Artisan cheese is a growing business and its practitioners are finding export opportunities. Plus, lowfat cheese is being improved, along with other products and packaging.

Helen and Rick Feete of Meadow Creek Dairy, Galax, Va., have two grown children who have studied dairy science, milked cows on two distant continents, and done their share of work on the family’s farm and creamery.  But Helen’s baby of late has been Grayson, a surface-ripened cheese aged for more than two months, that was judged the best farmstead cheese at July’s American Cheese Society Competition, and went on to be the runner up in the Best of Show, chosen from more than 1,000 cheeses entered.

And while she’s young enough not to have to worry about it right now, when Helen thinks about the future of Meadow Creek and Grayson, she knows that unless her children decide to enter the family business, she and her husband will have some serious decisions to make down the road. 

“I would hate to see Grayson not survive if we are not making it,” she says.  “The same with Rick. He has built this herd and this pasture.  To us being a sustainable business is as much about making sure the business is sustainable as it is about being sustainable environmentally.”

The creeping anxiety felt by the Feetes is fairly common among artisan cheesemakers in the United States, and their circumstances are not so unlike those faced by families who build and operate any other type of small business. Planning succession from one generation to the next (or from one owner to another) is often what makes the difference between a business that has a brief moment of success and one that becomes a pillar of an industry. Among the things that distinguish American artisan cheese in this respect is the fact that the entire industry is only one generation old.  

Raising Grayson

There was a time when Helen, who heads the cheesemaking for Meadow Creek, doubted that she would ever be able to turn the excellent milk from Meadow Creek’s herd into the kind of washed-rind stinky cheese she had become so intrigued with.

“I was interested in washed-rind cheeses at the beginning (1998) but had given up on being able to make one,” she says.  “Then in 2000 we went to Ireland and the town of Durrus and there was a washed-rind cheese there called Durrus, and I loved it and then I had the bug again.”

The cheese that Helen eventually developed is named after the county where her farm is located. It took years to perfect.

“We had a hard time getting the temperature and humidity right during the aging, but once we got that, then we started to get the cheese where we wanted it,” she says.

The result is a semi-soft cheese with an orange sticky rind, and a creamy, glossy, yellowish paste with tiny holes. It has a soft buttery, creamy texture and a meaty, pungent flavor.

The cheese took third place in its category in 2007, but still, the Feetes were completely surprised when word came from Chicago (the Feetes were not able to attend) that Grayson was in the Best of Show winners’ circle.

“We were ecstatic,” Helen says. “We couldn’t quite believe it. We had to pinch ourselves for awhile.”

In effect Grayson is a cheese that’s more than 20 years in the making. It would not have been possible were it not for the work that the Feetes have put into developing their farm, their creamery and their cheeses. 

The family enterprise began long before 1998 with Rick and Helen learning the dairy farming business by working for other producers. Only after several years did they buy their own farm and begin building a closed herd of Jerseys that now totals about 80.  They chose Jerseys in part because the cows are smaller and less costly than Holsteins, but also because they produce an excellent quality of milk, especially when placed on a grass diet.

Rick Feete practices intensive rotational grazing, and the western Virginia climate means the cows are in pasture year-round. As they continued to improve the quality of the milk from their herd, the Feetes naturally wanted to turn it into cheese, although Helen said the idea had been in the back of her mind all along.

“We took things one step at time trying to really get a handle on one part of the business before moving on to the next.” 

Currently, the Feetes’ daughter Kat, and son Jim are both involved with the growing business, as is Kat’s husband Dan Zlotnikov, but Helen says she is reluctant to pressure the next generation of the family to take the reins at Meadow Creek.

“We really want them to do what they want to do, so each season we only ask for a commitment for the year,” she says.

Second careers

While artisan cheesemaking is quite young in the U.S., there are already some cheesemakers and cheeses that have become legend. Among them are Uplands Cheese Company and its Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Mike and Carol Gingrich, the cheesemaking couple, make up half of the partners in the business. The other half is Jeanne and Dan Patenaude, who have raised herds of dairy cattle for more than 20 years, on 300 acres in Wisconsin’s unique Uplands or Driftless Region. The farm is located in an area known as Pleasant Ridge.

Together, the two couples bought the land in 1994, and 14 years later they are contemplating retirement. For Mike, at least, it would be a second retirement. Like many American artisan cheesemakers he got involved with cheesemaking as a second career, having worked in corporate sales for Xerox. 

The Patenaudes now operate a herd of up to 200 made up of no fewer than nine different breeds. The cows are on a primarily grass-based diet, grazing in 20 different managed paddocks throughout about eight months of the year. The grasses and legumes in the Uplands pastures provide some of the best cheese milk anywhere, Gingrich says.  Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, a cheese similar to the French Alpine classic know as Beaufort, is the proof. It took the top prize in the American Cheese Society competition in 2001, less than two years after Uplands began producing it. It is also the only cheese to have taken the Best of Show twice, having won again in 2005.

The Gingriches and the Patenaudes don’t anticipate that any of their children will change careers and take over the farmstead cheese operation, so they will entertain offers from buyers.

“We’ve made it known that we would be willing to sell the entire business,” says Mike Gingrich. “But only if we found the right people who would run it the same way, otherwise, we’ll keep doing it ourselves.”

 Pat Elliott, who makes sheeps milk cheese in northern Virginia, a couple hundred miles from the Feetes, understands their concerns, but she is fairly confident she has found someone who will continue making cheese at Everona Dairy once she’s had enough of it. An award-winning cheesemaker herself, Elliott began Everona 10 years ago as a second business. Elliott, who’s in her 70s, has run a country medical practice for more than 40 years.  She still does both, but she now has help with the cheesemaking from her daughter-in-law Carolyn Wentz.

“She’s a florist by training, and it seems that’s a good background for cheese,” Elliott says. “She’s very thoughtful about how things go together-colors and flavors and so on.

“My son Brian says he doesn’t do sheep, but he’s involved,” Elliott says. “He likes fixing things around the creamery. I don’t know for certain that they will want to take over the creamery, but I hope so.”

The lineup of cheeses at Everona, includes Piedmont, Stony Man and Pride of Bacchus. A profile of Everona Dairy can  be found at

Southern cheese

While Meadow Creek and Everona were just getting established, Fromagerie Belle Chevre, Elkmont, Ala., was nearing its 10th year in business. Liz and Tom Parnell were among a handful of pioneers in southern artisan cheese when they bought a small creamery in 1989, determined to make and sell fine goats milk cheeses in the French tradition.

Many years later, Tasia Malakasis, an Internet marketing professional with a passion for fine foods, was shopping at Dean and Deluca’s in Manhattan when she came across a lovely goat cheese from her hometown in Alabama.

“I thought I knew a little bit about artisan cheese and yet I had never heard of Belle Chevre, even though I was back home in Alabama on a regular basis,” says Malakasis.

“I was delighted that I had found the cheese, but I was also a little perturbed that I could find it in New York, but no one in Alabama knew about it.”

Malakasis contacted Liz Parnell wanting to visit the creamery, and after a few conversations and visits her interest became more than just that of an appreciative end customer.

“I had a good career, but food has always been my raison d’être,” Malakasis says. “So it didn’t take long before I started thinking that I wanted to buy the creamery.”

Parnell said she didn’t know what to make of Malakasis at first.

“I really hadn’t thought of selling it when Tasia contacted me. But I’m also a realist and I realized this company was going to die with me, if I didn’t do something,” she says. 

“I had talked to her on the telephone a number of times. When she first came to the creamery I told her we had 30 to 45 minutes but we talked about two hours. She asked some pretty straightforward questions.”

This was the foundation of what became a six-year-long courtship.

“We had some conversations over a number of years,” Malakasis says. “In 2006 I was working in Philadelphia but I still had my home in Alabama, and I just couldn’t get this idea out of my head -that this is what I wanted to do-so I quit my job.

“I called Liz and I said ‘Liz, I just quit my job and I’m coming home to make cheese,’” she explains.

Parnell says she was kind of shocked on getting the news.

“My first reaction was ‘what was she thinking?’ We really hadn’t talked specifically or done any kind of negotiations. But after I recovered, I said OK; let’s see what you can do. So I sent her out there and I gave her some of the messiest jobs as well as some of the most fun jobs and she just went with it. And the more she was around the more she took to it.”

More than 15 years in the young industry had shown Parnell exactly what combination of enthusiasm and aptitude separated a budding artisan from a burnout candidate. 

“She was a natural as a cheesemaker and as a marketer, and no matter what it was I asked her to do, she never flinched,” Parnell says. “She found me I didn’t find her, so I can’t take any credit for this. But I don’t think I could have found any better.”

Within a year, Fromagerie Belle Chevre had a new owner.

While Parnell was able to build the company’s reputation in major markets through national competitions, Malakasis is now interested in building local awareness of artisan cheese, and she is lobbying Alabama state officials to develop infrastructural support for Alabama artisan cheese, similar to that found in Vermont or Wisconsin.  Belle Chevre was also recently featured in a short film about southern cheesemakers commissioned by Whole Foods Markets.

Parnell still spends some time at the creamery, when there’s a need or when she gets an urge to make some cheese. Another sign of continuity involves Belle Chevre’s full-time cheesemaker, Viola Mills. The original cheesemaker at the creamery, she continues to work with Malakasis. Mills’ daughter and grandson are also working at Belle Chevre.

Selling American cheese to France

Another emerging topic among artisan cheesemakers is export trade. European and London-based cheese connoisseurs are beginning to find America’s finest raw-milk cheese in their local shops.

Rogue Creamery, Central Point, Ore., has earned accreditations and certifications necessary from both FDA USDA to export its raw-milk cheeses to the European Union. The company began shipping its Rogue River Blue cheese to London’s Neal’s Yard Dairy, and its entire line of six blue cheeses to Whole Foods Market, also in London. Independent retailers will also sell Rogue Creamery’s products in Paris and Amsterdam.

 This was accomplished through more than two years of collaboration between Rogue, local, state and national legislators, and national organizations, like the U.S. Dairy Export Council, ACS and Oregon Dept. of Agriculture. Because the export of raw-milk cheese had not been previously allowed, new regulations and guidelines had to be created to make it possible.

“This is a monumental change in dairy for the U.S. for a raw milk American handmade cheese to be exported, and for our government to create standards allowing American raw-milk cheesemakers to take advantage of markets in the EU,” said David Gremmels, president and co-owner of Rogue Creamery, founded in 1935. “There’s been a lot of push, pull and camaraderie that’s really made it happen between many individuals and agencies.”

Neal’s Yard Dairy, a singular champion of traditional artisan cheese in U.K. is a perfect partner for Rogue’s overseas initiative, having developed a market for U.K. cheeses worldwide.

 “This shipment is very significant because it represents another step in the normalizing of views about raw-milk cheese,” said Randolph Hodgson, owner of Neal’s Yard Dairy. “The Rogue River Blue is up there with the best blues in the world. It has a strong, but not overpowering bite, and an hugely sweet and rich finish. Our customers love it.”

While U.S. cheesemakers, including Rogue Creamery, had competed internationally in cheese competitions, commercial shipments of raw-milk cheese legally produced in the U.S. could not be exported to the EU. USDEC’s Market Access and Regulatory Affairs (MARA) Department, which works to remove trade barriers that negatively impact U.S. exports, made resolving the certification issue a priority so that U.S. companies could take advantage of the demand for their products in the European Union.

Rogue Creamery has been consistently recognized in both the United States and throughout the world, becoming the first American cheesemaker featured at the prestigious “Cheese” festival in Bra, Italy, in 2007. The Creamery won the London World Cheese Award for best blue cheese in 2003, the first time an American cheesemaker had won the honor.

Selling French cheese to Americans

While American cheese has come a long way, no one is forsaking the imports from the world’s other great cheesemaking nations.

The Cheeses of France Marketing Council recently held a Fromage Plate reception with retailers and distributors at the Bryant Park Hotel in New York City. The reception celebrated the first year accomplishments of The Cheeses of France campaign and helped preview the Fromage Plate promotional activity that will drive visibility and sales this fall and into the Holiday season. The Fromage Plate campaign celebrates the diversity of French cheese, encouraging multiple cheese selections and providing cross-selling opportunities for wine and a broad array of accoutrements that help perfectly complete every plate.

Featured speakers at the reception included acclaimed cheese expert and James Beard winner Max McCalman. He and other presenters showcased a variety of Fromage Plates demonstrating how easily cheese can be merchandised through plate presentations and pairings and how simple and enjoyable cheese plate entertaining can be.

The Cheeses of France Marketing Council is in its second year of a three-year campaign promoting French cheese-making heritage, the various cheesemaking regions and the country’s fine quality cheeses.  The latest Fromage Plate campaign will rollout in supermarkets this month and continue through January.

Lactalis USA recently launched a new log-shaped Brie under the market-leading President brand.  The log is designed to create slices fit for crackers to appeal to American consumers, and the packaging helps answer a question American consumers often ponder, by noting that the cheese includes a “thin edible rind.”

Tillamook Cheese just added a brand new cheese to its product offerings - the Tillamook Vintage White Extra Sharp Cheddar wedge. The new cheese is produced with milk from cows not supplemented with artificial growth hormones. Sharper and bolder than any of Tillamook’s Cheddars, the Vintage White Extra Sharp wedge has a smooth, yet crumbly texture. This aging makes possible the cheddar’s robust, mature flavor. “We are very excited to introduce our three-year aged cheddar to our loyal fans,” said Kathy Holstad, marketing director of Tillamook Cheese.  “We wanted to create something special for our consumers who already love the distinct sharpness of the two-year aged Tillamook white cheddar.”  The new three-year aged white cheddar wedge will soon be available at select retailers in the specialty cheese aisle.

DCI Cheese has decided that a milestone deserves a makeover.  Joan of Arc, the oldest trademarked brand of French Brie in the U.S., is unveiling a refreshed package and new overall look in celebration of the brand’s 90th anniversary.  The completely revitalized packaging and new attractive look speak to the brand’s excellence and tradition on which Joan of Arc has built its reputation.  Known for exceptional quality and flavor, Joan of Arc is a leader in the brie category, bringing to market flavorful bries-the most popular variety of French cheese on the market-as well as other fine French favorites. The new look will be showcased on all branded products beginning this month. 

The rolling green hills of south-central Wisconsin are half a world away from the slopes of Mount Ararat, Armenia. Yet these two distant sites have a lot in common: both are rich agricultural regions, Wisconsin, being home to a proud tradition of dairy farming, and Armenia producing bountiful crops of naturally sweet, organically grown fruit and nuts. Now Roth Käse, Monroe, Wis., is bringing them together with their own specialty cheeses and Harvest Song artisanal preserves. Examples include Apricot Preserves with GranQueso, Roth’s Private Reserve, or Grand Cru Gruyere; Harvest Song Tea-Rose Petal Preserves with Mascarpone,  Crave Brothers’ Les Frères, or Brie; and Harvest Song Walnut Preserves Mezzaluna Gorgonzola, Mendham Stilton or Buttermilk Blue.

Fromageries Bel US, owners of Boursin Gournay Cheese, is pleased to accept the prestigious Chefs Best Award for Best Taste in the Flavored Garlic & Herb Cheese Spread category. Boursin Garlic & Fine Herbs was recognized by this independent judging organization for receiving the highest overall score by a significant margin, based on key quality attributes in its food category. It is an authentic, all-natural cow’s milk and cream fresh Gournay cheese.

After immigrating to Texas in 1971, Maria Castro grew what began as a home kitchen operation into what is now a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in Houston.  Castro Cheese Company now produces La Vaquita brand Queso Fresco and other varieties of Hispanic cheeses and creams, made from Maria Castro’s own recipes. These products represent authentic Mexican cheese making traditions, which Castro learned in Mexico. Find out more about Castro Cheese in Dairy Field Reports, page 116.

Sidebar: Putting the Phat in Lowfat Cheese

As consumers demand healthier food options in restaurants and at home, nutrient-rich dairy foods are playing an increasing role. To help seize the opportunity, Dairy Management Inc. has launched a major research effort that could yield lowfat natural and process cheeses with consumer-acceptable flavor, texture and functionality as early as next year.

The lowfat cheese research initiative is a first-of-its-kind effort that brings together experts from multiple dairy research centers across the United States to meet the many challenges of producing desirable lowfat cheese. These research teams have leveraged their combined expertise to generate results more quickly than individual researchers working alone.

The effort is part of DMI’s National Dairy Foods Research Center Program, which combines research centers, application labs and universities to help speed dairy innovation.

What consumers want

According to a study by NPD Group Inc., a leading global provider of consumer and retail market research, almost 70% of adults want to cut down on fat intake. Such consumer demands have contributed to a trend toward products associated with health and wellness.

DMI conducted a consumer study with Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS) to directly gain information from consumers restricting their consumption of cheese. It found that 15% of adults 20 to 54 years of age are “cheese restrictors,” who eat cheese less often, use smaller portions or substitute other foods in order to reduce their fat consumption. The research also found that 29% of cheese restrictors say they would change their cheese consumption if a lowfat cheese with taste, texture and melt, comparable to full fat were on the market. Overall, half of all consumers are interested in purchasing lowfat cheese that does not compromise in these attributes.

The DMI lowfat cheese research program responds to those consumer desires with coordinated research on both natural and process cheeses being conducted through the National Dairy Foods Research Centers Program at five research centers:

• California Dairy Research Center at California Polytechnic State University

• Midwest Dairy Foods Research Center at South Dakota State University

• Southeast Dairy Foods Research Center at North Carolina State University

• Western Dairy Center at Utah State University

• Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison

Taking up the challenge

The Food and Drug Administration’s regulations state that to be labeled as lowfat, cheese cannot have more than 6% fat. Maintaining the desirable flavor, body, texture and functionality of cheese while reducing fat to such a low level presents a formidable challenge.

Cheddar and mozzarella are the focus of the lowfat natural cheese research. Researchers are studying various cheese properties such as microbiology, flavor, texture and chemistry. In the case of lowfat Cheddar, DMI researchers have aimed to quantify how fat reduction affects flavor and texture to help pinpoint the ways to make lowfat Cheddar more appealing. Development of a consumer-acceptable lowfat Cheddar is expected within one or two years. Researchers are already developing lowfat mozzarella products with excellent pizza performance that are expected to be market-ready within the next year.

The research on low-fat process cheese focuses on both loaf and slice-on-slice type products. The lowfat loaf product will have reduced sodium content as well. Slice-on-slice process cheese is used predominantly in foodservice and has a high opportunity for growth. In an effort to provide lower-fat options, some restaurants omit cheese from foods, such as sandwiches. The research has yielded promising formulations to solve production problems. If further trials succeed, improved products could be ready for the market in about one year.