Ladies and gentlemen, get your graters and planes ready: It’s our Best Cheeses guide! In preparation for our upcoming 2016 Best Cheeses issue (on newsstands October 31!), each month we’ll be breaking down our expertly curated list of 75 oh-so-good wheels and wedges—the stuff of cheese dreams, really.
What’s our process? First we reviewed top finishers from some of the world’s most prestigious contests (held between September 2014 and August 2015): American Cheese Society Judging & Competition, the World Cheese Awards, the United States Championship Cheese Contest, the International Cheese Awards, the Canadian Cheese Grand Prix, the British Cheese Awards, the New Zealand Champions of Cheese Awards, and the Australian Grand Dairy Awards. Then we considered factors like style, flavor, provenance, appearance, and milk type to narrow the field and arrive at the year’s Best Cheeses, arranged by texture.
First up: Hard, Flaky Cheeses. These cheeses break into flakes and shards when you cut it—they’re very firm and cannot be dented with a finger. When cut with a knife, these cheeses will break apart at natural fault lines where the curds bonded together and leave crumbles on the cutting board. They often have small, crunchy amino acid crystals throughout their paste. Examples of hard flaky cheeses include aged gouda, clothbound cheddar, and aged Mimolette.
Beecher’s 4-Year Aged Flagship
4-Year Aged Flagship
- Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
- Seattle, Washington
- cow’s milk
Beecher’s 4-Year Aged Flagship is almost more dessert than dairy product—and that’s just what founder Kurt Beecher Dammeier intended. “It’s like cheese candy,” he says. That’s because the sweetness and brown butter notes of the company’s Flagship cheese—made with cultures not commonly found in cheddars and inspired by Washington State University’s Cougar Gold—only grow more intense after four years of aging. “It’s a flavor profile that’s really coming on in the US,” Dammeier says, calling the three-time first-place winner at the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition a cross between cheddar and Gruyère.
Made with a mix of Holstein and Jersey cow’s milk (60 percent and 40 percent, respectively) and studded with tyrosine crystals, the crowd- pleasing cheese is now more available then ever, as annual yield has increased from 10,000 pounds to 50,000 pounds. Lucky us.
FLAVORS: Caramel apple, butterscotch, honey
PERFECT PAIRING: The cheese’s “sweetness and slight caramel is awesome with Sauternes,” Dammeier says.
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar
- COWS Creamery
- Charlottetown, Canada
- cow’s milk
Winner of the 2015 Canadian Cheese Grand Prix Best Cheddar (aged one to three years) category, Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar is a raw cow’s milk wheel produced on Prince Edward Island and named for the fictional town where the province’s beloved Anne of Green Gables lived. Developed by cheesemaker Armand Bernard, the recipe riffs on the traditional cheddars produced in the Orkney Islands, an archipelago off the coast of Scotland and COWS Creamery owner Scott Linkletter’s ancestral home.
Made from Holstein cow’s milk, the rounds are coated in fat and bound in cloth strips, which allow the cheddar to breathe as it ages 14 months (the cheeses are turned regularly to ensure even air-drying). Prince Edward Island’s terroir is similar to that of the Orkney Islands, with iron-rich soil that manifests itself in Avonlea’s deeply grassy and mineral-rich taste. Its golden paste boasts fine threads of blue towards the edges, a natural and tasty result of the crust cracking as the cheese ages. Close to the rind, the cheddar tastes of earthy sharpness and freshly mown grass. Toward the center, the cheese takes on buttery, strawlike flavors, recalling warm sunshine on clean hay.
FLAVORS: Butter, straw, earth
PERFECT PAIRING: Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar is wonderful with Marcona almonds and a super-hoppy IPA. Grate it over shepherd’s pie, an excellent—and indulgent—salute to the cheese’s Scottish heritage.
COWS Creamery Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar
Bandage Wrapped Cheddar
- Fiscalini Cheese Company
- Modesto, California
- cow’s milk
How many fourth-generation Swiss dairy farmers (John Fiscalini, Jr.) employ a Paraguayan cheesemaker (Mariano Gonzalez) to produce an award-winning bandage- wrapped cheddar in Northern California? Fiscalini may do things a little differently, but that’s exactly the point. The farmstead company has made an international name for itself—stockpiling awards in the process—for its take on the traditional UK cheese.
“The secret to the success of this cheese is our geographic region,” Gonzalez explains. “The Central Valley has a unique climate and soil that makes it easy to grow great forage for our cows, which is the start of creating great cheese.”
Sixty-pound wheels are bound in cheesecloth and hand-turned daily for two months before aging a minimum of 14 months, leading to an intriguing butter-colored cheese that’s “mellower and less tangy than UK cheddars, with a more acidic flavor,” Gonzalez says. The exacting cheesemaker monitors milk daily for fluctuating butterfat and protein content. “I must also balance acidity and temperature of the milk,” he says. “It’s a different experience every day, but that’s what makes it fun.”
FLAVORS: Nuts, butter, smoke, slightly salty
PERFECT PAIRING: For a revelatory experience, sample this cheddar with slices of stone fruit or dried figs, pears, or apricots.
- CONO Kaasmakers
- Beemster, Netherlands
- cow’s milk
Last year marked some important changes for CONO, the makers of Beemster cheese. The Dutch farmer-owned cooperative opened a new green production facility, an architectural feat that incorporates water recycling, solar energy, air circulation, and energy retention—all improvements that reflect the historical Dutch initiative to “always do the right thing by the environment, by the earth,” says Marcel van Tuyn, Beemster US managing director. Still, workers continue to rake curds by hand in the midst of the new facility’s technological innovation, which satisfies local hunger for quality cheese made in a traditional fashion.
Structural ingenuity is nothing new on the Beemster polder; in the 1600s, locals used a system of windmills and canals to reclaim the land from underwater. Thanks to their efforts, grass now grows abundantly in the region’s nutrient-dense soil—unique terroir that shines in the rich cow’s milk, which is creamy, sweet, and high in fat. Van Tuyn says that’s what puts Beemster Classic, aged at least 18 months, above other gouda cheeses—and the World Cheese Awards judges agree, awarding it a Super Gold at the 2014 contest.
“It’s that creaminess,” he says, adding that as Beemster ages, it retains “that delectable mouthfeel . . . even though it’s got that hard texture and crystallization throughout, and nice, toasted caramel flavor.”
FLAVORS: Cream, toasted caramel, brown butter
PERFECT PAIRING: Offer guests this cheese alongside honey-roasted pecans or finocchiona, fennel-tinged Tuscan salami. To drink, pick fruit-forward American pinot noir to highlight the cheese’s milky sweetness.
- Paška Sirana
- Pag, Croatia
- cow’s and sheep’s milk
Paška Sirana has been turning out traditional Croatian cheeses such as Paški Sir, as well as inventive spinoffs like mixed-milk Dalmatinac, for decades. But starting with the construction of a new cheesemaking facility in 2008 using European Union pre-accession funds, the company began exporting for the first time. Slowly, Dalmatinac is becoming a household name in Europe and beyond, winning accolades in the process (a Super Gold at the 2014 World Cheese Awards, for one).
The milk used to make this cheese comes from animals that spend their days on Pag, an island in the Adriatic Sea. Pag is so rocky—and its vegetation so sparse—that upon arrival, “You have a feeling that you came onto the moon . . . you think, What does this sheep eat?” says Marina Pernar Škunca, Paška Sirana’s head of marketing.
Luckily, “this sheep is a super animal,” Škunca says. Small and resistant, they produce milk that reflects the essence of the island, with its aromatic herbs and salt blown in from the sea by winter wind called bura.
FLAVORS: Salt, cream, sweet, herbal
PERFECT PAIRING: Croatians set out this cheese as an appetizer alongside traditional cured meats: Dalmatian prosciutto and Slavonian spicy cured sausage, also known as kulen.
- Emmi Roth USA
- Monroe, Wisconsin
- cow’s milk
Industry folks go gaga for this striking Emmi Roth cheese, as evidenced by its multiple American Cheese Society Judging & Competition awards. GranQueso Reserve is the extra-aged version of six-month-old GranQueso; both were inspired by manchego (especially by the color and herringbone pattern of the Spanish cheese’s rind). Reserve is remarkable for its exterior, rubbed with a spice blend that includes paprika and cinnamon. After aging a minimum of 15 months in a basketweave form, the cheese develops a compact paste with a sweet finish marked by citrus, spice, and hazelnuts.
FLAVORS: Brown butter, pineapple
PERFECT PAIRING: Snack on shards of GranQueso accompanied by a glass of late-harvest riesling.
Shadow Brook Farm’s Dutch Girl Creamery Rosa Maria
Old School Cheddar
- Cabot Creamery
- Waitsfield, Vermont
- cow’s milk
Caseophiles can thank a happy accident for this crystal-crunchy knockout: Cabot Creamery started producing Old School after staffers raved about a forgotten, five-year-old cheddar batch they found in the company’s aging cooler and sampled.
Rigorous testing determines which Cabot cheddars make the aging cut, according to new products manager and cheese grader Craig Gile. Cheeses are checked at two months, four months, and then every four months after that to determine whether they’re developing the desired flavor profile during maturation—a balance of nuttiness, saltiness, sweetness, and acidity that Gile calls “East Coast bite.” Old School is sold in two-pound blocks exclusively at dakinfarm.com and Cabot’s shops—why not take a day-trip to the Green Mountain State to stock up? And don’t forget your friends (hint, hint).
FLAVORS: Pecans, cream, straw, salt
PERFECT PAIRING: When snacking on this robust cheese, Gile kicks it old school with honey and dried fruit.
- ShadowBrook Farm’s Dutch Girl Creamery
- Lincoln, Nebraska
- goat’s milk
If star New York monger Anne Saxelby tells you about a hole in the cheese industry, take it to heart. At least that’s what Charuth Van Beuzekom of Nebraska’s Dutch Girl Creamery at ShadowBrook Farm did when she set out 10 years ago to develop the hard goat cheese Saxelby mentioned was missing in the market.
Thus, Rosa Maria—an aged, Spanish-style, salt-brined stunner—was born. Warming curds at a high temperature lends the cheese an almost-granular texture, Van Beuzekom says, while its distinctive under-the-sea appearance comes from the basket forms she uses (gifts from famed British goat cheese producer Mary Holbrook, whom the American cheesemaker met during a stint working at Neal’s Yard Dairy). “It’s a fun cheese to make,” she says. “Every time, it’s so beautiful.”
A first-in-category finish at this year’s American Cheese Society Judging
& Competition was an especially sweet victory: One year ago, Van Beuzekom and her husband, Kevin Loth, completed construction on an onsite cheesemaking facility so that the “pristine, perfect milk” from their rotational-grazing herd no longer has to travel off the farm to become cheese.
FLAVORS: Butter, barnyard, brine
PERFECT PAIRING: Van Beuzekom folds Rosa Maria into risotto or savors slices of the full-bodied table cheese with apples and rustic bread.
Photographed by Andrew Purcell, styled by Carrie Purcell