'Cheddar is a Verb:' Behind the Scenes at Grafton Village Cheese in Vermont

Chris Crowley

For decades, Grafton Village Cheese has been producing fantastic hand-crafted cheddar in rural southern Vermont. Originally founded in 1883 by local farmers as a cooperative to make use of surplus milk, Grafton was revived by the Windham Foundation in 1963, half a century after a fire destroyed the original cheese factory. Initially, the Foundation's mission was to revitalize Grafton, a town as idyllic as their five-year cheddar is funky. This has organically grown to encourage agricultural enterprise in greater Vermont. For that reason, Grafton makes their cheese using milk from 29 different farms in central Vermont, from dairies like Idle Acres Farm. They continue to produce fantastic cheddar to this day, while growing their new line of cave-aged cheeses.

"most Americans don't realize that cheddar is a verb"

Showing me around the facility, Grafton's director of sales and marketing, Meri Spicer, was quick to point out that most Americans don't realize that cheddar is a verb. (The Day-Glo orange, industrially-produced kind familiar to many Americans, Meri would say, is not really cheddar.) The word means the process used to create the cheese.

While the cheddaring is itself is done by hand, the milk is churned by machine.

Real cheddar is made through the process of cheddaring, done by hand. First, rennet is added to coagulate the milk (Grafton uses a vegetarian version.) Once the curds are set, they are pressed to release their whey, then cut lengthwise into thick loaves.

At this time, the curds' pH level is taken, which will determine how long the cheese needs to be aged. This is important because the milk is collected from a number of farms and the raw product is not homogenous. The slabs are, after a few minutes, separated into a new pile and stacked one upon the other, the pressure releasing yet more whey. After the right acidity is reached, the loaves are milled into the right size, salted, hooped, and then pressed.

Cheese makers rake the curds, pressing them against the wall to release more whey.

Grafton's cheddar has won unanimous praise, and received a litany of awards. The five-year is deeply and deliciously funky in a way that I didn't know cheddar could be, but the the three-year—Meri's favorite—is the one to beat. That cheese delivers the best of both worlds, retaining some of the younger cheddar's mellowness and offering a more rounded flavor with a funk that doesn't outlast its welcome.

Sensing a demand for high quality, artisanal cheeses, Grafton recently branched out. After decades of focusing singularly on cheddar, Grafton plunged into new and unchartered territory in in 2010, when they brought on master cheesemaker Dane Huebner to start pioneering cave-aged cheeses. A Milwaukee native with a bachelor's degree in microbiology, Huebner previously worked at Wisconsin's Cedar Grove Cheese before taking on the more challenging assignment of producing cheese for Flat Creek Lodge in steamy Swainsboro, Georgia. There, he pioneered cheeses like the Aztec cheddar, made with guajillo chilies and black cocoa.

Loaves are separated and stacked.

Huebner was attracted to Vermont for a few reasons: the climate is suitable for cows and makes for great milk, the opportunity to create his own program and establish a legacy, and the mission of the Windham Foundation itself. "[Starting from scratch] was definitely the main draw," he says. "They were looking to expand their portfolio of cheeses, and I wanted to do that."

"sowing the seeds of a sheep's milk revolution in America."

Just as Grafton preserves the craft of cheddaring, Huebner is interested in sowing the seeds of a sheep's milk revolution in America. A member of the Dairy Sheep Association of North America, he is quick to point out that the United States produces just half a percent of the world's sheep dairy. (France, in contrast, produces 37%.) Huebner cites both the smaller carbon footprint of sheep and the long relationship humans have had with them as part of his desire to see more sheep's milk cheese on the market. But flavor is no less important.

"I've been making sheep's milk cheeses for ten years. I think the milk, and the types of flavors, are just phenomenal. Some of the biggest types of cheeses in the world are made with sheep milk," Huebner says. "It's a pleasure for me to work with, and I don't think there's nearly as much variety in the mixed milk area, so that's a fun place to explore."

Outside the Grafton cheese plant. Chris Crowley

This mission to promote sheep's dairy is evident in the cheeses Dane says are most distinctive of his work at Grafton, such as the rich, mouth meltingly creamy Bismark (a favorite of New York cheesemonger Anne Saxelby), the alpine style Bear Hill, and the mixed-milk Shepshog. All are award winners planned around utilizing the different cave environments, the paracoat, wash, and mold respectively.

"Huebner's mission is to create a roster of unique American cheeses"

If these names are unfamiliar, its because they're Huebner originals. Just as he wants to bring greater recognition to sheep's milk in this country, Huebner's mission is to create a roster of unique American cheeses. He sees Grafton as just the right place to do this.

"There are plenty of people producing the standard cheeses. A lot more people can do them in bigger volumes, and I think our role is to find things that are different and create our own original cheeses," he says. "You look at what's available in the market and figure out if there's a spot to produce something that no one else is doing and fill that void."

Grafton's cave-aged program has grown rapidly, and after three years, Huebner's mold cave is already at capacity. The demand, he says, is there. All they need is more sheep's milk.

Grafton Village Cheese has retail shops in Grafton (56 Townshend Road, Grafton; Daily, 10 am - 5 pm; 802-843-1062) and Brattleboro, Vermont (400 Linden Street; Daily, 10 am - 6 pm; 802-246-2221 x102). Those interested are allowed to view cheese making on select days, and should call ahead to inquire about visits.