheese, from Brie-like to blue to Alpine.
But what impresses me about the Northeast's cheesemaking industry is that it offers cheese produced on all scales, from the nationally distributed to the hyper-regional, typically sold only at farmers' markets and perhaps a few local specialty shops. That means there's always something new to discover.
To aid and abet your exploration, the Northeast offers several chances to plan a cheese journey. For example, the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival is held every August, and the Washington County (NY) Cheese Tour opens doors in September at five farms across that region for tasting and farmy fun.
Northeast Cheeses to Seek Out
I'm dividing my list of recommended cheesemakers into four groups based on what I consider the four major eras of American cheesemaking:
- The Bedrock: Bigger brands that originated in the early to mid-20th century, often through farmer cooperatives; what most people today think of as "factory" cheeses.
- The Upstarts: Like the cheese changemakers on the West Coast, these cheesemakers were inspired by French-style cheeses, and started selling their own in the 1980s and early '90s, largely eschewing cow milk for goat and sheep.
- The Second Wave: New craft cheesemakers who saw the trail forged by the disruptors. Many of these cheesemakers trained in Europe before making farmhouse and specialty cheese of all kinds.
- The Newbies: Makers who are often micro-creameries or sole proprietors. Today's makers work with tiny yields and some mad-scientist ideas.
Now another caveat before I get to The List. There are HUNDREDS of great cheesemakers in the Northeast and I can't include them all. These are some my favorites, and the most influential/representative of their various eras.
Cabot Creamery: A farmer-owned cooperative based in Cabot, VT, making cheese since 1919. Though known for their block cheddars, Cabot had the foresight to develop a clothbound cheddar in partnership with Jasper Hill Farm, which ages the award-winner in its cellars.
Crowley Cheese: Healdville, VT boasts the oldest continually operating cheese factory in America (built in 1882, though the cheese has been made since 1824). Crowley Cheese is much like Colby or mild cheddar, though it's available flavored or in "sharp" profiles.
Grafton Village Cheese Co.: The original Grafton, VT factory burned down in 1912 and was brought back by the non-profit Windham Foundation in the 1960s. Makers of unpasteurized, Jersey cow milk cheddars known for their intense bite (especially when aged for three years or longer).
Vermont Creamery: Home to wonderful cultured butter and Loire Valley/Poitou-style aged goat cheeses like Bonne Bouche and Coupole, made in Healdville, VT. Wrinkly-rinded, moist, herbaceous, and consistently excellent.
Coach Farm: The Cahns made their money selling Coach handbags and bought a farm and goats in Pine Plains, NY. The first suppliers of fresh goat cheese to NY restaurants, they paved the way for "weird" milk cheeses. In 2007 the Cahns sold the brand so the Coach Farm of today is a very different beast. But it's important to know their role in the cheese climate of today.
Westfield Farm: This farm opened in 1971 in Hubbardston, MA by the Kilmoyer family and was taken over by the Stetsons in the mid-1990s. They're makers of exquisite fresh goat cheese (Capri) and the inventors of exterior blued cheeses (not pierced, so the blue mold is only on the outside).
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company: The Clarks' signature "Camembert" is in fact a blend of cow and sheep milk, harkening back to a time with American cheese was relegated to the realm of deli slices. Theirs is buttery-rich, and they now also offer the very good sheep milk Ewe's Blue.
The Second Wave
Cato Corner Farm: Best known for sales in Connecticut and at New York City farmers' markets, Mark Gilman makes upwards of 20 cheeses of every style. My favorites are the funky Drunk Monk and Hooligan, both pungent and yielding washed rinds.
Jasper Hill Farm: The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont brings both cheeses from the farm (raw cow, including the recently awarded World's Best Unpasteurized Cheese, Bayley Hazen Blue) and now a selection of cheeses aged at the Cellars at Jasper Hill, including the moist, minerally Caerphilly-like Landaff from New Hampshire and sour cream-puck Weybridge from Scholten Family Farm..
Consider Bardwell Farm: Straddling the New York/Vermont border, the farm is Vermont's first established cheese co-op, founded in 1864. Today, Consider Bardwell is one of a very few makers nationwide making aged goat cheeses such as Manchester, with beautifully rustic natural rinds, though they are only available from May-January. Their alpine Rupert at its best tastes of brown butter and pineapple.
Spring Brook Farm: Their raw, Jersey cow milk Tarentaise won Best Cheese in America, and it's a beautiful: intense and full of pineapple flavors. The farm's line has expanded to include a Raclette-type and a new Tomme coming soon.
Parish Hill Creamery/Crown Finish Caves: Vermont cheesemaker extraordinaire Peter Dixon has his own creamery and is collaborating with Crown Heights, Brooklyn subterranean aging cellar Crown Finish Caves. The entire line of cheese is raw milk, inspired by name-protected Italian cheeses such as Asiago (VT Herdsman), Toma (Humble Herdsman), and Caciocavallo (Suffolk Punch).
Vulto Creamery: Jos Vulto started urban cheesemaking in Brooklyn and is now ensconced in Walton, NY making some of the best cheese to come down the pike in years. The Miranda is named for his late wife, washed in absinthe made by a local distillery, and it's the rosiest, most delightful cheese you'll find.
Lastly, let me give a shout out to New York City's Saxelby Cheesemongers, founded by Anne Saxelby as the first retail store dedicated exclusively to the cheese of the Northeast. She still has the best selection of the region's offerings, so there's no better place to start your Northeastern cheese education.