When 21 staff members of Cook’s Illustrated recently sampled 10 American artisanal cheddars, proceeded to rate each on flavor, texture, and sharpness, and then published the results, I’m pretty sure they had no idea they were about to expose what is one of the best kept secrets in the cheesemaking world: the rise of using “culture cocktails” to enhance Old World favorites and create New World originals.

The “Artisanal Cheddar Taste Test” in the soon-to-be-published July 2012 issue of Cook’s Illustrated  (read an online version here) starts out innocently enough. Much like its previous taste comparisons of balsamic vinegar, whole bean coffee, and even potato chip brands, the staff selects 10 varieties of American cheddar cheese from among top sellers at cheese markets and recent winners of American Cheese Society awards.

They then proceed to compare them on flavor and texture, thinking, I suppose, that a cheddar is a cheddar, right? How different can these cheeses really be?

But then it gets interesting. After a minor error where they don’t realize that it’s rennet, not culture, that causes milk to separate into curds and whey, the panel opens one of my favorite cheeses: Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery in Iowa, made by two of my all time favorite cheesemakers, Galen Musser, and his father, Rufus (alas, if we could only get these guys to move to Wisconsin). It’s at this point the panel realizes that perhaps a cheddar is not always a cheddar.

In a copy block titled “Culture Shock,” the article wonders why Prairie Breeze – ultimately dubbed as the magazine’s favorite cheddar in its taste-testing exercise, can taste so different from similarly packaged cheeses also labeled as cheddars:

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? According to (Dean) Sommer, (a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research), the moisture level of the cheeses could play a role, but so could each maker’s specific blend of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial culture in our favorite cheddar (Prairie Breeze) likely had a big influence on its flavor. This cheese maker takes the culturing process to another level by adding a second round of bacterial cultures to its cheese. We learned from Sommer that it’s not just a repeat of the first culture cocktail; these secondary bacteria are strains more typically found in Parmesan and Emmentaler than in cheddar, lending the cheese the subtle “butterscotch-y” and “gamy” undertones that earned tasters’ highest praise.

This discovery prompts the tasting team to then go back and check the culturing details of every other cheddar they had tasted:

As it turned out, the particularly “toasty,” “earthy,” “complex” flavors of two other cheddars, including our close runner-up (Cabot Cellars at Jasper Hill Clothbound Cheddar), are also the result of that second dose of alternative bacteria. So much for plain-Jane American cheddar. 

And so much for an American cheesemaker’s best-kept secret.

In the past few years, I’ve watched a growing number of American cheesemakers begin using “adjunct cultures” in their cheeses. Some even have specific “culture cocktails” they commission from culture houses made especially – and only – for them. And that’s fine. Adding cultures to the milk to make cheese has always been part of the process.

But two weeks ago, I inadvertently walked into an industry meeting where a new culture house, having just opened up shop in the U.S. a few weeks before, boasted its ability to translate every customer’s need or demand into a “just right” culture.

I listened with a mixture of shock and awe as the saleswoman touted the company she worked for had developed cultures to mask bitterness, speed up the aging process, and “achieve refined flavor distinction without any drastic changes to the production process or yield.”

Need an adjunct culture to achieve the same fruity, sweet note as a Gouda? Check.

Want to replicate the raw-milk, “farmhouse” taste in a cheese without the raw milk or farmhouse? Check.

Need to develop a smear-ripened flavor without ever actually smear-ripening your cheese? Check.

The presentation got more interesting. We then proceeded to try samples of every cheese the company had made with each of these different cultures. Some were very good and some were so bad I inadvertently spit them out into a napkin before catching myself.

After much oohing and ahhing from the audience, I raised my hand. I told the sales lady that here in the United States, we preach the “art and science” of cheesemaking to consumers – telling them, and rightfully so in my opinion – that a cheese develops its taste because of how carefully the milk is handled, how well the cows, goats or sheep are cared for, and that good milk, paired with fine craftsmanship and affinage skills of a cheesemaker, are the true determinants of a cheese’s flavor profile.

The sales lady blinked at me, tilted her head, and spoke to me in a tone of voice that one might expect from a disapproving teacher toward an unruly student: “But why wouldn’t you want to use these cultures if they were available to you? These flavors are what the consumer wants. We’re only giving cheesemakers the tools they need to sell more cheese.”

Perhaps. But I would argue (and hope) that true American artisanal cheesemakers will use adjunct cultures and culture cocktails only to make good cheese better. Because in the marketplace, good cheese will sell. But a good cheese, made by a good cheesemaker, that carries an authentic story, will sell better.

P.S. If you’re wondering how Wisconsin cheddars stacked up in the Cook’s Illustrated article, only one cheddar from our state – Widmer’s Two-Year Aged Cheddar – was chosen for taste-testing. Deemed as “mild” and “lackluster” in comparison with others in the lineup, as it did not contain adjunct cultures, the magazine staffers took a pass, recommending readers “not go out of your way to mail-order it.”

No worries, Joe. I, right along with thousands of others of customers, will keep ordering and eating your good, old fashioned cheddar. And then we’ll order some more.

6 thoughts on “Culture Cocktails: A Cheesemaker’s Best Kept Secret

  1. Thanks for the very interesting update and article link. It would seem there is an undercurrent of perpetrating 'hocus pocus' on an unsuspecting public once again.

    Does the word 'slime' bring anything to mind?

  2. Thanks for a great post!!

    It frustrates me that they didn't even consider some of Wisconsin’s other great tasting cheddars in this testing. What about Hook’s, or the best cheddar cheese I’ve ever had Springside Cheese?

    On Wisconsin!

  3. Thanks for a great post!!

    It frustrates me that they didn't even consider some of Wisconsin’s other great tasting cheddars in this testing. What about Hook’s, or the best cheddar cheese I’ve ever had Springside Cheese?

    On Wisconsin!

  4. So last week I leafed through the new issue like I always do in case there's a recipe or two I'd make more than once, saw the blurb on the cover about the taste test, and immedately thought “it's gonna be mostly Tillamook, Cabot, and a bunch of others from the coasts like it always is, isn't it??”.

    What is it with the foodie press and their New England and West Coast cheese fetishes??? Unless they're talking about Uplands, whenever a Wisconsin product's mentioned it always sounds like an afterthought.

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