The Big Cheeses
Barbara Revsine - September 17th, 2013
More than 1,000 artisanal cheesemakers, writers, retailers, and distributors attended the 2013 American Cheese Society’s meeting, held recently in Madison, Wisconsin, at the Frank Lloyd Wright—designed Monona Terrace convention center overlooking picturesque Lake Monona. As stellar as the setting and facility were, the record-setting 1,794 cheeses from 257 companies entered in the competition were even better.
In the end, Winnimere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont, won the coveted Best of Show, followed by Bear Hill from Grafton Village Cheese in Grafton, Vermont, and—in a tie for third—it was both the Bandaged Cheddar and the Big Sky Grana from Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin.
The ACS meetings are a working convention offering a mix of informative seminars covering every aspect of cheesemaking, punctuated with opportunities for sampling and networking. With perhaps a rare exception, the competing cheeses are best categorized as “artisanal:” a designation applied to top quality, hand-crafted cheeses produced by small—or relatively small—companies.
To win Best of Show even once is an honor. And with this year’s win, brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler have done it twice (or rather, they were involved with the first win): first in 2006 when they collaborated with Cabot Creamery to create Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, and now in 2013 with their own Winnimere, a washed-rind cheese known for its complex flavor and strong aroma.
Winnimere is made from the “rich, high fat, high protein winter’s milk” produced by Jasper Hill’s herd of Ayrshire cows. The cheese is wrapped in bark from the 263 acre farm’s spruce trees then washed in beer made at a nearby brewery. In a classic example of terroir's effect on the taste and texture of cheese, Winnimere’s flavor (according to the company’s website) varies from batch to batch, inspiring descriptors ranging from smoky and fruity to meaty and mustardy. It is aged for 60 days in the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a 22,000 square foot underground facility comprised of a network of seven concrete vaults. Because they’re underground, the cellars are naturally cool and humid. In addition, each of the vaults has a unique environment designed for cheese with a particular kind of rind. Cheeses from nearby producers like Cabot Creamery, Landaff Creamery, the Von Trapp Farmstead, and the Scholten Family Farm are also ripened in the vaults.
Grafton Village Cheese describes its Bear Hill product as a “pleasant, sweet, nutty and milky, washed-rind, Alpine-style, 100 percent sheep's milk cheese…” with a “slightly sweet fruitiness” that makes it ideal for beer pairings.
As for the Bandaged Cheddar and the Big Sky Grana, the first is variously described as “sharp,” “fruity,” and “sweet…with gentle nutty overtones,” while the second is categorized as a nutty grating cheese, similar to domestic Parmesans and Asiagos.
In all, Wisconsin cheeses garnered 90 awards, followed by California with 35 and Vermont with 27. It’s been almost a decade since the ACS meetings were held in Wisconsin, but the state remains “America’s Dairyland.”