The craft and science of Vermont cheesemakers

True or false: The stinkier the cheese, the better?

“I’d have to say false,” Andy Kehler ’93 says. “I love a lot of stinky cheeses, and some stinky cheeses can be really sweet and delicious, but some really taste like garbage.”

Given that Kehler and his brother Mateo have earned dozens upon dozens of national and international awards for the cheeses they make at Jasper Hill Farm, it’s probably safe to trust his palate on this one. The Greensboro-based Kehler brothers are among a growing number of artisanal cheesemakers in the state carving out a space for themselves on the world’s stage and directing the spotlight right at Vermont.

It’s no secret that Vermont cheese is exceptional. To understand why and what makes these cheeses and their makers so unique, the indisputable first stop in a search for answers should be Paul Kindstedt ’79 G ’81, the go-to guru of Vermont cheese. “You have the imprint of place in products like cheese made here because they’re made by our artisans that are really able to amplify the sort of neat character of Vermont,” says the professor of food science at UVM.

It’s known as terroir, he explains, things like soil, water, climate, geography that get into the cheese. “There’s no question that the place leaves its imprint in empirical ways that can be measured in terms of flavor compounds, sensory details, and certain nuances of flavor.” But he’s adamant that it’s also the brain power of the makers that contribute just as much as the terroir to the final product. And many of those folks, Kindstedt adds, are descended from the University of Vermont.

Andy and Mario Kehler standing in front of a barn painted with cows in outer space

Andy Kehler (left) and brother Mateo (right) have farm grounds that are as singular as their famous cheeses. The bright blue space barn, painted by muralist Tara Goreau, represents a time they sent their Bayley Hazen Blue cheese to outer space. (Really.) Photograph by Caleb Kenna.


As cliched as it sounds, the beginning of cheese greatness in the Green Mountain State starts with hippies. By the 1980s, the back-to-the-land movement from the decade prior had manifested into a significant number of small-scale farms scattered across the state, with a strong emphasis on environmental consciousness. Cheese, a value-added product derived from milk produced on the farm, became a natural fit for this farmstead population looking to live and work sustainably with the land.

But caring for chickens, milking animals, and growing crops is one thing; aging cheese, working with unpasteurized milk, and experimenting with bacterial cultures is a totally different ballgame. And if done wrong, can be hazardous. With no formal training in food science or safety regulations, “It was the Wild West,” Kinstedt says of the cheeses being produced. That’s when the acting commissioner of the Vermont Department of Agriculture Ronald Allbee ’67 stepped in.

He tapped Kindstedt, a newly hired cheese science researcher at UVM at the time, in the summer of 1988 to develop a short cheesemaking course to get these farmstead cheesemakers up to speed. “We had a waiting list and we had cheesemakers from as far away as Wisconsin coming to our summer course in Vermont. I was shocked.”

Recognizing the need for information, Kindstedt published American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses, which distills the science and technical background needed to make small-scale cheese safely and successfully. Kehler admits that after nearly twenty years in business, Jasper Hill refers to Kindstedt’s guide on a regular basis. The book has been “a huge help in elevating the overall quality of cheese across the country,” he says.

But technical know-how aside, making the best cheese first requires getting your hands on the best milk. With more than seven hundred dairy farms along the hillsides of Vermont, there are certainly plenty of options to choose from. Dairy farming is the largest component of the state’s agricultural economy and, according to the 2020 Vermont Agriculture and Food Systems Plan, cow milk alone accounts for upwards of 65 percent of the state’s agricultural product sales. And that milk is the base for some sixty cheesemakers in Vermont.

However, not all milks are created equal. For example, award-winning cheddars from Shelburne Farms—where a handful of UVM alumni oversee every step of their cheesemaking operations—are derived from purebred Brown Swiss heifers. At Orb Weaver Creamery in New Haven, ten Jersey cows supply the milk for the small creamery run by Kate Turcotte ’09 and her husband. And while Jasper Hill started with forty Ayrshires, it was sixty goats that got Bob Reese ’79, Allison Hooper, and Vermont Butter and Cheese Company (now Vermont Creamery) up and running in Brookfield. Though their milks may vary, these cheesemakers agree that the only way to get the best milk is to produce it themselves—from healthy, happy, grass-fed animals.

Kate Turcotte and her husband standing in a sunlit field with their cows.

For cheese business beginners, Kate Turcotte and husband Zack, staying true to the traditions of Orb Weaver are at the heart of their cheeses. Photograph by Aliza Eliazarov.


“The philosophy of Vermont cheese is just trying to work with the amazing high-quality milk that we have and creating a product that’s true to that milk and true to that land. It’s really much more about maintaining the integrity of the milk than about trying to manipulate it,” says Turcotte.

To that end, Shelburne Farms maintains a regimented grazing schedule that involves shuffling their herds across a network of pastures, 120 acres in total, connected by what dairy manager Sam Dixon ’85 calls a “cow highway.”

“You’re getting the unique characteristics of our soils, our grasses, all going directly to the cows, directly to the milk, and then being made into cheese. Each day a unique batch of cheese is made based on where the cows are grazing,” he says.

During Vermont’s deep winter—and the occasional dry summer months—dairy cows, goats, and sheep get their nutrients from dry grass and feed rather than the lush, green pastures they feed on in summer and fall. “You need to be a much better cheesemaker to be able to anticipate those changes and end up with consistently high-quality products day in and day out,” Kehler says. “Which is why it’s important for us to have control over how the cows transition from the barn to pasture, or from pasture back into the barn.”

Control. This is the key characteristic that separates Vermont’s artisan cheesemakers from the rest. At the core of every exceptional cheese is a precise balance of science and craft (and patience, of course). And when it comes to that, Jasper Hill Farm might be the gold standard among cheesemakers in Vermont and beyond.

Their facilities boast a 22,000-square-foot aging cave nestled beneath a hillside on the farm, as well as a laboratory where they study the microbial communities and bacteria in their milks and cheeses, which are what ultimately make or break the product while it ages. It also helped them save some time and money by bringing inefficiencies to light; like trying to enhance the flavor of a raw milk winnimere by washing a brine on the surface to inoculating its ripening bacteria.

What they found when they analyzed the cheese in the lab was that there was no way that ripening bacteria could survive the natural flora that already existed on the surface of that cheese. In other words, the cultures they purchased, their brining and time spent washing had zero effect whatsoever. “The lab allows us to take a look at this invisible world comprised of those little communities of bacteria and see if they are actually contributing to either the quality, the texture, or the flavor profiles of the cheeses that we’re making,” Kehler says.

It’s a huge resource for them, and it’s one that they welcome neighboring creameries and cheesemakers to explore. The same goes for their aging cave. In fact, Shelburne Farms ages a cloth-bound cheddar in the Cellars at Jasper Hill, and six other producers have claimed real estate among their vast shelves, including Landaff Creamery, Cabot Cooperative Creamery Cheese, Von Trapp Farmstead, and Scholten Family Farm.

Bob Reese

For Vermont Creamery founders Alison Hooper and Bob Reese, it’s no goats, no glory when it comes to their pioneering goat cheeses.

 

“The cheese industry has become very, very close,” says Bob Reese, co-founder of Vermont Creamery. “They support each other. You can call any of the cheese companies and ask them for advice, and if they couldn’t offer it themselves, they would probably have a good reference point.”

When Reese and Allison Hooper started making goat cheese in 1985, they knew full-well that they were embarking on a pioneer journey, into territory that no Vermont cheesemakers had ventured before. They relied on the expertise of folks like Kindstedt and Catherine Donnelly—a professor and food pathogens expert at UVM—as well as the resources and assistance from UVM, which spared a vat in their dairy farm where the duo produced their very first batches of goat cheese, right on campus. “Not a lot of people know that,” Reese says.

So, when their goat cheese business won the U.S. Small Business Administration’s “Small Business of the Year Award” for Vermont in 1996, they paid it forward and invited cheesemakers from all across the state to showcase their products at the awards ceremony, hosted at Shelburne Farms. The pair have since retired and sold Vermont Creamery—a decision that took some soul-searching, Reese says—to Land O’Lakes, but remain connected to the people and the industry they helped pioneer. In fact, the business is still personal to Reese, whose son Matthew stayed on after the purchase—along with every other Vermont Creamery employee—as director of finance.

As more of these original Vermont cheesemakers exit the arena, the next generation is looking to harness that knowledge and experience. At Orb Weaver, for example, Turcotte and her husband, Zack, are carrying the torch of the farm’s original owners Marjorie Susman and Marian Pollack. After thirty-seven years at the helm, both women were ready to retire, but not quite ready to give it all up. They’re in the process of transitioning their farm over to Turcotte slowly, teaching her and Zack everything they know: all the recipes, when to milk the cows, when to turn the cheese, when to cut the curds. “The only difference, as of right now, is that there are two different people making the cheese. Same cows, doing everything the same, and that’s really our goal,” she says.

The learning curve is steep, to be sure—like figuring out how that cow got in the water tub sideways kind of steep—but it isn’t Turcotte’s first time at the rodeo. The young cheesemaker got her start at Shelburne Farms as a tractor driver while in school. After graduating with a degree in ecological agriculture, she advanced to become the head cheesemaker before her departure. Dairy manager Dixon notes that you can still spot a glimpse of Turcotte at the farm today. “Over there, that’s Kate Turcotte,” he says pointing to a poster in the milking parlor with her photo on it.

Jack Duncan making cheese, leaning over a cheese tank at Shelburne Farms.

Working at Shelburne Farms, Jack Duncan ’17 is among the many young food and nutrition science grads finding opportunities in Vermont. Photograph by Brent Harrewyn for Shelburne Farms.

 

And an even younger cheese enthusiast, Jack Duncan ’17, now manages the well-oiled machine that is Shelburne Farms’ creamery. At twenty-five, the Atlanta native was drawn to Vermont’s working landscape after having grown up visiting regularly with his family. He knows every bit of the farm’s cheesemaking process—from the time the trucks haul the milk up from the dairy to the aging processes and nuances they add to their cheddar over time.

But it’s a career that almost didn’t happen. With an interest in science, Duncan made it through two years of UVM as biology major before he switched to a nutrition and food science (NFS) major. It was a more tangible science with a practical application he could see. And also eat.
“The opportunities that Vermont offers to young grads coming out of the NFS program is really exciting. The trust that the industry in Vermont has in that program is an amazing leg up for a lot of graduates,” he says. And with the sheer number of Catamounts out there herding cows, testing milks, creating cultures, washing rinds and making brines, and patiently waiting to see if it was all done right, it’s no wonder the taste of this place is making its rounds and impressing palates far and wide.

But if your palate is still on the fence about the stinky cheeses, try asking yourself ‘what’s the story?’ next time you eat one, Turcotte suggests. “A good cheese will have a beginning, middle, and end. When you have a really rich milk and cheese that is so connected to the land, you’re able to taste a kind of story. It’s not one dimensional.”

CHEESEMAKING 101: The Basics

  • Get really, really good milk. (See above for reference.)
  • Decide what cheese to make and add the appropriate acid or starter cultures to the milk. This is one of the key steps that separates cheddar from swiss, provolone from mozzarella, etc.
  • Add rennet, an enzyme that links proteins together or, in other words, coagulates the milk.
  • Once coagulated, cut the-soon-to-be-cheese into smaller bits, known as curds. Want a drier, ageable cheese like a cheddar? Cut smaller curds. The size affects the overall moisture.
  • Stir and, depending on the cheese, cook the curds in the liquid whey they’re floating in, or wash and proceed as described with water. The higher the temperature and longer the curds cook, the drier the cheese will be.
  • Moving quickly, drain the whey from the curds. Depending on the cheese, salt the curds and press them into desired cheese shape—wheel, log, block, etc.—or press curds into shape and then salt the surface.
  • Depending on the cheese, you can eat it right away or age it to perfection. Most of our cheesemakers use unpasteurized, raw milk, which requires at least sixty days of aging before its able to enter the market.

 

PUBLISHED

10-31-2020
Kaitie Catania