In the last twenty years, the American cheese industry has changed dramatically. Once, domestic cheesemakers were best known for their industrial block cheeses—fit for sandwiches but not for cheese plates. Today, more than a thousand small-to-medium-sized producers across the country are making unique and soulful cheeses that impress even skeptical Europeans. I can testify to that: I’m originally from Spain. I followed artisan cheesemaking in the U.S. for years before opening Lamp Post Cheese in Lebanon, Ohio, about half an hour north of Cincinnati.
A cheesemaker’s art begins with the land itself and relies on local ingredients and microflora, resulting in a portrait of place like no other. As I explored cheesemaking in Ohio, I took inspiration from other cheesemakers here in the Midwest.
Once, domestic cheesemakers were best known for their industrial block cheeses—fit for sandwiches but not for cheese plates. Today, small-to-medium-sized producers across the country are making unique and soulful cheeses that impress even skeptical Europeans.
While designing my facility, I went to Jacobs & Brichford outside Connersville, Indiana, and spoke with Matthew Brichford, whose family has owned the Hoosier Homestead Farm, where they make their cheese, since 1819.
He was generous with his time and happy to show me the place. His cheeses all start with grass-fed milk from cows that the family raises on the property. Be careful, he told me. Some farmers claim their dairy cows are grass-fed but quietly supplement with grain, because keeping cattle on grass year-round is expensive and labor-intensive. It’s worth the trouble, though, as evidenced by the rich golden color—imparted by beta carotene, as found in carrots and pasture grasses—of Jacobs & Brichford cheeses like the umami-rich Briana, which has the meaty appeal of an Italian Fontina.
Matthew and his family milk their cows seasonally. In a natural setting, cows don’t produce in the winter, and their milk changes with their diet from spring to fall, changing the flavor of the resulting cheese. You can also taste that seasonal variation in releases from Uplands Cheese, located on scenic Pleasant Ridge in southeastern Wisconsin.
Uplands fascinates me, because they only make two types of cheese. Their grass-fed summer milk goes into Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is the most-awarded cheese in America, with three American Cheese Society Best-of-Show wins and a win at the U.S. Cheese Championships in 2003. Their hay-fed fall milk makes Rush Creek Reserve, only available for a short time in November and December. Contained in a spruce bark hoop, it tastes sweet, brothy, and slightly resinous. Its texture is like custard, and you can eat it with a spoon. It’s a Wisconsin cousin to France’s famed Vacherin Mont D’Or.
Some of the most famous Spanish cheeses start with sheep’s milk, so naturally, I wanted to make sheep’s milk cheeses in Ohio. Unfortunately, there is no source near our facility in Lebanon. Few domestic cheesemakers use sheep’s milk, for practical and cultural reasons, but Ben Baldwin of Kokoborrego is one of the brave ones who buck the trend, raising his own sheep on a farm in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, south of Mansfield. He was a wonderful sense of humor and, like the cheesemakers above, a sense of seasonality that translates to beautiful product like the Owl Creek Tomme, which goes well with apple butter and sourdough and eats like a floral Manchego.
Unfortunately, cheesemakers, like other culinary artisans, have been hit hard by the effects of the pandemic over the past seven months or so. The majority of us depend on wholesale to restaurants and retail stores, and as restaurants have reduced their operations or shut down, those channels have dried up. Direct sales to consumers are usually not enough to compensate, but they can help us stay afloat for a while. Please consider buying from a local cheesemaker this fall. You won’t regret investing in the trailblazing producers who are making cheeses that taste like the Midwest.