Listen to an interview with the Caves of Faribault’s Jeff Jirik and Jill Ellingson on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
Earlier this year, for the very first time, I got the chance to tour the legendary Caves of Faribault, a cheese factory perched on the edge of a river bluff in the heart of Faribault, Minnesota, less than an hour south of the Twin Cities.
Faribault is the definition of Midwest nice. It’s the kind of place where folks who watch you drive down their street more than once will amble to the curb, motion you to roll down your car window, and ask you if you’re lost. It’s the kind of place where a cheesemaker is willing to give a cheese geek a tour of his award-winning blue cheese factory, instead of attending his hometown Faribault Flannel Formal, an annual spring fling where the locals dress up in their finest flannel and bring their meatiest hot dish to see if it takes first prize at the Lumberjack Hot Dish contest.
I’m talking of course about cheesemaker Jeff Jirik, the man who brought the Caves of Faribault back from the brink in 2001, after the previous owner closed the factory and abandoned the caves to instead make blue cheese at a more modern facility in a different state. Today, Jeff and his team make some of the best blue cheese in the United States. And while he was happy to give me a special tour of the sandstone caves that make his blue cheese famous, he wasn’t super keen on having a bunch of recording equipment trail him around in the dark. That’s why we met again a few days later to talk for Cheese Underground. This time, he drove my way – to my favorite little tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin.
Today, the Caves of Faribault are perhaps best known for making aging AmaBlu®, which was the first blue cheese made in the United States and created at the caves in 1936 by Felix Frederiksen. In the 1930s, Felix traveled to Minnesota in search of St. Peter Sandstone, geologically rare across the nation but abundant in Minnesota as a result of the last glacial age. Felix found the abandoned caves that had been carved in the 1850s for Fleckentstein Brewing Co, which prior to modern day refrigeration, used the caves to store beer at cooler temperatures.
You have to remember that prior to the 1930s, all of the blue cheese consumed in the United States was imported from Europe. World War Two put constraints on importation, so when Felix started making blue cheese, it was immediately a hit. He called his blue “AmaBlu” by taking the ‘ama’ from Latin for “I love” and ‘blu’ – B –L – U as the international spelling of blue.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, Felix, with his company, Treasure Cave, Inc., oversaw many more caves hollowed out of the sandstone bluff. In the 1980s, Jeff was hired by the company then running the caves. However, Treasure Cave ended up closing down in Faribault in the 1990s because the company that had bought the caves moved production to a conventional cheese making facility in another state. Jeff moved on, too, but he never forgot the blue cheese he had made in Faribault.
With two partners, Jeff got the opportunity to purchase the old blue cheese factory in May 2001. He renamed it Caves of Faribault and spent months and months bringing the facility back to standards. Today, the business is owned by Swiss Valley, but Jeff and his team still make AmaBlu, the original blue cheese aged in the famous St. Peter Sandstone caves, as well as AmaBlu Gorgonzola and St. Pete’s Select, a super-premium blue cheese.
The cheese plant and caves are managed by Jill Ellingson, whom Jeff refers to as “the current keeper of the caves.” Jill grew up on a dairy farm not far from the factory. Her grandparents actually delivered milk in cans to the cheese plant in the 1940s. Today she oversees all cheesemaking and affinage inside the plant and the caves, with a production team of 10 people making six vats of cheese a day.
I asked Jeff and Jill if they’d ever gotten lost in the caves. Both had their own stories of electricity issues, but both found their way to the entrance. I’m grateful neither let me get lost in the Caves of Faribault. The caves are truly a special place. They’re home to amazing cheese, made by good-hearted people.
Thank you to Dairy Connection Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Dairy Connection Inc. is a supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheese-making supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheese-makers nationwide. To learn more, please visit www.dairyconnection.com.