Long renowned for its maple syrup and fall foliage, Vermont is fast becoming the nation’s new cheese Mecca. Look out Wisconsin — today Vermont cheesemakers number three dozen, more per capita than any other U.S. state.
They produce foreign-sounding varieties like Bayley Hazen Blue, a creamy, chocolately variety from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, along with familiar cheeses like the Colby, muenster, and award-winning cheddars that have made Montpelier’s Cabot Creamery a national brand.
Vermont's ‘cottage’ cheese industry springs from a healthy mix of backgrounds: a few old-schoolers who hung on in the face of mechanized dairies; quiet back-to-landers around since the seventies; and a growing crop of former urbanites who recently took up the farming lifestyle. It's these varied approaches that make the state a particularly fertile testing ground for new ideas about how to make a living off the land.
It also helps that the state’s government is more supportive than most, rife with etymologically encouraging bodies like the Vermont Fresh Network, the Vermont Small Business Development Center, the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program, Vermont Farms!, and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets. The technical support, education, and marketing assistance of the Vermont Cheese Council and the University of Vermont's Institute for Artisan Cheese, the only one of its kind in the country, have been particularly valuable.
Vermont's producers are tiny within the scope of the U.S. dairy industry. To give an idea of scale: the milk from 1,500 cows on a single California cheesemakers’ farmstead is equal to two-thirds of Vermont’s total artisan cheese production. Wisconsin, which funnels 90 percent of its milk into cheese, is the other dairy powerhouse, employing 160,000 people and leaving a $20.6 billion thumbprint on the state’s economy. Its Milk Marketing Board spends $19 million a year on advertising. That’s nearly twice the amount of the entire Vermont farmstead cheese industry.
Despite the deep pockets of agribusiness, cheese production in Vermont thrives on because people are paying closer attention to what they eat these days. As a result, folks are increasingly willing to pay a premium for food they believe is evidence of good environmental stewardship, animal husbandry, craftsmanship, and social responsibility. In fact, according to Paul Kinstedt, co-director of the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese, agriculture is headed for further polarization.
“Conventional agriculture will necessarily get larger, given economies of scale that will drive least-cost practices. Choice, then,” he predicts, “will become the hallmark of the American food system. If you're an artisan, the more different you can be from conventional agriculture, the better. People will buy your product as a value statement.”
This is what Vermont's farmstead cheesemakers are banking on. Here are five worth knowing about:
Jasper Hill Farm
Andy and Mateo Kehler, the brothers behind Jasper Hill Farm, epitomize a new generation of cheesemakers in Vermont. They strive to be environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable, a nearly impossible mission in a place where land—and full health coverage for employees—is expensive. The Kehlers began cheesemaking in 2003; shortly thereafter, their cheeses were served at the French Laundry and the Playboy Mansion. The farm turns a profit, but having reached full capacity with forty cows, they are looking for ways to grow laterally. One such idea: the Cellars at Jasper Hill, an underground cave where cheeses from a variety of farms—Jasper Hill’s, other Vermont dairies, and Cabot, who invested massively in the project—will undergo their quiet aging (also known as affinage). The cave is currently under construction but the hope is that it will help relieve cheesemakers of their worry about storage.
Signature Cheeses: Bayley Hazen Blue, chocolatey, creamy, sweet and salty. Another favorite is Constant Bliss, a creamy, bloomy-rind cheese named after a local Revolutionary War scout. This cheese is made with raw milk but matured slowly, at colder temperatures, so that it’s still soft when sold just after the legal limit of sixty days.
In the great family tree of modern American farmstead cheesemakers, Cindy and David Major appear somewhere near the top. After raising lambs and selling their wool on David’s family farm in the early 1990s didn’t turn a profit, the couple decided to switch gears. They went to the Pyrenees to apprentice with sheep’s milk cheesemakers in the mid-90s, returning to start making cheese of their own. Like many small cheesemakers, the Majors practice rotational grazing and fertilize their fields naturally, with manure and the water and whey left over from cheesemaking. Along with the seminars and internships they offer to those interested in learning the craft, they now also collaborate with other farms to make Vermont Shepherd and mature cheeses from small local farms. Despite the growth of the business, the Majors still prefer to use only summer’s milk for cheesemaking, creating varieties at once rustic and smooth.
Signature cheeses: Vermont Shepherd, a well-balanced sheep’s cheese with a characteristic caramel richness. Available only in season.
“Lazy Lady” Laini Fondiller may belong to the old-school of Vermont cheesemakers, but she’s moved well beyond one goat and the kitchen sink; today, her operation is nearly entirely solar-powered, supplemented only by wind. With the milk of her 40 alpine goats and some cow’s milk she buys off a neighbor in winter when her animals aren’t producing, she makes original, scrumptious cheeses.
Signature cheeses: The Barick Obama is a washed-rind square of cow’s milk cheese modeled after Pont l’Évêque. Another washed favorite, the Tomme de Lay, is made with raw goat’s milk. Laini also makes the delicious Brick, creamy outside and frothy inside, out of raw goat’s milk, and Fil-A-Buster, a soft, sticky, stinky, raw cow’s milk cheese that has a birch bark binding.
Made by an ex-cheesemonger who traded in an easy life selling cheese in Boston for a much more challenging one spent making it, Mike Lee’s cheeses are a triumph of pure flavor notes, floral and herbal and full. Under close supervision from Lee and partner Emily Sunderman, their 30 goats—a seasonally milked mix of Alpine, Nubian and Saanen breeds—eat sunshine in the form of grass and twigs on the 20-acre farm.
Signature cheeses: Twig Farm Square Cheese and Goat Tomme; don’t let the slightly moldy smell deter you—they taste only of pure clean goat’s milk, flowers, and grass.
Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in January 2008.