The Caves of Faribault


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.

Caves of Faribault Plant Manager Jill Ellingson with wheels of blue cheese.

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

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Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka

Cave Aged Chandoka sign created by Cheesemonger
Natalee, who should also be a professional artist.

Oh yeah, baby. I’m doing my happy dance.

My colleagues at Metcalfe’s Markets in Wisconsin often mock me for two things, both of which occur when I get really excited about cheese: my dorky happy dance that looks like a 1970s disco move gone wrong, accompanied by a loud: “Oh yeah, baby.”

I can’t help it. Both occur without warning, and both often occur on Wednesdays or Thursdays, when loads of cheeses from far away and not-so-far-away factories, farms and warehouses arrive at our stores in Madison and Wauwatosa and I am there to open boxes to reveal glorious wheels of cheese we’ve been waiting on for weeks, and sometimes months.

Two weeks ago, on my way to the Isthmus Beer & Cheese Fest to teach beer and cheese pairings every 30 minutes, I stopped quickly at Metcalfe’s Hilldale to load up on supplies and sample cheeses. I did a double take at a pile of shiny black and silver repack labels sitting on the counter that said “Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka.” My heart may have actually stopped.

“Do. Not. Tell. Me. That. This. Cheese. Came. In. And. No. One. Told. Me.” I enunciated to my cheesemonger colleague, Dean, who began to look at me in what can only be described as sheer terror. He promptly sprinted to the walk-in cooler and came out holding a half wheel of Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka. This is the cheese that won Runner-Up Best in Show at the 2015 American Cheese Society competition, and of which only 20 wheels are available every few months.

Dean holding a half wheel of the elusive
Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka. Oh
yeah, baby.

Cue the happy dance and “Oh yeah, baby.” Even though we were still awaiting a PLU number from pricing to sell the cheese, my glorious co-workers had cut the wheel open to see its amazingness first-hand. After making Dean hold it for a quick iPhone shot (see right), I was about to hurry out to the aforementioned Beer & Cheese Fest, when Dean asked if I wanted to see a whole wheel. I stopped in my tracks. Turns out that Standard Market had sent us two wheels. Two. Whole. 22-Pound. Fricking. Wheels. Cue another happy dance, and you guessed it, “Oh yeah, baby.”

So why am I getting so excited about this cheese? Well, you’ll recall that this cheese is one of the first really-successful examples of what can happen when one cheese has two makers. Americans are finally embracing the European model of separating cheese making from cheese aging, while celebrating both the cheesemaker and the affineur.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka is a mixed milk cheese crafted with goat and cow’s milk by Katie Fuhrmann and her team on LaClare Farm, and cellar-aged by David Rogers and his team at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois. Last summer, it was named the second best cheese in America at a competition widely regarded as the Oscars of the artisan cheese industry. The Cave Aged Chandoka tied Roth’s Private Reserve from Emmi Roth in Monroe (another cue the happy dance cheese) for runner-up honors, while Best in Show went to Celtic Blue Reserve from Ontario, Canada.

At the time of its winning, only four wheels – yes, just four wheels – of the winning batch existed in the cellars at Standard Market, with 20 wheels scheduled to be available around Christmas. Until now, the cheese has been available in very limited retail in the Chicago market at Standard Market, Eataly and Mariano’s. The night that the cheese won at ACS, I basically trapped David Rogers in a corner (in a nice way, of course) and made him promise to get Metcalfe’s on the list for a wheel on the next round of aging. Being the awesome guy he is, he not only kept his word, but sent us two wheels.

That means that anyone living within walking, driving or running distance of Madison can now eat one of the best cheeses in the world. If you’re into bandage-wrapped, earthy, crumbly and melt-on-your-tongue goodness, please visit us at Metcalfe’s Hilldale at the corner of Midvale and University Ave. Because when these two wheels are gone, they’re gone, and I’m not about to push my luck of trapping David Rogers in a corner again to budge in line for awesome cheese.

Well, maybe I will. Grin. Because there’s no better feeling than getting so excited about cheese than spontaneously breaking into dance and being willing to embrace your inner dorkiness amongst friends and strangers. Because yeah, this cheese is that good. Prepare for a happy dance of your own.

Marcoot Jersey Creamery

Seven generations of Marcoot family members have milked Jersey cows on an 1840 homestead in Greenville, Illinois, but it’s the latest crop of Marcoot women: sisters Amy, Beth and Brooke, who are transitioning the family operation into a farmstead creamery.

The entire family now pitches in to make a line of farmstead cheeses, all made solely from the milk of the Marcoot’s 60-head herd of grass-fed, registered Jersey cattle. The family’s latest creation is Cave Aged Forrest Alpine, a raw-milk, gouda-style cheese aged up to 12 months in the farm’s cellars, modeled after aging caves in Switzerland.

I discovered this cheese nearly by accident, after Amy joined Wisconsin Cheese Originals last month. She paid for two memberships: one for herself, and one for her cheesemaker, Audie Wall. This peaked my interest, so I asked what kinds of cheese she was making, and the conversation bloomed. The family’s Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is due to be featured in the Winter 2011 issue of Culture Magazine, and Marcoot Jersey Creamery cheeses are gaining traction.

The Cave Aged Forrest Alpine is a beautiful cheese with a rich, creamy flavor and clean finish. It has almost what I call a “cultured” flavor – the same kind of sweetness and bite that one finds in Prairie Breeze Cheddar.

In Wisconsin, more farm families are transitioning to building on-farm creameries and producing farmstead cheeses. The same is happening in Illinois. A bit of history about the Marcoot family sheds light on how they got to be crafting a farmstead cheese.

The Marcoot family came from Switzerland in 1842, and Amy says the story goes the Marcoots brought a Jersey calf with them on the boat from Switzerland. She’s a bit skeptical about this legend, but does know that the first Marcoot born in America – Maurice Marcoot – did have a herd of Jersey cows, as the family has a letter from his farm. To date, the Marcoot family has had Jersey cows for seven generations, with Amy and her sisters being the seventh generation.

Amy says that as the dairy industry changed during the past 40 years, her dad, John Marcoot, worked hard to change with the industry. About 11 years ago, her uncle left the family farm for a job elsewhere. At that point her dad and uncle were milking 135 Jerseys. Her dad, knowing he needed to simplify things a bit, decided to turn farmland that had traditionally been corn and beans into premium pasture for cows.

And with that seemingly simple decision, the Marcoot family farm switched from being primarily a TMR based farm (Total Mixed Ration) to primarily grass fed.

In an email interview last week, Amy told me she remembers calling home from college and asking her dad how the cows were adjusting. ‘”He said, ‘Amy, they are happier.’ I told him he was going crazy and he said, ‘Seriously, they seem much more content.’ Sure enough, when I came home from college I could see what he was talking about.”

“My parents had four daughters,” Amy said. “They told us growing up that we all needed to go to college, get our degrees and find a stable job. They also said, ‘Give yourself a lot of options.’ I can’t tell you how many times I heard that! So we did.”

Amy went to the University of Illinois and earned a degree in Agriculture and physical education and also has a Masters degree in Counseling. Sister Beth got a degree in Agriculture and is finishing her masters degree now. Another sister, Brooke, got her degree in education. The fourth sister, Brittany, who is not involved in the operation, has a degree in accounting.

Amy says she was living overseas for a year when her parents called to let her know Dad was considering selling the cows in five to seven years. “At that point my sisters and I started talking about what we could do to keep the farm,” Amy says. “After many ideas and thoughts we decided that doing a value added business to sustain our family farm. We considered fluid milk, but quickly agreed that cheese would be the best option for us. We began working with a few different cheesemakers, taking classes, reading books, visiting numerous other creameries, asking annoying questions over and over again. Then we started making cheese. Neville McNaughton is our primary consultant and he has worked with us much over the past year. We are still learning so much!”

Amy hired Audie Wall to be the family cheesemaker and today, she primarily works with Neville and other consultants to grow and learn as a cheesemaker.

“Audie has done a great job for us,” Amy says. “She grew up on a farm about 25 miles north of our farm. She is basically a member of the family as she has been my best friend since we were 10.”

Audie’s undergraduate degree is in Industrial Design and before becoming a cheesemaker, she worked in design engineering. “A few years ago, Audie started looking for something else to do because she was tired of sitting behind a desk. Who knew that meant she’d be making cheese!” Amy says. “She has been able to grasp the concepts and processes of cheesemaking very well. I think much of that is because of her engineering background.”

Three sisters. One best friend. A mom and dad who were willing to try something new: welcome to a new generation of American cheesemakers. Welcome to Marcoot Jersey Creamery.