Hooked on Cheese: The Evolution of American Original Cheese
I’ve been in the cheese business long enough to observe a huge shift in what “American original cheese” means. I can remember a time when the only American cheese (technically, “cheese product”) was Kraft Singles; today, many world-renowned cheeses are American originals. The US is now home to visionary cheesemakers with comprehensive experience and a deep understanding of their craft; dairies that are committed to producing incredible milk; and highly knowledgeable retailers who are passionate about cheese. Equally as important: the US market is now chock-full of discerning consumers who appreciate the complex elements coming together right here in our country to put great cheese on their tables.
Cheesemaking is an all-encompassing endeavor both creatively and scientifically. The science begins with comprehending milk composition and microbiology; learning how to balance cultures and rennet; and understanding how to mold, wash and care for young cheeses. In addition to all that, a cheesemaker must master the aging process – knowing when and how often they need to turn the cheese, the correct temperature and humidity to create an environment that will coax out the desired flavors, etc. As any cheesemaker can tell you, using these processes to consistently produce a cheese that has specific organoleptic properties (click the link!) is a formidable challenge.
Yet another obstacle in cheesemaking that artisan American producers struggle with is finding the highest-quality hormone-free milk. Commercially produced milk comes from cows who are able to supply a high volume of milk, which is often laden with hormones and antibiotics. Naturally, cheesemakers are looking for milk on the opposite end of the spectrum: high-quality, hormone-and-antibiotic-free organic milk with specific butterfat, protein, and acid levels. Making connections with dairy farmers who are committed to quality over quantity takes a huge amount of time and energy.
And as if those challenges weren’t enough: up until the past 10 to 15 years, finding a passionate, cheese-savvy retailer was difficult in many regions of the US. Nowadays, exceptional retailers and mongers can be found everywhere, and their continually expanding presence is a boon to both cheesemakers and cheese lovers.
After a long uphill battle, it feels great to celebrate the craftsmanship and unwavering commitment of the American cheesemakers who toiled for years in the shadows of their European counterparts. If you consider yourself a lover of artisan cheese, find out who makes the local cheeses you love and share the information with friends. Spreading the word is the best way to pay homage to these American cheese pioneers.