Lifestyle

The Making of a World Champion Cheese

by DJ Pangburn

March 21, 2016

When it comes to artisanal, flavorful cheeses, European creameries have always reigned supreme. France, in particular, is considered the cheese capital of the world, and for good reason: There are anywhere from 350 to 1,000 cheeses in France alone, and in many cases, the craft behind each has been passed down for hundreds of years. The United States, despite some prodigious products out of Wisconsin and California, has always played second fiddle to Europe when it comes to great cheese.

But along with an emergent craft culture that has spawned thousands of quality American artisanal beers and wines, times are changing, albeit slowly. Evidence of this shift could be seen in Wisconsin cheesemaker Roth’s win at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest, held in Madison, Wisconsin, in early March.

Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix, a “washed-rind Alpine-style” smear-ripened hard cheese, took best in show out of a record 2,955 entries. Made in copper vats imported from Switzerland, the cheese is aged for at least nine months on wooden boards. Similar to Gruyère, Grand Cru is nutty with caramel and mushroom undertones, though its flavor character can vary slightly with each batch.  

“The Grand Cru Surchoix has a lot of complexity,” Rob Frie, Roth’s plant manager, tells GOOD. “It can range from fruity or tangy notes to earthy or umami with soy undertones. It really is a complex cheese that in comparison to a Gouda or Havarti can have some interesting notes. It all has to be balanced, though.”

Frie says close attention is paid to seasonal changes in the milk, and the recipes are adjusted accordingly.

“Each piece of cheese will have been touched numerous times,” Frie explains. “We don’t fortify our products or put enhancers in them. Our cheeses are made with four ingredients: milk, salt, enzymes and cultures. Our team members are very hands-on with the cheeses, crafting, hand-rubbing spices, washing the rind, etc.”

To rival the quality of European cheeses, Frie insists that it’s important to teach the traditional craft and art of cheesemaking. The Roth team members pay close attention to the details, from the time the milk is delivered until the cheeses exit the cellar.

“The cutting of the curd, the cook temperature, how long the products sit in acidification before going to the brine,” he says. “They pay attention to the weather outside and anticipate the seasonal changes in the milk. There truly is an art to what we do.”

Frie believes that American cheesemakers are now competing quite well against European cheeses. He credits this with more European-style cheeses making their way to the U.S., and American cheesemakers perfecting their craft in response.

Despite American cheesemaking being on the rise, Emmi Roth USA’s senior marketing manager, Vanessa Bailey, tells GOOD that craft cheese culture is 10 to 15 years behind craft beer culture.

“I think American consumers are experiencing a higher interest in trying things that are of high quality, or made in small amounts by artisans,” Bailey says. “Craft beer in the U.S. took off a decade or so ago, wine was before that. I think artisan cheese in the U.S. is following that same lead.”

“Roth was one of the pioneers in the artisan cheese movement back in the early ’90s,” she adds. “We operate primarily in niche varieties, such as washed-rind, also known as smear-ripened cheese, which can be a challenge. There’s a lot of education involved. We’re still at a point where that style is unfamiliar to a lot of Americans, but it’s definitely growing in popularity.”

Bailey stresses how important it is for the milk they use to originate from within a 50-mile or so radius of the creamery. And she gives credit to their European counterparts for inspiring American artisanal cheesemaking practices, such as aging on spruce boards, for instance.

“Just like wine, cheese will taste different depending on the region it’s from,” Bailey says. “Green County, Wisconsin, has an ideal terroir [environmental and animal factors] for dairy production, so that’s why we make all of our cheese there.”

With the millennial emphasis on craft culture, there seems to be no reason that American creameries shouldn’t go on to produce some of the best cheeses on the planet. Bailey believes that millennials, with their love of stories and small-batch products, will be an important part of artisanal cheese growth in the near future. And Frie says he’s already seeing a new kind of demand for craft cheese.

“I believe the U.S. palate is craving these types of cheeses, and where there is a demand there needs to be a supply,” Frie says. “Wisconsin specifically has a strong history of immigrants who settled here from Europe and have handed down recipes and the craft through many generations. I like to think that Wisconsin is the ‘cheese basket’ of the U.S., and I’m extremely proud to be a Wisconsinite.”

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The Making of a World Champion Cheese