The New Age of American Aging Cellars

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Eight years ago at a Wisconsin cheese industry meeting, a presenter who had studied cheesemaking in Europe used the word “affinage.” No one around the table, including me, knew what the word meant. Today, not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers recognize the term, they’re putting an innovative twist on an Old World tradition by building modern aging cellars and creating American Originals to rival the best cheeses coming out of traditional European aging caves.

The term affinage – the art of ripening cheese – officially entered the modern American lexicon with a crack of the whip via a 2011 story in The New York Times about Murray’s Cheese Shop in Greenwich Village, where five man-made temperature-and-humidity-controlled cheese caves drew the ire of American cheese cop Steven Jenkins, who called “this affinage thing” a “total crock.”

Never one to shy away from the opportunity to be fantastically quoted in a major media outlet, Jenkins argued that American affinage was merely a way to “drastically inflate the cost of cheeses” using “faux-alchemical nonsense.” I disagreed then, and I disagree now. All one has to do is talk to a Wisconsin cheesemaker and taste a cheese that’s been aged in a humidity and temperature-controlled room to realize the art of affinage is exactly that – an art. These days, American cheesemaking doesn’t begin and end in the make room. It continues into the aging room and is responsible for producing some of the most beautiful and delicious cheeses in the world.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

The latest Wisconsin cheesemaker to enter the modern age of affinage is Chris Roelli at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. With the company’s original aging room at capacity, and with  orders stacking up for his cellar-aged Dunbarton Blue, Red Rock, Marigold and new Alpine cheese  Little Mountain, Chris decided to build his own affinage center. Construction crews arrived the second week in August, and by November 1, the first cheeses were moved in. After three years of planning, the cellars will allow Roelli to make two vats of cheese five days a week and easily double production. In essence, all the cheese he makes in a year will fit into his new curing rooms.

Built into bedrock with 10-foot concrete walls, the modern Roelli Aging Cellars are 60-by-45-ft and 90 percent below grade. The cellar is made up of three distinct curing rooms, each designed for Chris’ different masterpieces. The temperature naturally hovers around the ideal temperature of 50 degrees, with help from modern radiator pipes. Chris controls the humidity in each room via adding water on the floor. A magical maintenance room with all kinds of gadgets contains state-of-the art equipment for controlling the temperature in each room. It sends him an email three times a day with each aging room’s temperature and will even send an alarm if the temperature is too high or too low.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

While all that sounds much more hi-tech than a standard 200-year-old French cheese aging cave beneath your average urban cheese shop, Chris, in his humble way, manages to describe his curing rooms in a remarkably American style: “More than 500 loads of dirt and rock later, we’ve got ourselves a nice little aging facility.”

Congratulations to Roelli Cheese on your new American aging cellars. We can’t wait to see what cheeses they produce next.