For our 2017 list of The Best Cheeses of the Year, we turned our focus to the good ol’ US of A! Over the next few weeks, we’ll share our top picks for wedges and wheels in the Northeast, South, Midwest, and West. Find the best of what your area has to offer, explore what makes each cheese special, and learn what the experts pair it with.
Written by Amanda Rae Busch, Lynn Freehill-Maye, Seánan Forbes, Nicole Haase, Hannah Howard, Kristine Jannuzzi, Kara Kaminski-Killiany, Melissa Paesan, Bridget Shirvell, and Marimar Toledo.
Photographed by Evi Abeler | Styled By Kristin Stangl | Illustrated by Neal Aspinall
SPREADABLE IDYLL PASTURES
Idyll Farms, Northport, Minn.
Four days is all it takes for Idyll Farms to make its eponymous rindless Spreadable Idyll Pastures cheese. Pasture-fed French Alpine goats supply the milk (the breed is known for its milk’s volume and sweetness). The curds are fluffy and soft, with citrus and grass notes—an exemplary classic fresh goat cheese.
Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain, Wis.
“We make a lot of cheese,” says master cheesemaker and Cedar Grove president Bob Wills. Among the renowned Wisconsin creamery’s offerings is Montague, a mixed-milk blue-ribbon winner at the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition this year. It’s a mild wheel, with enough barnyard character to keep it interesting. Blending sheep’s and cow’s milks brings out the best flavors of both, says Wills, with “the richness and slight lanolin taste of the sheep’s milk” shining through. By the time it reaches the market, Montague typically has a year of age behind it, plus work from more than a few people.“I develop the recipes, I figure out what we’re making, but I’m not in the vats anymore,” says Wills. He does, however, delight in training the next generation. When Wills talks about Aaron Peper, a Cedar Grove cheesemaker, his voice warms with audible pride. “[Peper is] developing into one of the most outstanding cheesemakers in the country,” he says. Indeed, Cedar Grove has developed a reputation for mentoring other cheesemakers. “In some ways, that’s my favorite part of (my career),” Wills says, “because (that training) will carry on long after I stop making cheese.
CHIPOTLE MORITA WHITE CHEDDAR CHEESE CURDS
WW Homestead Dairy, Waukon, Iowa
In 2011, Iowa brothers Tom and Paul Weighner partnered with Tom Walleser to start WW Homestead Dairy, incorporating both family names. “It’s a small creamery,” Weighner says. “All of the milk comes from our two farms.” Cumulatively, the Weighners, Walleser, and plant manager Bruce Snitker have spent decades in the dairy business, but WW Homestead is only six years old—pretty young for an award winner. Chipotle Morita White Cheddar Cheese Curds get their heat from (you guessed it) freshly ground chipotle and Morita peppers. “It’s a deceptive cheese,” Weighner says. “You could take a bite of it and think, That’s not (too) strong, and then a minute or two later, it catches up with you.”
Leelanau Cheese Company, Leelanau, Mich.
The taste of the Alps is alive and well in Michigan at Leelanau Cheese Company, where owner-cheesemaker duo Anne and John Hoyt respect the traditions they observed while training in Switzerland. Their stateside rendition of raclette reminds us of a modern musician performing a familiar classic: each note of the Swiss curd concerto is adapted to the stage of Grand Traverse Bay. In fact, the Hoyts are breaking the mold in Leelanau. Their nutty, buttery, creamy wheel took home Super Gold from the 2016 World Cheese Awards, an honor bestowed upon few American makers. Even John’s Swiss mentor doubted that they could make raclette in the US without the particular terroir of Alpine pasture. “We proved him wrong!” John quips.
Hoyt enjoys Mild Raclette simply. “Just a piece of rye bread with a nice slice of cheese and a cornichon: That’s my perfect picnic,” he says.
Tulip Tree Creamery, Indianapolis, Ind.
Though approachable in flavor, girl-next-door Trillium deserves attention. The triple cream with subtle complexity is Tulip Tree Creamery’s star player—and a cheese with purpose. “We want to connect with our customers and community,” says cheesemaker Fons Smits, co-owner with Laura Davenport. Call them cheesy ambassadors for the Midwestern palate: When Tulip Tree opened its doors in 2014, Smits continues, “we wanted to [make] cheeses that were not that common around here.” This creation was a good start.The powder-white squares are shipped after only two weeks. While young Trillium yields a fresh, lactic flavor, aging evokes “a combination of creamy, mush-roomy tastes,” Smits says. “When completely ripe (it becomes) very close to butter consistency—you can almost spread it.”
While Smits admits he doesn’t imbibe for reasons of heart health, he suggests matching Trillium with dark beer, something his partner, Davenport, discovered after a marathon pairing session. We suggest J.W.P. American Stout, brewed by Daredevil Brewing Co., a few miles down the road from the creamery.
HAND-PULLED STRING CHEESE
Cesar’s Cheese, Columbus, Wis.
Initially, cheesemaker Cesar Luis set out to develop a recipe based on memories of his grand-mother’s stretched-curd Oaxacan string cheese with the hope that fellow Oaxacans would buy it. Surprisingly, they didn’t, he says. So Dave Roelli of Roelli Cheese Haus in southwest Wisconsin—where Luis was making cheese at the time—suggested that Luis make an easier-to-eat shape: smaller, five-inch sticks as opposed to traditional, palm-size spheres. The result is approachable and nostalgic to many Americans but, unlike grocery store varieties of yesteryear, this cheese is made with full-fat, locally sourced milk, which imparts lactic, buttery flavor—and as many fibrous strands as one cares to pull. One week into the shape change, Luis’ sales skyrocketed.
Luis likens the cheese to an adventurous friend. “He follows you everywhere and gets along with almost (anyone),” he says. When serving, there’s only one combo he doesn’t advise. Around Christmas, a friend tried dipping a log in eggnog, to which Luis replied, “Mike, this is disgusting.”
BIG WOODS BLUE
Shepherd’s Way Farms, Nerstrand, Minn.
When Jodi Ohlsen Read set out to make a sheep’s milk blue cheese, the bar was set high. Roquefort was the only wheel of that style that most consumers recognized, but she didn’t let that stop her.“I wanted to create a cheese that would highlight the flavors of our milk and have a fairly spicy blue profile,” Ohlsen Read says. “The (buttery) sheep milk really carries the cheese.” Indeed, she has succeeded. Collecting regular top-three placements and multiple best-in-class wins over the past six years, Big Woods Blue has cemented its status as one of the best blues in the country.
Thirsty? Sip something sweet alongside Big Woods Blue, such as Moscato or ice cider. Hungry? Melt it atop caramelized-onion pizza or nosh on a wedge with candied pecans.
DEER CREEK THE ROBIN
The Artisan Cheese ExchangeSheboygan, Wis.
Chris Gentine—cheese grader at The Artisan Cheese Exchange and native Wisconsinite—wanted to recreate a flavor memory from his youth: traditional Colby cheese. A 1998 regulation change dropped the requirement for an open-curd structure, and it hasn’t been the same since, he says. With few exceptions, products on the market didn’t have the texture he recalled and often had a bitter aftertaste.So Gentine partnered with master cheesemaker Kerry Henning of Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese to create a Colby that harks to the true American original: a bandage-wrapped, small-format wheel. Named for Wisconsin’s state bird, The Robin is an unfussy cheese that shines in simple situations: tucked into sandwiches, grated on tacos, or melted atop a toast.
EVERTON PREMIUM RESERVE
Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead Cheese, Connersville, Ind.
Like many award-winning wheels, Everton Premium Reserve came about by accident. Cheesemaker Matthew Brichford decided to tweak the recipe for Everton, the Alpine style named for a nearby township. His wife, Leslie Jacobs, announced on Facebook that the cheese would be changing. Sales dropped instantly as fans held out for the new version. Brichford found himself with extra wheels of the “old” Everton—and, keeping them in the cheese cave up to 18 months, he discovered they aged beautifully.While younger Everton reminds Brichford of one of his favorite cheeses, French Beaufort, extra time in the caves creates a taste even stronger than Swiss Gruyère for Everton Premium Reserve. “When it’s aged that long, it gets very sharp, yet it still has that sweetness and nuttiness of a mature Alpine cheese,” Brichford says. He credits the cows—a mixed herd of Jersey, Normandy, and Tarentaise breeds—for Everton Premium Reserve’s flavor. “It’s not so much what I’ve done,” he says. “I believe that’s just our milk.”
Stir up a whiskey cocktail (Brichford recommends a mix of bourbon, basil simple syrup, and club soda) to sip alongside this mature wedge—the liquor’s caramelized flavor brings out the cheese’s sweeter notes.
Montchevre Belmont, Wis.
In 1989, French cheese industry leaders Arnaud Solandt and Jean Rossard took over an old Wisconsin cheddar factory with big dreams. Nearly 30 years later, Montchevre has become one of the largest goat cheese producers in America, turning out dozens of varieties. Its Blueberry Vanilla fresh goat cheese log wins fans with its decadent, dessert-like flavor—and bags awards including Best of Class at the 2017 United States Championship Cheese Contest.
Layer Montchevre Blueberry Vanilla with berries and lemon curd to create a rich, protein-packed parfait.
Landmark Creamery, Cedar Grove, Wis.
Visits to Paris left Wisconsinite Anna Thomas Bates so impressed with how beautifully cheese was presented at fromageries that when she and friend Anna Landmark founded Landmark Creamery in 2014, they pledged to make fresh Petit Nuage as striking as possible.The pair uses a curvy basket mold to form the cheese, pouring, salting, and flipping each round by hand. The artful appearance makes each Petit Nuage (“little cloud” in French) a special treat. “Aesthetics are important to us,” Thomas Bates says. “You eat with your eyes first. It gives you a hint of what’s to come.”The cheese’s elegance is matched with standout flavor. The Annas source high-quality local sheep’s milk and produce Petit Nuage only from February to late fall, when the sheep are milked. True to its namesake, the resulting round is light and fluffy. A slightly herby, grassy tang finishes on a sweet, citric note as bright and refreshing as lemonade.
Thomas Bates recommends gin and tonic with a splash of elderflower liqueur—its floral- botanical sparkle is smoothed by the cheese’s creamy tang.
BLACK PEPPER BELLAVITANO
Sartori, Plymouth, Wis.
From the fourth-generation Sartori cheesemaking family in Wisconsin comes the 2017 United States Championship Cheese Contest Grand Champion: Black Pepper BellaVitano. “BellaVitano” is Sartori’s family of aged wheels inspired by cheddar and parmesan, and this award-winner is coated in coarse-ground black pepper (natch) for a spicy kick that complements the firm-yet-creamy cheese. Enjoy it in a roast beef sandwich alongside a glass of Chianti.