Uplands Cancels Production of Rush Creek Reserve Due To Regulatory Uncertainty
If you’ve been wondering what impact recent FDA actions might have on American artisan cheesemaking, this morning brings some news that illustrates it in stark, and unfortunate, terms. The following letter was sent to cheesemongers and distributors by Andy Hatch, co-owner and head cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese Co., announcing that they will be canceling this season’s production of their incredibly popular, and awarding winning, bark-wrapped, Vacherin-style cheese, Rush Creek Reserve:
From: Uplands Cheese
I’m writing to let you know that we will not be making any Rush Creek Reserve this year. It’s disappointing news, I know, and we hope that it’s not permanent. Food safety officials have been unpredictable, at best, in their recent treatment of soft, raw-milk cheeses, and until our industry is given clear and consistent guidance, we are forced to stop making these cheeses.
I’m sorry if this throws a wrench into your plans for the holidays - it certainly does on our end. It’s not a decision we came to easily. Hopefully, our government officials will soon agree on how to treat traditional cheesemaking, and we can all return to the cheeses that are so important to us.
This will be a loss for mongers in the winter/holiday season, as the Rush Creek was always a cheese counter and wholesale favorite, but it also shows just what kind of impact the FDA’s often hostile — and perhaps worse, unclear and shifting — regulatory approach to cheesemakers can have. Uplands Cheese, while small compared to the big cheese companies, is nonetheless a well-established, award-winning, commercially successful operation, and yet they don’t feel they can keep making this particular cheese, in the present regulatory environment. Smaller and newer cheesemakers will have a hard time continuing their own cheeses that might fall afoul of the FDA’s latest enforcement focus.
There will probably be other domestically-produced, Vacherin-style cheeses this winter (and hopefully imports of actual Vacherin and Mont d’Or won’t be impacted, although given recent FDA holds on imports from France and Italy, I wouldn’t assume it), but this is a big loss, and a potential sign of things to come. Stay tuned.
Update 08/15: I emailed with Andy Hatch, and he confirmed that this decision had not come in response to any FDA visit or letter, and that they’d never had problems during routine inspections, but “was a decision made slowly as I’ve watched the regulatory climate get more unpredictable over the year or so, with soft, raw-milk, farmstead cheese as the FDA’s worst-case scenario.”
He also added some advice for fellow cheesemakers: “all of us selling cheese these days - raw or not - should be testing every batch and tightening up our environmental control and monitoring. Each small problem just adds another arrow to the FDA’s quiver.”
(Emails quoted with permission from Uplands Cheese Co.)
One of the pleasures of attending the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento this summer is that it afforded me the opportunity to finally meet, in person, some of the cheese-world people whose cheeses I had tasted and enjoyed over the years — but knew only from social media or their names on the little signs in the cheesemonger’s counter.
One such cheeseworld luminary was Keith Adams, the founder of Alemar Cheese Co. — as they describe themselves, “small batch makers of French-inspired soft-ripened and fresh cheeses” — located in Mankato, Minnesota, about 80 miles south of Minneapolis. Long-time readers of the blog might remember my quest a couple years ago to find their Bent River, a Camembert-style cheese that had been getting rave reviews almost as soon as it hit the market, but was difficult to find outside of its home territory of the Midwest (I finally located some at Lucy’s Whey! These days it’s easier to get your hands on, thankfully).
Adams is an inspiration to anyone aspiring to make a career change to cheesemaking; A native of Northern California originally, before finding success in the world of curds he worked as a stockbroker in San Francisco and even ran a chain of bagel shops in Minnesota. The bagel business ran into financial hard times, and it was then, after the poppy seed-coated wheels had gone bust, that Adams decided to pursue his passion — and a different kind of wheel — through cheesemaking.
With some consulting help from the folks at Cowgirl Creamery and some family-and-friends investors, he built a small cheese plant, and found an organic dairy to supply him with milk from a mixed herd of Holstein, Normandy, Jersey, and Guernsey cows. Production began in the spring of 2009, and after many months of experiments, he had his flagship cheese, the Bent River, a Camembert-style wheel, named for the bend that the Minnesota River takes near their production facility.
Bent River was for a long time Alemar’s only cheese (other than a fresh fromage blanc that was sold locally), but after a couple of years of success and positive reception from customers, mongers (and even multiple ribbons over the years at the American Cheese Society competitions), Adams added a washed rind cheese to the lineup, the Good Thunder.
More recently, the Blue Earth has been added to the lineup as well; it’s not — despite the name — a blue cheese, but is a larger-format, soft-ripened bloomy-rind wheel inspired by traditional brie recipes, named for a river that runs through Minnesota.
It was only a few days after I got back from ACS that I found a large box on my front stoop; seeing the Alemar name in the TO field, I quickly hustled it inside to get it out of the searing early-August heat. The cheese was quite soft and the ice packs surrounding it well past room temperature, but the wheels had survived the trip relatively unscathed.
I tasted the Blue Earth first; It originally started as a larger format, but otherwise identical, version of the Bent River recipe, but over time evolved to use a different culture blend, and much longer ripening time due to the larger format, eventually becoming a deliberate effort to produce a Brie-style cheese. The Blue Earth has a milky and fungal aroma, a buttery paste, oozing and runny at the creamline, with a denser, fudgy core. Flavors are mild, earthy and buttermilky, with grassy and mushroomy notes.
The Bent River paste is similar in texture, a little more velvety and luxuriant, also with a core that hadn’t quite ripened as much, but, as with a traditional Camembert vs a traditional Brie, the flavor profile is distinctly different and more complex, milky and buttery, more meaty and less earthy, with a damp hay pungency and floral and fungal notes.
The Good Thunder is another creature altogether; named for a small town ten miles down the road from the creamery — located between the Blue Earth and Maple Rivers — the pudgy squares are washed in Bender, an oatmeal brown ale from Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. The orange taffy-colored rind is lightly geotrichum-wrinkled and tacky to the touch, with a white frosting of mold scattered across it. the paste is custardy and more lip-smacking, similar to a Taleggio, and the aroma is pungent and subtly fruity. Flavors are robust and brothy, with smoked meat and yeasty notes. I first tasted Good Thunder at a Food Matters Again event in Brooklyn in the summer of 2013; on this tasting I found that this cheese has evolved quite a bit in the interim; the squares I tasted back then were on the firmer side, but this newest batch was much transformed in both texture and flavor profile and definitely even better than the first tasting.
Alemar, and Adams, are now entering a new phase; Adams, originally from Northern California, has decided to return to his home state, and will be starting a new cheesemaking business, focused on British-style cheddars. Adams will be headed to England shortly, to spend time working with celebrated cheesemaking operations such as Montgomery’s Cheddar, and will be attending the "Science of Artisan Cheese" symposium hosted by Neal’s Yard Dairy affineurs.
After that, it’s “Westward Ho”; Alemar’s original facilities will be left in the capable hands of head cheesemaker Craig Hageman, and Adams will retain ownership of Alemar and make periodic trips back to Minnesota, while he works on the new creamery. He hopes to have production up and running at the new facility by some time in 2015, so keep an eye out at the 2016 American Cheese Society conference for the latest ribbon contenders from this talented, and now multi-state, cheesemaker!
NPR’s The Salt blog explores the world of French raw milk cheese, and talks to Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy, the creator of the Kickstarter “Raw Milk Microbiology for Cheesemakers”. Via The Salt:
Anglophone cheesemakers say translating a French government cheese manual will help them make safer raw milk cheese.
In the English-speaking world, our approach to making cheese for most of the last 60 years has been like a Texas gunslinger’s: kill bacteria, ask questions later. If it’s not pasteurized, it’s dangerous, the thinking goes. But in France, raw milk cheese is a very big deal, long considered safe and revered for its flavor. The country cultivates its 350-plus cheeses — many of which are made with raw milk — like children, claiming that the bacteria in the raw milk impart unique characteristics – grassy, metallic, buttery and so on.
In recent years, America, England and Australia have discovered the pleasures of making their own farmhouse cheeses with raw milk, but it seems the French still have some secrets.
In fact, French scientists seem to have figured out the Holy Grail of raw milk cheese: how to make it safer. And a lot of how they do it comes down to how to use good bacteria to battle the bad ones.
Learning those French secrets could help cheesemakers in the Anglophone world make safer and more delicious cheese, says Bronwen Percival, a cheese buyer with Neal’s Yard Dairy in London. So she’s spearheading a Kickstarter effort to raise about $20,000 to translate a technical French government manual on cheese microbiology into English.
"Over the past five to ten years, we’ve been more interested in what makes cheese tick," says Percival. Like how it grows, how it changes — the technical stuff. But understanding cheese microbiology is "not the kind of thing you can just look up on the Internet," she says. Understanding the microbial communities of raw milk is only the beginning. Percival and others in the tight-knit Anglophone artisan cheese community want to learn to harness the good microbes to block the bad microbes, like listeria and E. coli, that make people sick.
"Instead of having a war of annihilation on microbes, we should be working with them," Percival says.
Check out the full post.
(Photo ©2014 NPR.org)
Ep 28: Cheese Rinds w/Dr Ben Wolfe
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I’m been a strong supporter of GMO Labeling generally, but I must admit this article raises issues I hadn’t considered, as they pertain to cheesemakers who are producing what is essentially a GMO-free product but may have to label due feed supply issues. Via theguardian.com:
For artisanal cheesemakers working with Whole Foods, the company’s GMO commitment sends ripples up the supply chain
Kehler isn’t merely a leader in the American artisan cheese renaissance; he’s also knee-deep in the nation’s curdling fight over GMO labeling. He’s based in Vermont, the first state in the nation to pass a GMO labeling law. For now, the law excludes dairy products, pending a report by Attorney General Bill Sorrell due in January 2015.
The dairy cows that Kehler depends upon to make cheeses like his bark-wrapped Harbison, buttery Alpha Tolman and gooey washed-rind Winnamere are not genetically modified. However, a small part of their feed comes from genetically engineered corn. For the moment, that’s not an issue in Kehler’s home state, but he says it’s a looming worry.
The reason? Whole Foods, which last year became the first national chain to set a deadline – of 2018 – for full GMO transparency: “We heard our customers loud and clear asking us for GMO labeling and we are responding where we have control: in our own stores,” writes Walter Robb, co-CEO, in the company’s initial announcement.
As the largest specialty cheese retailer in the nation, Whole Foods’ decision casts a long shadow across the industry. For producers who want to continue selling their products there, the scramble to source non-GMO ingredients is heating up. The company’s standards are still developing, but by 2018, its producers will have to label products made from GMO ingredients – including dairy and meat products derived from livestock fed with genetically engineered crops.
Kehler explains that this could be an insurmountable supply-chain problem. “There isn’t a large supply of non-GMO grain,” he says. “In Vermont, there’s one mill that supplies it and they’re not taking customers. We’re on a waiting list,” he says.
For cheesemakers, whose products often require a year or more of careful aging, that timeline is becoming even more pressing.
“You have to be verified [non-GMO] for 12 months by an independent third party, If you’re making a cheese that’s aged a year, like Cabot clothbound cheddar, you need to start in March 2017, which means we have from now until March 2016 to figure this out.”
Read the full story.
(Photo ©2014 theguardian.com)
An amazing new resource for anyone working with (or simply enjoying) any of the foods in which microbial activity plays a key role: MicrobialFoods.org. Started by Dr Benjamin Wolfe — half of the Dutton/Wolfe team — and Bronwen Percival of Neal’s Yard Dairy, this site is well worth a read. From the site:
Welcome to MicrobialFoods.org, a new scientific resource for producers, purveyors, and enthusiasts of artisan microbial foods.
The growing interest in fermented foods has been fueled by a large number of excellent how-to guides. But information on why fermentation happens and the microbiology behind these artisan foods is generally hard to access. This site is a forum for the synthesis and distribution of current knowledge and research on the microbiology of fermented artisan foods.
Just last week, at #cheesesociety14, I had a class with Dr. Wolfe on the subject of Cheese, Salume and Microbes, you can read about that here.
Exploring Cheese & Microbes at ACS 2014
One of the most interesting sessions of last week’s #CheeseSociety14: Cheese, Salame & Microbes—Parallels and Discoveries, with Paul Bertolli of Fra’Mani Handcrafted Foods, Dr. Ben Wolfe of Harvard University (soon to be at Tufts University, and the other half of the groundbreaking cheese microbiome detective team with Dr. Rachel Dutton), and Mateo Kehler of The Cellars at Jasper Hill. Bertolli brought the salami, Kehler brought the cheese, and Wolfe brought the deep knowledge of microbial communities — in both wheels and sausages — to explore the parallels, and differences, between cheesemaking and the fabrication of salumi.
In many ways the processes are quite similar: both rely on the removal of moisture, the raising and lowering of pH during aging, the feeding of lactobacilli on sugars (naturally occurring Lactose in the case of milk, adjunct Dextrose in the case of many Salames), and the encouragement of a host of natural and added bacteria, yeasts and molds to do their work and transform a starting product, whether milk or meat, into a vast spectrum of flavor and aroma profiles.
Bertolli had brought 6 different salami’s, each innoculated with a different blend of starter or surface cultures. Kehler had brought 4 different wheels of the soft-ripened, bloomy rind Moses Sleeper, each made with slightly different cultures, or different target moisture levels, sometimes from the same batch but with different ripening processes, producing starkly different results and variations in texture, flavor, and rind appearance. There was also a wheel of the Winnimere — last year’s ACS Best in Show winner — a good example of microbial management at its best.
Many of the bacterias, yeasts and molds used between the two processes are of the same species’, often identical or slightly different strains. If you’ve ever had a link of salami that had a white fuzz on the outside, it’s not a coincidence that it resembles a bloomy rind cheese like Camembert. A sausage with a sticky color and no white indicates that yeasts rather than molds have dominated the ripening process, and one can see a similar difference in cheeses, where yeasty cheeses tend to have a more pillowy, fragile rind that can be on the moist side.
Dr Wolfe provided a rich overview of the microbial processes at work in salume and cheese. As he told us, microbial biodiversity can be lower in salume than cheeses, although they’re still not sure why, and the sausage casing can bring its own cultures to the mix. Every bite of cheese or salume is loaded with live cultures (ten to the tenth roughly, in fact). He even brought petri dishes so that we could observe the different cultures in their isolated states.
Kehler finished the session with an introduction to the new labs that the Cellars at Jasper Hill have recently created, to explore the microbial universe of cheese and create a resource for cheesemakers to identify, isolate and eventually reuse the natural cultures occurring in their milks; or as Mateo put it: “Farmer Brown’s milk sequenced, isolated and given back for them to use”.
The Cellars have recently hired a full-time microbiologist to work on site, someone who had previously worked at White Labs, one of the top resources for the craft beer industry — beer being another key environment in the emerging awareness of microbial foods.
Dr Wolfe has now partnered with Bronwen Percival of Neil’s Yard Dairy on a website, MicrobialFoods.org, which is well worth a read if the subject interests you.
ACS Festival Of Cheese 2014
Some scenes from the Festival of Cheese, the blowout cheese bacchanalia at the end of the American Cheese Society 2014 conference — that took place this year in Sacramento, CA. 248 producers submitted 1,685 entries, and a good portion of those end up at the Festival for consumption by conference attendees (some cheesemakers submit just enough product for the judging but not the Festival). Also at the event are craft beers, wines, ciders and a wide variety of specialty foods from festival sponsors.
It’s well worth attending if you can; while the insane quantities of cheese are of course a blast to get to dive into, it’s also a truly unique opportunity to get a panoramic snapshot of the state of the American cheese industry from year to year. You can get a pretty good idea of where, say, domestically produced blue cheeses, are going when you’ve got 30 different varieties on a single table for the sampling. Methods and styles that might be on the rise — whether it be unusual washes, mixed-milk cheeses or emulations of European styles that weren’t previously being produced on this side of the pond — also become more obvious when they’re sharing space on the multi-level tables stacked with wheels.
While the conference is open to registered attendees only, the Festival of Cheese is actually a ticketed event, open to the public. If you’re near Providence, RI in 2015, you’ll have an opportunity to attend the Festival, as that’s where the next conference will be held!
Some scenes from the American Cheese Society Meet The Cheesemaker event Thursday evening. Cheesemakers have the opportunity to present their wares to an audience of cheese-world professionals from all across America, a unique opportunity for networking with a highly knowledgable crowd, and finding new venues for their wheels.
Cracking open a Gowanus Couronne, during my trip west (I’m in Nevada visiting family currently, then on to the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento).
This was the mixed-milk, cow and goat’s milk version. The milk was raw when I got it, but I thermalized it (basically a lower-temp pasteurization, helpful for dialing down the natural cultures a bit without wiping them out; thermalization is recognized in Europe but in the US this would be considered a raw milk cheese, legally speaking). The inside is super-creamy but stable (eg not running out), and flavors, are milky, mushroomy and a little grassy. Pretty happy with the salt balance on this wheel. I’ve also been working on getting the rinds thinner, and this was a step in the right direction, although it’s still a bit tougher than I’d like (my goal is the pillowy, velvety rind that one gets on a good robiola).