When Cindy West left a career in accounting, she and her husband Dorian spent a year in Paris, where she trained as a chef. Back in her home state of North Carolina, she worked in restaurants until the demanding schedule of a professional chef collided with the needs of young children. The couple bought a farm in Hillsborough, Cindy threw herself into a new self-taught craft, and in time they decided to take their dream and “go pro.” The Wests bought tanks and equipment and turned the old tobacco farm over to the production of…
Over the past four decades, consumer frustration with national brands and styles has transformed wine, beer, coffee, chocolate—and now, cheese.
Beer lovers will know a score of stories where this sentence finishes with the word “beer.” The modern revolution in American brewing has been propelled by people like the Wests, who turned away from established careers to carve out a new life in craft brewing. But the West’s narrative is completed with the word “cheese” instead. They opened Hillsborough Cheese Co., where they make a small range of cheeses only available locally. The Wests are kindred spirits to any upstart microbrewers of the last decade.
The parallels between beer and cheese are striking: their histories both start with a varied, home-based industry with strong ties to indigenous producers; the industrial age consolidated manufacturing in the hands of a smaller number of national companies; local styles and businesses lost ground to the ubiquity of a few inoffensive styles; and traditional approaches have recently made a comeback, thanks to a combination of multi-generational regional producers and newly-recruited innovators.
The world of new American cheese even includes traditionalist revival producers (think Anchor Brewing) and what might be called “extreme” cheese makers (think Dogfish Head). There are debates about authenticity: where beer people argue about who can and cannot wear the badge “craft,” cheese makers struggle over the divide between “specialty” and “artisanal.”
We are eating three times the amount of cheese we ate in 1970, according to educator and writer Max McCalman, author of the newly published Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maître Fromager. “As in craft brewing,” he explains, “less of the enthusiasm is for the processed cheese or the industrial style of beer. There is a growing connoisseurship for fine cheeses.” The steepest growth in cheese appreciation has come in the last decade.
For both beer and cheese, the passion of a small number of producers and consumers has made life at the table more flavorful for all of us.
The similarities between beer and cheese go back to basic biology, and to their origins millennia ago.
One of the fundamental advances in human history had to do with the ability to preserve food, extending a bridge of security that would let communities transform today’s plenty into sustenance for the lean seasons. Today’s fresh kill is next winter’s cured meat. The summer’s abundant fruit becomes wine. The grain harvest can be saved as beer, and surplus fragile milk becomes long-lasting cheese. A predictable diet could give our species the assurance to extend its reach into otherwise hostile lands. Our ability to modify food is part of what makes us human.
Beer and cheese were both lucky accidents of some 3- or 4,000 years ago, and both probably required that a level of basic technology already be in place. Since grain has to be germinated or baked to make its sugars available for fermentation, it’s likely that early beer arose from the accidental soaking of primitive bread. The first brewers had to already be bakers.
And cheese, which is essentially the controlled spoilage of milk, first required that animals be domesticated for milking. Domestic herds gave milk, meat and materials: a slaughtered animal’s organs made convenient containers. Fresh milk stored in the stomach of a young animal would have separated naturally through the actions of the stomach’s enzymes into curds and whey: simple cheese.
Beer and cheese share an additional attribute: both made the unpalatable safe for consumption. The boiling that was part of brewing killed pathogens and turned unhealthy water into a wholesome beverage. And cheese making converted milk, a food most humans cannot digest after infancy, into a food that could sustain adults who had become “lactose intolerant”—the norm for most of the human family.
The Power of Fermentation
Beer and cheese have changed in the past four millennia, but neither has strayed very far from its origins.
Both owe their character to the transforming power of microorganisms: fermentation. In brewing, simple sugars from grain are converted by yeast into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Cheese making depends on the conversion of milk by a bacterial culture that makes it acidic, turning the milk sugar lactose into lactic acid. Then rennet, a digestive enzyme complex from the stomach of an unweaned ruminant animal, curdles the milk, turning it into a solid mass. In essence, casein, the chief protein in milk, is partially digested by the rennet into a solid (curds) and a liquid (whey). (There are now vegetable rennets, also.)
Beyond the process of fermentation, the art of brewing consists of the selection and handling of the grains (barley, wheat, oats, rye, rice among others), the addition of other flavors (primarily hops, but also other spices and fruits), and the careful conditioning of the beer.
Similar choices turn the cheese maker into an artist. Milk from cows, sheep and goats are the most popular selections, though water buffalo, yak, camel, reindeer and mares’ milk have been made into cheese. The cheese maker can also select additional flavoring agents: secondary microbial cultures of mold or bacteria that will ripen the cheese into familiar varieties such as Roquefort or Camembert, as well as fruits and spices. And, lastly, cheeses can be aged under different regimes for weeks or years to attain desired qualities.
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.”
Rogue River Creamery and Rogue Ales are two entirely separate Oregon businesses, connected only by a name and a dedication to excellent food and drink. The brewing company is over 20 years old, one of the oldest in the modern craft tradition, but the creamery dates back to the 1930s, opened and operated by the well-known Vella family of cheese makers. In the 1950s, the creamery became one of the first in the west to make a cave-aged blue cheese in the Roquefort style.
David Gremmels, with two decades in marketing behind him, and his partner, Cary Bryant, bought the creamery in 2002. By the next year, Gremmels had moved into the top ranks of cheese makers. Rogue River Blue is a new take on blue cheese, wrapped in grape leaves macerated in brandy. It won Best Cheese in America at the 2009 American Cheese Society, the latest of many prizes.
But, given the kinship of names, a Rogue-Rogue alliance was a natural, and Rogue Chocolate Stout Cheddar was born. The curds are bathed in the brewery’s stout (which also contains real bittersweet chocolate and oats) and chocolate syrup, giving the finished cheese a variegated appearance and buttery, cocoa and coffee flavors.
On the other side of the country, Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont has brought cheese and beer together even more intimately.
The farm serves as the aging facility for Cabot’s cloth-bound cheddar, and other Vermont creameries send their cheeses to be finished in the extensive cellars. The constant temperature and humidity, perfect for ripening cheese, inspired a beer-cheese collaboration.
Shaun Hill, a relative of the eponymous Jasper Hill and an aspiring brewer at the time, recalls drinking a beer on his porch with cheese maker Mateo Kehler. “We shared the notion: what if we made a beer that was saturated with the same microorganisms native to the cellar that houses the ripening cheeses? A spontaneous, open fermentation, and then wash the cheese with the beer?”
Hill brewed a mid-range red ale, low in bitterness, and left the beer to cool and sit open in the cellars for a couple of days. The spontaneously-fermented lambic-like beer was used on a rind-washed cheese called Winnimere, which was then wrapped in a strip of spruce bark from the farm. In years that followed, Hill experimented with adding various strains of Brettanomyces or Lactobacillus.
Hill has spent the past two years brewing at Nørrebro Bryghus in Copenhagen, during which time Kehler tested beer washes from Russian River, Goose Island and Brooklyn breweries. Now, Hill is back in Vermont, about to open his own venture, Hill Farmstead Brewery. In December, he announced “Just this week, I am brewing the next batch of beer that will be used to wash this season’s Winnimere.”
The explosion in American artisan cheese production and public support is newer than the revolution in craft beer, but both are young. Still, if beer lovers can boast that American innovators have given the beer-loving public a greater range of choice than is available in any of the great European brewing nations, the same may soon be true of our cheese. For the same reasons—a diversity of immigrant traditions, and a willingness to borrow from and break with those same traditions—the counter at your local cheese store may also give you the most diverse choices available to cheese lovers anywhere.