Midwest cheese producers are bringing something new to the table.
To many Americans, the Heartland is that vast, flat prairie between the coasts with the amber waves of grain. Certainly corn, wheat, and soybeans thrive in the Heartland—also known as the Midwest—but dairying is huge, too, especially in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan. Artisan cheese from the Midwest barely registers in the region’s economy, but the segment is growing. For merchants, these up-and-coming creameries contribute new flavors and fresh stories to the cheese case. A few Midwest producers, like Capriole Goat Cheese, Hook’s Cheese Co., and Roth Cheese, are veterans that continue to innovate. Many others have yet to complete their first decade.
Retailers who aim to offer a representative sampling of American cheesemaking talent should be sure these gems from the Heartland are part of the rotation.
Capriole Flora: The newest cheese from goat-cheese pioneer Judy Schad is a six-ounce ashed disk inspired by France’s Selles-sur-Cher. A ripe Flora has a wrinkly rind, an oozy layer just underneath (the so-called “cream line”), and a seductive mushroom scent. Julianna, an aged goat tomme cloaked in herbes de Provence, is another gem from this creamery.
Jacobs & Brichford Cheese Ameribella: This farmstead operation makes only raw cow’s milk cheese. A standout in the lineup is the Taleggio-like Ameribella, a semisoft square with a yeasty, garlicky, beefy aroma.
Tulip Tree Creamery Trillium: A triple-cream cow’s milk cheese in a square format, Trillium catches the eye in a cheese case. Under its bloomy rind is a spreadable paste with a faint mushroom scent and the buttery lushness typical of a cream-enriched cheese.
Milton Creamery Flory’s Truckle: The milk comes from the Flory family farm in Missouri, and this clothbound Cheddar spends its first two months there. Then it’s transferred to the cellars at Milton Creamery where it matures for another 10 months. Flory’s has Cheddar-like aromas of melted butter, fresh-mown grass, and toasted nuts but with a fruity pineapple scent as well. It is sweeter and less tangy than the classic English Cheddars, a mellow style that Americans seem to love.
“Another cheese that I recently brought in from Milton is the 4 Alarm Cheddar,” says Lydia Burns, buyer for Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine in Chicago. “It has ghost pepper in it and is definitely on the kickier side, but it’s been really popular, especially in summer with burgers.”
Alemar Cheese Bent River: This 13-ounce bloomy-rind cow’s milk wheel resembles a large Camembert. When perfectly ripe, it’s dreamy, with aromas of cooked onion, garlic, cabbage, mushroom, and aged beef.
Shepherd’s Way Farms Shepherd’s Hope: This sheep cheese producer makes the excellent Big Woods Blue and a superb natural-rinded aged tomme called Friesago, but Shepherd’s Hope, a four-pound fresh wheel, is its most original creation. Think feta without the brine.
Idyll Farms Idyll Pastures: This farmstead goat producer in Northern Michigan has been amassing awards at the annual American Cheese Society competition. Burns is a fan of the creamery’s fresh goat cheese, Idyll Pastures. Packed in a four-ounce tub and sealed, it has good shelf life, says Burns. Consumers can invert the tub onto a board and present a molded cheese with an embossed surface. The price point is appealing, too, says Burns.
Baetje Farms Miette: The farm was recently sold but Veronica Baetje expects to remain on as cheesemaker, producing the beauties that she originated, like the mixed-milk Miette. Approximately 30 percent sheep’s milk, with goat’s milk making up the rest, the petite bloomy-rind Miette leaves the creamery at about two weeks. Over the next few weeks, it becomes much softer, developing a fragrance of porcini mushroom and the flavor of cheesecake.
Green Dirt Farm Fresh Sheep Cheese: Nothing this creamery makes disappoints. Try the washed-rind sheep’s-milk Bossa and the aged Aux Arcs, a tomme from mixed sheep’s and cow’s milk. But the little tubs of fresh, spreadable, lemony sheep cheese fill a niche at the cheese counter and have impressive shelf life, says C. J. Bienert of the Cheese Shop of Des Moines. “Everyone needs to start eating more of it,” says Bienert. “It’s so fluffy and delicious.” Cross-merchandise with dark bread and smoked salmon.
Dutch Girl Creamery Rosa Maria: These four-pound farmstead goat wheels are drained in colander-shaped molds, like English Berkswell, and matured for a minimum of four months. The colander produces an eye-catching studded pattern on the natural rind, and the aging yields Garrotxa-type flavor. Cheesemaker Cheruth Van Beuzekom has spent time working with Mary Holbrook, a highly regarded British goat cheese producer. With the aged Rosa Maria, she is helping fill a niche that American goat-cheese makers have largely ignored.
Deer Creek Cheese The Blue Jay: This rindless cow’s-milk blue wheel is scented with juniper berries. Ignore the quintuple-crème claim on the label. Triple crème would be more accurate. In any case, the cheese is luscious and the juniper scent does not overwhelm.
Hook Triple Play Extra Innings: Tony and Julie Hook developed Triple Play in 2014, then decided to give a few batches of this three-milk cheese (cow, goat, and sheep) some extra age. Made in 40-pound rindless blocks and matured about 15 months, Extra Innings develops a Gouda-like caramel sweetness, a nutty aroma typical of Swiss alpine wheels and some mellow Cheddar character, too.
Landmark Creamery Anabasque: The two partners behind Landmark specialize in sheep’s milk cheese and the washed-rind Anabasque is their flagship. Modeled after Ossau-Iraty, the aged French Basque tomme, Anabasque smells of caramel and warm butter and has a firm yet creamy texture.
Roelli Cheese Haus Select Cheddar: This new creation from award-winning cheesemaker Chris Roelli is a 20-pound bandage-wrapped Cheddar with a twist. Roelli adds some non-Cheddar cultures to produce nutty, mellow flavors and he tints the interior the color of butterscotch with annatto. “People gravitate to it because of the color,” says Burns, “but then they try it and it’s delicious. It’s a little more fudgy and earthy, not a bitey Cheddar.”
Janet Fletcher writes the email newsletter “Planet Cheese” and is the author of Cheese & Wine and Cheese & Beer.