Cheese and beer both arrived on these shores with the European settlers, who drew upon culinary traditions that were already highly developed. Colonists brewed and made cheese, and each new wave of immigrants brought their practices with them. Cheese production, like brewing, spread west with the settlers.
In the mid-nineteenth century, critical leaps in technology in both brewing and cheese production originated with one man: French microbiologist Louis Pasteur. His discovery of the presence of yeast and bacteria in fermenting beer gave brewers control over a process prone to going sour. And pasteurization, the heating of raw milk to kill pathogens, made cheese a safer food and paved the way for industrial-sized production.
New Yorker Jesse Williams, who is credited with establishing the first large-scale cheese-making operation, may have been the Adolphus Busch or Frederick Pabst of cheese. Add to this innovation the invention of “process cheese” early in the 20th century—a cheese food created by re-heating cheddar scraps with other ingredients and emulsifiers —and cheese was launched on a similar mass-market path as brewing, with affordable, stable, but unchallenging varieties available nationwide.
“Many of us who grew up before the craft brewing revolution were exposed to bland cheese and bland beer, and for a lot of the same reasons,” observes Charles Finkel, founder of Seattle’s Pike Brewing Co. and an advocate for handcrafted foods of all types. “The words ‘American cheese’ or ‘American beer’ were synonyms for something that had little or no taste, that is mass-marketed and fills the void between being hungry or thirsty and satisfying those needs, but not with any panache.”
But over the past four decades, consumer frustration with national brands and styles has transformed wine, beer, coffee, chocolate—and now, cheese.
Master cheese maker Sid Cook is heir to a four-generation tradition of cheese making in this country’s top cheese-producing state, Wisconsin.
He sees many parallels between his business and the brewing industry, which also has a rich history in the state. “In the past, there were a lot of wonderful small breweries here, but nobody seemed to be about making any money,” he says. “And the same was true of the 3,000 cheese factories that were here in Wisconsin in the ‘20s and ‘30s: they were just making a living. So, of course, there was consolidation.”
In 1986, Cook purchased Carr Valley Cheese Co., a large creamery with its roots early in the century, and set about re-directing the company’s focus from a single type of cheese to the production of a wide range of selections. The diversification has netted Cook and his company a host of awards.
“We started doing pepper jack, then we started making goats’ milk cheeses, mixed milk and sheep milk cheeses,” he explains. “Our new customer base was completely different from who we traditionally sold our cheeses to.” Cook describes the process as “making a transition from a specialty cheese company to an artisan cheese company.” He points to other cheese makers, such as Sartori, that have followed the same path.
As Cook sees it, the distinction between commercial, specialty and artisan creameries has less to do with the size of the company, and more with the types of cheeses made. Carr Valley now makes about 50 different cheeses from cow, sheep, goat, and mixed milk. They include such originals as a goat cheese with the rind dusted in cocoa, a layered cheese of sheep milk and goat milk with grape vine ash separating the layers, and a cave-aged cheese with naturally occurring molds on the surface, in the manner of wild fermentation.
“We’re little like Leinenkugel in the beer world,” says Cook of another multi-generation Wisconsin company. “They were always in the business, with a special beer and a special market, but they’ve also made the transition to more artisan styles of beer.”
He likens the new, small cheese companies to microbreweries. “Somebody like Vermont Butter and Cheese would be more like a Capital Brewery or New Glarus. They started 20 or 25 years ago, they got in early, and they got things right.”
On Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont, John and Janine Putnam personify the truly micro end of the new micro-creameries, which ironically represents a return to the most traditional sort of cheese making. Theirs is a farmstead creamery, where the milk all comes from animals living on their farm where the cheese is made.
John had a successful legal career, but he and his family were “geographically imprinted,” as he puts it, on rural Vermont. They bought a farm, and he juggled law and farming, first beef cattle, then organic dairy, then organic cheese. Over time “there was more dairy and less law,” and now the Putnam family devotes all their time to the production of a single cheese called Tarentaise, named after a valley in the French alps where these American cheese novices found their inspiration in the group of cheeses that includes Comte and Beaufort.
I got very sage advice from my French friends,” says John. “They said ‘Don’t try to make a cheese like ours. You have different cows, you have different feed, different environment, different everything.’”
Cheese making of this sort, with the milk sourced to one small flock, expresses the most variation, in comparison to cheeses from larger manufacturers who pool milks from many sources. Milk composition also varies by time of day and season, and so will its cheese.
“TERRIOR. Put that in capital letters, because that’s what cheese is. Cows, grass, weather,” John stresses. “The weather here will affect that day’s cheese. We not only live with it, we like it. I can take a cheese and look at it when I open it six or nine months later, and tell you what the weather was that day.”
A farmstead operation can require that the owner master every skill involved in the production process. “It’s not easy to make cheese, but to add difficulty to that, to actually husband the animals, is particularly challenging,” comments Pike’s Charles Finkel. “The two aren’t necessarily any more related than growing grapes and making wine, or growing hops and barley and brewing beer.”
But for those able to take on farmstead life, Max McCalman notes, “It remains one of the last forms of sustainable agriculture for the family farm, not only in the United States, but all over the world. Instead of being just a milk producer, if you want a value-added product, you can make the milk into cheese. It requires a lot more work.”