In July, judges at the American Cheese Society conference in Denver, Colorado bestowed 18-month-aged Alpine-style Tarentaise Reserve with the title of best cheese in America—for the second time in four years. We caught up with Jeremy Stephenson, Spring Brook Farm’s cheese program director, to find out how the farm parties after a major win and what it takes to stand out among over 2,000 of America’s best cheeses.
So, you just won Best of Show at ACS. How do you feel?
Totally blown away. We went in to this year with absolutely low expectations for awards— because you have to. It would be stupid to assume you’re going to get an award. There are a lot of cheeses, a lot of judges. And so it was a real surprise, especially to end up with Best of Show.
This is the second time Tarentaise Reserve has won Best of Show—did you learn any lessons from your win in 2014 that stuck with you?
I think it’s a little easier for us this time because I did know a few things. First: celebrate in moderation the night after winning, and try to get some sleep because the following morning you will have the opportunity to join the other Best of Show winners at a media event hosted by ACS. So it’s a great opportunity to talk in some detail about what we do as cheesemakers and why we do it to people who can get the word out.
Aside from taking it easy the first night, how did Spring Brook Farm celebrate the win?
Everybody’s happy. It’s just an affirmation of all the good work everyone’s done. We had a great lunch, our director came in, and we talked about where the cheese tradition came from. And I emphasized what a good job we’re doing in the day-to-day, particularly in terms of the affinage. And then we all reminded ourselves – hey, why are we doing this? Why we’re here, and that’s the Farms for City Kids Foundation, and that great educational work.
What happens now that everyone wants a piece of the winning cheese—is it overwhelming?
In terms of supply, it’s a disappointment because we don’t ever like not having product for our customers. We pride ourselves in managing our supply chain. We don’t over-promise; we’ve got a balance and we sell our cheese every year. With the (Tarentaise) Reserve, when everyone suddenly wants to buy some, we don’t have enough. We don’t have the space to carry wheels out to 24 months and keep our business working financially.
Speaking of carrying over wheels to Reserve status, how do you know when a wheel of regular Tarentaise is really great and decide to age it out?
I’m not one for flowery descriptors, but when you taste a really good wheel of Tarentaise, you’re going to know it. It’ll have everything just right. You put it to your nose, and it’s good. (Aroma) depends on the time of year, as we have seasonality that comes into play. But in the case of a summer cheese—which is usually what we enter into ACS because of the conference timing—you’re going to get some fruity aroma, and then when you taste it, the upfront flavor is great, without any defectives like bitterness. And then what really tells you you’ve got a great cheese is that the flavor experience carries on. If you have nothing else immediately following, your mouth is going be telling you, wow, that is really great. I would have another piece of that cheese.
So, you know a wheel is good when it’s addictive?
Yes. In the supermarket, when we do demos, customers walk by and they don’t even really want to look at you, and they grab a piece of cheese, put it in their mouth and they walk away. But five minutes later, ten minutes later, shoppers return to the table, wanting to learn what in the world they just ate which tasted so good for so long. When our cheese is at it’s best there is a tremendous complexity to the tasting experience which unfolds gradually in your mouth. I think the complex balance of flavors results in an ‘umami’ flavor experience which definitely makes it easy to want to try it again. And that tells us we’re doing our job.
During your acceptance speech, you gave a shoutout to the Alpine cheesemakers who inspired you. How do you honor their traditions in your cheesemaking?
I was taught by a young man from the Savoie, Alex, who grew up in a dairy family and is now a consultant. He helped develop Tarentaise at Thistle Hill Farm, and when they decided to work with Farms for City Kids, John Putnam at Thistle Hill said, “Hey, you definitely wanna get this guy from France.” So he brought this great French technology over and I always considered that a sacred gift. He’s a young guy, but he came to us with a thousand years’ worth of knowledge, and handed it to us on a platter. I had tremendous appreciation and respect for the fact that we were given a piece of Alpine culture, and I don’t take that lightly. We’re a continuation of that tradition—I can’t ever take full credit for this cheese.
Featured image: Jeremy Stephenson, maker of the ‘Best of Show’ winner at ACS 2017. Photo Credit: Marisa Chioini, MISA ME Photography