Photography by Nicole Wolf | Styling by Vanessa Seder
What is it about them? Tacky on the outside, primal ooze inside, an epic pain to plastic wrap. They’ll make your fellow commuters think you don’t bathe. Take some home from the grocery store and your car will reek like a gym bag. Try handling them with gloves and you’ll go through the whole box.
And yet we can’t seem to quit washed rind cheeses. In fact, they’re a cheese nerd’s most sought-after style, with “stinky” the primary watchword uttered by someone looking to get insider treatment at a cheese counter.
But as recently as the ‘90s, these stinkers hadn’t quite caught on stateside. Sure, connoisseurs knew to ask for European imports like Époisses, but the American Cheese Society didn’t even have a washed rind category until 2003. Save for a handful of Midwesterners, American makers were slow to take on this polarizing style, and who could blame them? At the turn of the 21st century, our domestic food culture had yet to embrace funk. Few people were drinking bitter amaro or natty wine, and double IPAs were far from de rigueur on beer menus. The palate of our young nation had just warmed up to fresh goat cheese; we had no idea the awakening that lay on the horizon.
THE BIRTH OF WASHED RINDS
Though this style is relatively new in the U.S., humans have been washing cheese in brine since the seventh century. It was around then that a Benedictine monk noticed mold growing on a wheel and rubbed it away with a sanitizing liquid (probably salt water or alcohol). When the mold kept coming back, he kept “washing” it, watching in horror as it turned orange. Not ones to waste food, the monks tasted the mysterious specimen, and Muenster was born.
While that monk was washing away surface mold, he was unwittingly creating an environment very friendly to B. linens, a bacterium present on human skin that gives washed rinds their footy aroma. The wash (sometimes a smear, sometimes a spray, and sometimes a full-on dunk) allows bacteria to flourish, breaking down fats and proteins and ripening the cheese from the outside in.
Several factors—frequency of washing, original moisture content of the cheese—influence how runny and robust the end result will be. When large-format, low-moisture cheeses get the spa treatment, they barely register as stinkers (think: Gruyere), whereas others wind up as custardy puddles. As such, the category includes everything from Taleggio to Appenzeller and from Morbier to Vacherin Mont D’or. Since that fateful Benedictine discovery, folks have bathed cheese in beer, brandy, and buttermilk and they’ve done it in France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and more. But until just over a century ago, the practice didn’t see much action outside Europe.
WASHIES COME TO AMERICA
Starting in the mid-1800s, Swiss immigrants began coming to the U.S. in droves. Fleeing famine and recession, over 200,000 Swiss emigrated in the second half of the 19th century, many of them settling in Wisconsin. It was there that the first truly American washed rind was born.
While English and Irish immigrants brought cheddar to New England, and Spanish missionaries brought sheep and goat cheeses out West, it was Swiss and German farmers who gifted Alpine recipes to America’s Dairyland. One such newcomer was John Jossi, who immigrated to Wisconsin in 1857. Jossi made an American riff on Limburger for a few years before he got the idea for brick cheese—a new style that would press curd between coal-fired bricks before washing it in whey. Not long after, a Swiss expat named Emil Frey created another stinker called Liederkranz and for the next hundred years, these two cheeses had the American washed rind market pretty well cornered.
A SMEAR-RIPENED RENAISSANCE
The American Cheese Society first introduced a “Washed Rind Cheeses” category—described as “Liederkranz, Limberger [sic], Brick Types and Styles, etc.”—at its 2003 conference. The playing field was so wide open, Cowgirl Creamery’s Red Hawk competed with Uplands’ Pleasant Ridge Reserve.
But by 2008, things were starting to get crowded—in the cow’s milk section alone, there was a five-way tie at third place. ACS introduced a subcategory for hard/aged washed rinds in 2009, but the growth didn’t stop; the category has expanded five times since then.
“U.S. washed rinds have progressed in leaps and bounds over the past ten years,” says Mark Gilman of Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut, where he and his mom, Elizabeth MacAlister, make a wide variety of washed rind cheeses. MacAlister was familiar with Liederkranz growing up; when she started making cheese in 1997, she learned washing techniques from a Belgian cheese maker.
In Galax, Virginia, Meadow Creek Dairy cheesemaker Helen Feete also learned from a pro—she started making her washed rind Grayson after a visit with Jeffa Gill, maker of the Irish stinker Durrus. For Feete, the dearth of these cheeses in the U.S. market was a big motivator. “It seemed like the perfect opportunity to offer something different,” she says.
Though inspired by Europeans, these makers are carving out a space that is uniquely American. At Cato Corner, Gilman and MacAlister wash their Hooligan in everything from local farmhouse ale to pear eau de vie. “American cheesemakers are lucky not to be bound by tradition in the same way that many cheesemakers in Europe might be,” Gilman says.
Boston monger Tonya Black of The Wine and Cheese Cask does her part to push consumers beyond these bounds, too. “Some customers demand only Epoisses or Livarot because they think no one else makes these kinds of cheeses this well, but we do, and it’s up to mongers to gently introduce the public to them,” Black says. “Sometimes I even send them home with a sliver of an American washed…more often than not, that technique works.”
On her trips to Europe, Feete says she is always asking European cheesemakers why certain steps are taken, only to be told: That’s just how that cheese is made. “For us in the South, cheese was not traditionally made here, so we were free to experiment and adapt to our climate and location, our cows and our facilities,” she says. “I think being American made it easier to change…it is part of what we are.”
Firefly founders and partners Pablo Solanet and Mike Koch were inspired by Spanish Basque wheels when they crafted this semi-soft cheese, made from the milk of their neighbors in mountainous western Maryland. Brined daily during its three-month aging period, Cabra La Mancha’s thin, yammy rind has a saline crunch, giving way to an ivory paste that’s malty and mild, with a faint goat tang.
This strong-willed cheese is modeled after French Muenster and bathed in brine twice a week for 60–75 days. The rind is a peachy patina mottled with chalk white dust, the top wrinkly like Langres (perfect for a champagne float). Inside, a runny creamline encases a pasty center and the whole thing smells like raw milk and barnyard, with flavors of smoke and fresh-cut grass.
Though it may take square cues from Taleggio or Reblochon, Grayson is truly an American original. Its tacky, strawberry-pink rind and golden paste glow like a sunset, while its silky interior packs flavors of sweet cream, steak, and green onion. Makers Helen and Rick Feete rotationally graze their Jersey herd, who dine on a blend of grass, legumes, and kelp.
Greensboro Bend, VT
Jasper Hill turns out many washed rinds, but there will always be a soft spot in our hearts (and an empty corner of our stomachs) for the Vacherin-inspired Winnimere. Made only during the winter months, these quilty coral wheels are wrapped in spruce cambium pulled from trees on the farm’s property. Brined and aged 60 days until the paste resembles snowy white pudding, Winnimere tastes like pine and bacon—a cheesy ode to Christmas morning.
This rarity is one of the only American riffs on the esteemed Jura-mountain classic Morbier. At Sequatchie Cove, they harness Appalachian terroir to create a semi-soft wedge that’s laterally bisected with a midnight stripe of vegetable ash. Notes of stone and grass are tempered by lemon sweetness and just the slightest b. linen funk.
Like many washies, this one is great served top-down by cutting off the top rind to expose the whirlpool of cream inside. Pliable and chewy near its thin outer layer, Bossa’s paste can be scooped with a spoon like custard. The smell of fresh sheep’s milk and farm life gives way to a mild sweetness augmented by just the slightest hint of brine and bitter herbs.
Paso Robles, CA
The basket weave on Dream Weaver’s dusty apricot exterior looks and smells like that of a standard washed rind, but inside there is a feta-white sea of goat milk that almost looks too fresh to be aged cheese! The salty exterior contains spoils of just-milked hircine flavor, with a glossy creamline encasing the pudgy center in silk.
New cheesemakers often turn to younger formats, eager to taste the fruits of their labor (and needing a quick return on investment). The breadth of soft washed rind wheels is in part due to this, but as the category has expanded in the States, the number of hard washed rinds has crept up as well. “Getting over that initial startup and then the long wait to see how the cheese turns out could have something to do with the fact that there are less older and large style formats,” says Jeremy Stephenson of Spring Brook Farm, who makes hard washed Tarentaise and Raclette in Reading, Vermont. Starting out, they baked this into their business plan: “It was understood…that we would not see any significant cash flow for at least a year,” Stephenson says. The wait has certainly paid off. Here are just a few other strong showings in the world of American hard washed rind:
►Parish Hill Creamery Vermont Herdsman: Made in the style of Asiago with raw cow’s milk, this sharp wheel has notes of tropical fruit and orgeat.
►Cato Corner Dairyere: The lemon-yellow interior of this 12-month-old wheel is peppered with small eyes and has a malted earthy paste that is creamy but light.
►Uplands Cheese Pleasant Ridge Reserve: A perennial favorite and ACS darling, this beloved Alpine riff is made with grass-fed summer milk for a salty fruit finish.
►Cowgirl Creamery Hop Along: Made with organic forage-based cow’s milk and washed in hard cider, Hop Along has a nutty fall flavor redolent of apple crisp.
►Consider Bardwell Rupert: Made with raw cow’s milk, smear-ripened, and aged 12 months, Rupert has a golden paste with warm notes of toffee and dried fruit.