I just ordered my copy of Jeffrey Roberts’ new book: Atlas of American Artisan Cheese. The advance book reviews proclaim it to be the “first reference book of its kind.” Organized by region and state, the Atlas says it highlights more than 350 of the best small-scale cheeses produced from cow, sheep, and goat milk in the United States today.

Roberts, who co-founded the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont, notes that 190 artisan cheesemakers have begun production since 2000, and cheesemakers are located in 43 states. According to Roberts, California is home to the most artisan cheesemakers, with 36; Vermont has the most per capita, with 34, while Wisconsin weighs in with a paltry 22 artisan producers.

I’m anxious to get a copy of this book, as I’m curious whom Roberts has deemed an “artisan” cheesemaker in Wisconsin. Because I think we have more than 22.

But maybe that’s because so many people define the word “artisan” differently.

According to the American Cheese Society, the word “artisan or artisanal implies that a cheese is produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheesemaker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible in the production of the cheese. Artisan, or artisanal, cheeses may be made from all types of milk and may include various flavorings.”

But try googling the term “artisan cheese” and you’ll find several companies across the United States labeling their cheeses as “artisan” without quite meeting those requirements. Does any state have regulations on what “artisan” equals in regards to labeling? I’d be interested in finding out.

Neville McNaughton and Dan Strongin, two veteran dairy industry experts, wrote an interesting article in the April 6 issue of The Cheese Reporter, proposing a series of new definitions for cheese categories, including: “farmhouse cheese,” “farm cheese,” “artisan,” “artisan style,” “specialty” and “commodity.” If you’d like a PDF of the article, email me.

Specifically, they argue a cheese should be labeled “Artisan Style” if it is “manufactured in larger volumes with respect for cheesemaking traditions and the natural development of flavor, but utilizing mechanical aids to replace some of the traditional work done by hand, or made from the milk of many farms.”

Sounds like a debate that perhaps the artisan cheese community should be having. As Wisconsin continues to produce more artisan, farmstead and specialty cheese, we need to be marketing it appropriately. Until then, I look forward to reading Jeff’s new book.

One thought on “Definition of Artisan Cheese

  1. Let us note that the American cheese society says that farmstead means the cheese is made on the farm. But Wisconsin has decided that the cheesemaker only needs to “own” the farm to be farmstead. You want to have artisan cheese without the artisan. Remember how excited you were about Alto relabeling some of their industrial cheese Black Creek and calling it artisan. They are the biggest producer of industrial cheese in the state. The Vermont guy has it right. Wisconsin needs to try to develop the artisan cheese sector not rewrite the definition to match what they already have in place. I believe it was Laura Greenburg that suggested in one of her many reports that you can call it artisan if you make less then 2500 pounds of cheese in one vat. That is 25,000 lbs of milk, a swimming pool. Add in electric agitators and the cheesemaker hardly needs to be there at all.

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