This post originally appeared on the Longmont Compass on October 27, 2014 and is solely for portfolio purposes. 

 

Craft Cheese: Not for Squares

Connor Magyar

 

Photographers demand that we shout it to make us smile. It can be used to describe any instance of wordplay that we at The Compass employ. And a healthy heaping of it will change any good meal into a holeycow-that’s-grate meal, especially if it’s Swiss. Overlooked by the recent hyper-conscious eating movement for years, cheese is finally having its day.

Artisanal cheese has always been something that has held some interest, typically for mid-to-highfalutin purposes. The nice Gouda, Feta, and Gorgonzola would be pulled out with the aged wines, the expertly-crafted dishes, and enjoyed by the finest epicureans. Slowly these cheeses would trickle down the food chain, ending up in Wendy’s salads and included in a grocer’s “charcuterie mega platter”.

Cheese eventually came to meet the locavore movement, and artisan local cheeses became highly sought after, exploding in popularity in the middle of 2007. Longmont, however, has been celebrating and supporting fine cheeses for almost 40 years.

One of the oldest cheese institutions in town is Cheese Importers. The business that started in the mid 70’s has gone through many changes in its long history. Most recently, in the summer of 2012 the 38 year-old business moved from its warehouse on South Pratt Parkway to Longmont’s historic power plant at First Avenue and Main Street. The new location quadrupled their size, and allowed them to open the Bistrot des Artistes, a cafe and restaurant serving dishes made with their wares, and the Bell Epoque, a full-service bar serving a collection of wines, craft beers, and cocktails.

Samm White, the son of the founders of Cheese Importers, now co-owns the business with his sister. White’s retelling of the business’ quaint beginnings take us back to the mid-70’s, on the heels of Government Cheese. The original location was a part of the Epson Cannery on 3rd and Martin St, long before they became the apartments they are now. The business would import cheese originally from the midwest, as White explains, “My dad would literally drive out to Wisconsin and load up his truck and put a tarp and ice packs on it, and drive back in the middle of the night, you know, straight through Wisconsin to avoid the sun.”

Cheese Importers was one of the first in the Front Range and in surrounding states to offer international cheeses. “They went out to visit my mom’s family, who started Walker Butter & Egg, which is big on the East Coast… and they introduced us to these finer cheeses,” recalls White. Cheese Importers began to import cheeses from France at a time when “Most people in America didn’t know what brie was.” Over time, Cheese Importers would start to import cheeses from more and more countries, resulting in the product selection you see in their cooler today. In the past couple of decades, more and more of that cheese has been American-made, taking cues from European cheesemakers, with results on par with or better than their counterparts.

He contributes many factors of this “American Cheese Movement” to the economic downturn in the mid-2000’s. “As people got a little bit tighter with their money, they stopped eating out as much, but they were willing to take that money and reinvest it for an experience eating and sharing at home. They’re buying smaller big screens, but they’re buying better food.”

A raised awareness of different types and qualities of cheese was another factor White believed contributed to the rise in cheese’s popularity in America. “Manchego is not manchego. You can find it for $5.99 per pound at Costco, or $12.99 per pound here, but Costco’s is mass-produced, it’s pasteurized, it’s from a feed lot, not from independent, artisanal producers who take care of their animals. That truly affects your health, happiness, and everything.”

Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy is another of Longmont’s longtime cheese providers. John Scaggs, Haystack’s director of Sales & Marketing, supplied the Compass with a tour of the creamery, and talked about the company’s history. The dairy started to sell its products in 1989 supplying artisan goat cheese to local restaurants and at farmer’s markets. In just a few years Haystack had their cheeses for sale in Alfalfa’s and had won their first cheesemaking award.

Throughout the 90’s and the 00’s Haystack continued to grow, supplying their cheese to high-tier restaurants and national cheese shops. In 2005 Haystack opened their creamery in Longmont, and continue to produce cheese there today. The milk for their cheeses no longer comes from the farm that the original owners ran, but instead comes from the Cañon City Correctional Facility, to whom the original herd was sold nearly ten years ago. Inmates of the facility take care of a herd of dairy goats, most of whose milk is brought to Longmont weekly to be made into Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese.

Haystack has won awards for many of their cheeses and they continue to innovate. “We’ve got about five or six different styles of cheese: international styles, and then some that are called ‘American Originals’. We take a lot of lead from the European masters for stylistic guidance, but then as New World cheesemakers, we can do whatever we want.”

Despite Haystack’s success, they stay grounded in the local community As Scaggs explained, “We’re at the farmers markets… that’s how we got our company started a long time ago, primarily by doing the farmer’s markets, getting out there with people, being in front of them, having them taste the cheese, giving feedback. That’s really helped to shape the company over the years.”

Scaggs shared an article from the Cheese Reporter: a front page was covered by a headline stating “Cheese Consumption per Capita Record High in 2013”, and he added that Colorado’s specialty food culture was helping American artisan cheese to grow. Haystack stays active in the community, hosting tastings at Left Hand Brewing Company and teaming up with organizations like the Longmont Senior Center to provide special closed tours.

Haystack’s enthusiasm for their cheese can best be summed up with a memorable quote from Scaggs: “People don’t realize that some of the best damn goat cheese in this fair land of America is made right here in Longmont. You can quote me on that.”

This interest in locally-sourced cheese has also led many to consider and attempt home cheesemaking. Many books have been published on the subject, internet forums and groups have been created, and some home cheesemakers have begun to offer classes. One such cheesemaker and Longmontian, Kate Johnson, has recently started offering her cheesemaking classes at The Art of Cheese out of the Tinkermill‘s space in downtown Longmont. After years of toting cheesemaking supplies from location to location, it became time for Johnson to find a more permanent location for her classes. The Tinkermill’s Downtown location acts as an incubator for local startups, and was a perfect opportunity for Johnson.

Compass staff attended one of Johnson’s classes to see what cheesemaking was all about, and after the first hour we were hooked.

Johnson’s ease with cheese is reassuring. She asserts the simplicity of cheesemaking constantly, remarking, “With easy-to-find ingredients, milk from a local farm or your neighborhood grocery store, and just a little know-how, you  can learn to make your own cheeses at home that are free from unwanted additives or preservatives and that taste great.”

Classes are hands-on, interactive, and educational. In addition discussing theories, perusing recipes, and watching Johnson make cheese, many classes supply class-goers with the necessary supplies to make the featured cheeses. Johnson explains all parts of the process, including where common mistakes occur and how to avoid or remedy them. The classes make the delicate and precise process of cheesemaking a much more approachable craft.

Johnson plans to continue working with the Tinkermill and other collaborative teaching spaces in the future to continue offering her line of cheesemaking classes. Currently, The Art of Cheese has eleven cheesemaking classes and one soapmaking class. Cheese classes cover everything from Mozzarella to blue cheeses, cheddar to brie, and even a class teaching Trappist cheese recipes. “Most cheeses are made from the same four ingredients,” Johnson explains, “By simply altering time and temperature at different stages of the cheesemaking process as well as during the aging period, you end up with hundreds of uniquely different cheeses.”

Longmont is already a hub for ‘Kraft’ beer; is it becoming a hub for craft cheese?

Artisan cheese, like fine wine or cuisine, is now much more approachable for anyone, and continues to grow in popularity with Longmont at the creamy center.