Cover image: Jasper Hill Cheeses: from clockwise from left: Harbison, Bayley Hazen Blue and Willoughby ©WhereNYC
Bottom Line: Is making cheese an art, science or craft? Or is it a little of both? Mateo Kehler of Cellars of Jasper Hill in Vermont, one of the East Coast’s best rising cheese producers, gave a talk to cheese-lovers, mongers, industry experts and food biologists at the Barnyard Collective.
Review: It began as the impossible dream. Mateo, a self-described “dirty hippy sleeping in the bushes,” and his brother, Andy, bought 15 heifers and began producing milk to make cheese. Their creation Cellars of Jasper Hill, one of America’s best local cheese producers, has grown to over 234 acres, where the Kehler brothers make over 11 different cheeses.
Although many may not have heard of Jasper Hill Farm, their cheeses are available at high end cheese shops like Murray’s Cheese in West Village and Grand Central Station, and various locations of Whole Foods Market and Citarella. While the competition from the East Coast, let alone France and the rest of Europe is fierce, the brothers’ commitment to making quality cheese borders on zealotry with incredibly delicious results.
On each of our tables, we were issued with three generous wedges of: Bayley Hazen Blue, a raw milk, Stilton-esque blue cheese delight and one of my favorites. Next was Willoughby, a beautiful, buttery washed rind cheese, similar to Virginia’s Grayson, but a little milder in character. Finally, a perfect room temperature creamy Harbison, wrapped in strips of spruce bark.
For these two brothers, Jasper Hill is not a casual hobby of two grown men dabbling in cheese-making. It is a complete money-making operation. And for good reason. Their farm soaks up close to $30,000 day, leaving little room for error. Mateo, who had studied cheesemaking in the U.K. and France, decided that “total control” was the only way Jasper Hill could be a success. While some milk farmers have turned to making cheeses or even ice cream as a value-added or side product, Mateo and Andy are on a different mission. Their farm is not to produce milk but to make perfect cheeses.
“Cheesemaking is a craft rather than art or just science,” Mateo told the audience, but the latter plays a major part in producing the best quality milk for making cheeses. The Kehler brothers have become scientific experts in their craft. There are a few tricks of science that every cheesemaker should know, according to Mateo. Milk doesn’t last long because it’s not meant to be outside the body. And balancing the microbiology and knowing what kinds of microbes are needed will determine the final product. For example, “fewer enzymes (as in the case of hard cheeses) mean a longer shelf life.”
Contrary to what many of us had thought in the audience, cows don’t actually digest grass. They, instead, ferment, digesting the microbes that surround the blades of grass. Grass alone isn’t sufficient for cows to produce lactic acids; they need more fuel from grains and corn. According to Mateo, it is “a balance of energy and proteins” and a stable metabolism to produce the milk. Cows also need around 500 minutes a day for rumination, meaning lying about and lazily chewing cud. At Jasper Hill, the cows forage freely rather than stay in a stockade. It requires exhaustive daily testing on the cows’ diet and whether they are free of infections.
Since Jasper Hill is GMO-free, it also limits what Mateo can feed his heifers. To rectify this, they have begun weaning their cows off of grains and pushing them to forage different kinds of hay, grass and other options. And while many cheese makers also obtain cheesemaking cultures from large chemical companies such as Dupont, Jasper Hill is one of the few establishments that has its own lab and biologist. It is so rare that French winemakers have taken notice, trekking across the pond to visit Cellars at Jasper Hill.
Some of Jasper Hill’s cheeses use raw rather than pasteurized milk, which has attracted unwanted attention from the FDA, who according to Mateo, has discouraged the operation entirely. In fact, according to the French Cheese Board, Cantal is one of the few raw milk cheeses that FDA allows in the country.
For those in the audience sipping Sixpoint lagers and sampling the amazing cheeses, it was clear that Mateo and Andy have done wonders with their operation. Rather than depending on outside companies that might compromise the quality of their products, the brothers have taken on the cause themselves. And with an uncertain future, food scarcity and climate change, the Kehler brothers have become among America’s top pioneers of sustainable cheesemaking.