Hong Kong's cheese lovers were bowled over by the outstanding quality of US artisanal cheese at a recent tasting hosted by Cheese & Wine HK, in collaboration with the California Wine Institute. Our cheese specialist Ivy reports on this event featured in California Wine Month.

The Real Deal: US Real Cheese paired with Californian Wines

US’ Cheesy History

It may surprise the cheese connoisseurs amongst you that the USA is the world’s largest producer of cheese. With a production of 5.8 million metric tons in 2018, the USA is top of the world’s cheesey chart, ahead of Germany and France, each producing around 2 million metric tons. (1)

American cheesemaking has come a long way since the Puritans started dairy farming and cheesemaking in New England in the early 17th Century.

The first cheese factory was built in 1851 in New York, years ahead of the first cheese factory in England. By second half of the 19th Century, American cheese was recognised for its consistent quality and stable production, as far ashore as England, the spiritual home of Cheddar at a time when it struggled to feed its own people and had to import foodstuff, including cheese. American farmstead population dwindled as a result of economic downturn and the two world wars. Rural migration to urban centres, expansion of railroad networks and development of refrigeration all compounded the reasons behind the growth of mass-produced food, including cheese.

You may remember peeling away the translucent wrapper for that Kraft single which made its debut in 1965? Nutritious and consumer-convenient….yet tastes of mass-produced food were getting a little too standardised and flavours were lacking. The last 2 decades of the 20th Century saw a revival of US farmstead cheese production, thanks to the development of irrigation, enhanced cheese science knowledge, and increased cross-Atlantic travels for inspiration and knowhow. Remarkable figures like Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove Chevre), Allison Hooper (Vermont Creamery) and Judy Schad (Capriole Goat Cheese) were amongst the first to popularise artisan cheese and inspired the wider American farmhouse cheese revival. 

Cheddar continued for a long time as America’s highest production cheese, its No.1 position only to be toppled by mozzarella in 2001, thanks to the popularity and convenience of pizza! 

US Artisanal cheese in Hong Kong

Where are things now? US artisanal and specialty cheese industry has never been this exciting. Over 1,000 artisan and specialty cheese producers were recorded in the USA in 2018, tripling the number 12 years ago. The artisan cheese industry has been winning medals and awards at national and world cheese competitions. The new generation cheesemakers are not just making great cheese, they are also contributing as socially responsible community members. They are involved in energy regeneration, waste recycling, sustainable agriculture, terroir expression, farm-to-table education and charitable foundations. 

Artisanal cheese is expensive to produce and it will be of no surprise that US artisanal cheese comes with a premium price tag. (Organic artisanal cheese will edge the pricing further upwards.) The ones that make it out of the country to export markets come with an even heftier price tag, making them as expensive or sometimes more expensive than some of the best from France!

In a market like Hong Kong where cheese rarely makes it into the local cuisine and the average consumption per capita is below 5 kg (say 13g a day or one small cheese platter every fortnight, cf 17.5 kg per capita in the USA)(2), artisanal cheese is reserved for the shelves of premium and specialist grocery stores, priced to factor in seasonal demand fluctuations (3) and the low average per capita consumption of cheese. 

US artisanal cheese clearly has the quality to speak for itself but consumer education is paramount to its sustainable development, especially in the export markets where the cheese case comprises a mix of French, Italian, Spanish, Swiss and English competitors.

Take Hong Kong as an example, there is a vibrant expatriate community, as well as a curious and well-travelled local community here. We are constantly either chasing the latest opening, be it restaurant or coffee shop, or following the latest health trend, be it meat-free or gluten-free.

To make US artisanal cheese more visible to a wider connoisseur audience, we need to keep up the education. The month-long promotion of “Delicious USA” was a very good way of promoting cheese alongside other complementary food produce, such as cranberries and pecans, both of great nutritional values. 

US cheese and wine

In celebration of Hong Kong’s first ever California Wine Month which coincided with Delicious USA, Cheese & Wine HK collaborated with the California Wine Institute to present our first US artisanal cheese tasting.

The cheese was sourced (via their local wholesale importers) from different US states, including of Wisconsin, California and Vermont, as well as Oregon and Georgia. All the cheeses were paired with Californian wines selected by the California Wine Institute. (4) The Golden State of California stretches along 1,300 km of coastline and is landscaped by two mountain ranges, the Sierra and Coastal Ranges, with side valleys letting in coastal fog and maritime winds to cool more inland sites. California, with 138 AVAs (5), boasts a range of styles, which work well to pair with our selection of cheeses.

Below are our pairings and tasting results. What more can I say, except that I cannot wait to host the next US artisanal cheese tasting.

The cheese selection
The wine selection

Green Hill, Sweet Grass Dairy, Georgia x Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut

Green Hill is a bloomy rind cheese made with pasteurised cow milk from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia. Sustainable agriculture and traditional cheesemaking techniques are the ethos of Sweet Grass Dairy run by Jessica and Jeremy Little. Handmade in the traditional style for Camembert. 

We tasted a mature sample of this cheese. The original white bloomy surface is now covered with tan-coloured patches. There is a distinct grey halo under the rind. Pronounced vegetal and field mushroom notes on the rind, with notes of butter and citrus in the soft-textured paste. The aftertaste reveals some layers of complexity. The rich creaminess is delicately offset by a mild acidity and light salt. A well-made Camembert-style cheese. 

The creamy mousse of the traditional method sparkling Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut (AVA North Coast) (blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) nicely balances the richness of the cheese; the fine bubbles and bright acidity the perfect antidote to the creamy texture. 

Made in traditional Camembert style, Green Hill by Sweet Grass Dairy, Georgia
Image credit: Sweet Grass Dairy

Harbison, Jasper Hill Creamery, Vermont x Eleven Chardonnay, Cannonball, 2017

Harbison is a Jasper Hill original, named after the late Mrs. Anne Harbison, affectionately known as the “Grandmother of Greensboro”. It was also the happy result of an unfortunate incident – a batch originally destined for a straightforward Brie-style cheese but the high moisture content inspired Matteo Kehler to wrap it with bark in an attempt to salvage it! Voilà, a bark-wrapped bloomy rind cheese, made with pasteurised cow milk. Harbison won the “Best of Show” award at the 2018 American Cheese Society Conference. 
Apart from making its own award-winning cheeses, Jasper Hill has also developed a successful cheese-aging facility, working with other creameries. The most noted example is the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar which was transformed in the Cellars by Jasper Hill to win the title of “Best of Show” at the 2006 American Cheese Society Conference. Jasper Hill also has its own onsite microbiology laboratory and a cropping center to make high-quality feed in the challenging climate. 

To enjoy Harbison, the top of the cheese is cut open and lifted off to reveal an unctuous spoonable texture. There is a distinct vegetal and mushroom aroma, as well as a woodsy note from the wrapping of the spruce bark, which also serves to keep the cheese in shape. This is a wonderful party cheese to be shared amongst friends. I might even suggest a light baking in the oven to impart a roasted character to the flavours. Beautiful with the Schramsberg Mirabelle Brut but also with the lightly oaked Eleven Chardonnay, Cannonball, 2017 (AVA Sonoma Coast). 

Bark-wrapped bloomy rind Harbison, an original creation by Vermont’s Jasper Hill Creamery. Current award-winner of “Best of Show”, American Cheese Society Conference, 2018
Image Credit: Jasper Hill Creamery

Carmody, Bellwether Farms, California x Estate Chardonnay, Eden Rift, 2016

Located just 20 km from the coast, Bellwether Farms benefits from a moderated microclimate of coastal winds with the addition of iodic seasprays. Former nurse Cindy Callahan’s second career in sheep herding and cheesemaking has proven to be an admirable success. Now run by son Liam and daughter-in-law Diana, Bellwether Farms is going from strength to strength. On the occasion of the creamery’s 30th anniversary in 2016, Liam and Diana started the Bellwether Farms Foundation by pledging 1% of their sales to support organisations which provide hunger relief or food-related education to local communities. 

Carmody is a beautiful looking cheese with a bright golden natural rind. The pronounced buttery aroma that oozes from paste through to the rind highlights the rich character of Jersey cow milk. The supple and mildly salted paste has an almost fudge-like texture (almost Edam like), combining fruity, buttermilk, grassy characters with a slight butterscotch note. It refreshingly leaves the palate with a hint of citrus tanginess and just a light touch of bitterness adding to the complexity. The minerality and fruit-driven richness of the Estate Chardonnay, Eden Rift, 2016 (AVA Cienega Valley) gives a lovely lift to the cheese. Thank you, Goedhuis & Co. 

Carmody by Bellwether Farms oozes buttery richness of Jersey cow milk

San Andreas, Bellwether Farms, California x Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon, Hess Family Wine Estates 2016

Made in the style of Pecorino, San Andreas is a sheep milk cheese, made with unpasteurised milk. It exudes earthy, grassy, floral and nutty notes, with a lovely creamy richness that is unique to the California. The rind is a tan-brown colour, showing grey spots. Tyrosine crystals are prevalent, adding a lovely crunchiness to the creamy texture. The easy-to-like Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 (AVA North Coast) (blend of 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, and others) did the perfect trick to balance the rich proteins, and the fruitiness of the wine a perfect accompaniment to the earthy sweetness of the cheese. 

A Californian expression of Pecorino by Bellwether Farms – San Andreas, named after the fault line that runs near the property

Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Uplands Cheese, Wisconsin x Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County, Lake Sonoma Winery, 2014

From apprentices to owners, Uplands Cheese is a beautiful story of the continuation of traditions when Andy Hatch and Scott Mericka took over from Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude in 2014. Mike and Dan were two neighbours who decided to join their herds together and bought the current farm in 1994. Working with local cheesemakers and the Center for Dairy Research enabled them to finetune their recipe for Alpine-style cheesemaking in 2000.  Andy had joined the farm in 2007 and Scott in 2010. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve won the “Best of Show” award at the 2001, 2005 and 2010 American Cheese Society Conference. 

A lovely bouquet reminiscent of wild meadows, pot pourri, honey, caramel, butter cream, and roasted hazelnut, overlaid with a delicious umami note, emanates from the rind and then the paste. The rind is dry with a grey/brown colour, dotted with multi-coloured spots evidencing the presence of microflora. The paste is a golden-yellow colour, with a supple texture. Moderately salted, with fruit tanginess at the finish, and an aftertaste that continues to deliver layers and layers of complexity long after the cheese has disappeared! Although made in an Alpine style using unpasteurised cow milk, the Pleasant Ridge Reserve, aged to perfection for around 10-14 months, shows a true expression of the specific terroir of Uplands Cheese, the biodiversity thanks to rotational grazing, the unique closed breed of cows, and the rich farmlands of Wisconsin. The Lake Sonoma Winery Cabernet Sauvignon, 2014 (AVA Alexander Valley), with 86% Cabernet Sauvignon, did a great job marrying the rich proteins with its supple tannins and the ripe cassis fruit, with just a hint of cedar and smoke, did well to complement, without overwhelming the complexities of the cheese. 

A cheese of “terroir” – Pleasant Ridge Reserve by Uplands Cheese, Wisconsin

Espresso Bellavitano, Sartori, Wisconsin x The Spur, Murrieta’s Well, Wente Family Estates, 2015

Now run by its fourth generation, this company started by an Italian migrant Paolo Sartori in 1939 celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Sartori’s cheese success includes SarVecchio Parmesan, which was quoted in a 2006 Businessweek article about “products that rival Europe’s best”. 

The senses are immediately awakened by the pungent and powerful roasted coffee aroma over the rich nutty and buttery flavours of the Bellavitano cheese, a cheese style unique to Sartori in Wisconsin. The texture of the ground coffee contrasts with the creamy texture in the presence of lovely crunchy crystals interspersed in the full-flavoured paste. An awesome pairing with The Spur, Murrieta’s Well, 2015 by Wente Family Vineyards (AVA Livermore Valley). A blend of 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Petite Sirah, 18% Merlot and other varieties. The roasted coffee character, with just the fruity tang and buttery note of the cheese, went beautifully with this wine which exuded a black fruit indulgence overlaid with the toasted and smoked character from the oak. The hint of sweet bitterness from the roasted coffee further enhances the enjoyment of both wine and cheese! A fabulous experience for the senses and a successful pairing! 

A shot of coffee in your cheese? Espresso Bellavitano, Sartori from Wisconsin

Original Blue, Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, California x Cline Cellars ‘Old Vine’ Lodi Zinfandel, Cline Family Cellars, 2016

Original Blue remains the “first love” of the three sisters now running Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese, when they converted their parents’ dairy into a creamery in 2000. The original farm at Point Reyes is still the make facility for the Original Blue, made with unpasteurised cow milk. All the other pasteurised milk cheeses are now made at a new facility in Petaluma which was completed in 2018. In 2013, the family won the prestigious National Leopold Conservation Award for its efforts in recycling and on-farm reuse. Earlier, they had installed a methane digester to generate clean energy and to reduce the farm’s carbon footprint. 

The ivory paste has an even pattern of bright blue-green veins. The paste reveals a pronounced blue mould note that dominates the palate, with an almost meaty savoury note, followed by a zesty citrus tang and a light peppery finish. This has a very original taste profile, and works brilliantly with the Cline Old Vine Zinfandel, 2016 (AVA Lodi). The jammy fruitiness of the wine balances the sharp taste of the blue cheese, the ripe sweetness of the wine offsetting the salty character of the cheese. 

The first love of the sisters at California’s Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese – Original Blue

Rogue Smokey Blue, Rogue Creamery, Oregon x Ironstone Old Vine Zinfandel, Ironstone Vineyards, Kautz Family Vineyards, 2017

The first of its kind, a smoked blue cheese, made with pasteurised cow milk, developed by Rogue Creamery. This creamery boasts a blue cheese aging cellar that was built to replicate the cave-like atmosphere at Combalou Caves in Aveyron. It made headlines when its Rogue River Blue Cheese took home the Best Blue Cheese award at the 2003 World Cheese Awards in London. 

The result of the 16-hour cold-smoking over roasted hazelnut shells is an enticing smokey nutty aroma infiltrated in the creamy blue mould note. Aromas of caramelised bacon and creamed sweet corn also greet the nose. The texture is crumbly, but the flavours are a delicious blend of umami, meaty and caramel sweetness. A most intriguing cheese and a perfect pair with the Ironstone Old Vine Zinfandel, 2017 (AVA Lodi), with its notes of blackberry preserve, pepper and vanilla note. A very successful pairing!

Rogue Smokey Blue, an original smoked blue cheese from Oregon

(1) Data according to statista.com. EU-27 together produced more cheese than USA in 2018 – total EU27 production was 10.16 million metric tons. 

(2) Based on 2016 data published by the International Dairy Federation. 

(3) For example, the summer heat and humidity adding challenges to cheese storage and expatriate communities tend to spend a long time overseas during the summer months. 

(4) One of the eight wines was kindly sponsored by Goedhuis & Co. 

(5) American Viticultural Area: federally recognized wine growing areas. For a wine to be labelled with an AVA, 85% of the grapes must come from the indicated AVA.

About the author:

Ivy is an independent cheese and wine educator based in Hong Kong. At Cheese & Wine HK (https://cheeseandwinehk.com) she collaborates with quality suppliers of both cheese and wine to organise educational and creative tasting events.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: