When a pair of never-heard-of-before “Deer Creek” cheeses nearly swept the highly-coveted Aged Cheddar category at the American Cheese Society awards this month, the audience grew a bit quiet as Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange climbed the stage to collect his ribbons.
“I felt like I could hear crickets chirping in the background as I walked up there,” said Gentine, who in the past decade has developed one of the nation’s most successful marketing and export companies for American cheesemakers looking to expand abroad.
“First off, I am not a cheesemaker and would never claim to be,” added Gentine, whose business is based in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin. “So Cabot Creamery and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (the cheesemakers who have dominated the category for the past three years) — I really respect them. They are crafting some truly amazing American Originals.”
While Gentine may not be a cheesemaker, he is a cheese geek. A licensed cheese grader for the past 15 years, his palate is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a Grade A and Grade AA cheddar. His new line of Deer Creek specialty Cheddars are believed to be the only Grade AA Cheddars on the retail market, and that’s no accident. No cheesemaker really wants to go through the hoops to meet the higher standard, as each batch must be personally inspected by one of a handful of official State of Wisconsin certified cheese graders.
But Gentine’s got the ambition, passion and geektoidness to make it happen. That’s why he’s spent the past three years working with Wisconsin cheesemakers, affineurs and cheese graders to develop a specialty, three-year Cheddar called Deer Creek Reserve, and that is why Deer Creek Reserve is now considered to be the best Aged Cheddar (between 2-4 years) in the nation.
Both the Deer Creek and Deer Creek Reserve are made in 40-pound blocks at the Land O’ Lakes cheese plant in Kiel, long considered to produce some of the best Cheddar in the nation. The cheese is then aged and graded by Wisconsin Aging & Grading (aptly named), specifically for Gentine.
“We pull some samples from every vat, and then the team evaluates each sample,” Gentine said. “We usually narrow it down to a smaller group, and then submit it to DATCP (WI Dept of Agriculture) for their official cheese grader to analyze. From that group, he might say only two or three meet the Grade AA standard. So those are the samples we age out. This is a process we have to go through every time to meet the Grade AA standard.”
Gentine also oversees the production of two more cheeses: 1) Deer Creek The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Hennig at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel (this cheese took a second in its category at this year’s ACS competition), and 2) Deer Creek Vat 17, a cocktail culture Cheddar that was originally made specifically for a customer whose business model changed and could not purchase it (this cheese took second in the Aged Cheddar category).
“The Deer Creek Vat 17 is a really unique cheese,” Gentine said. “It’s got a cocktail of cultures in it that represent some of the best global Cheddars from the United Kingdom to Canada to New Zealand. It’s an amazing cheese to watch and taste, as one culture dies off, another comes to the front and the taste completely changes. We’re lucky it peaked at the right time to win at ACS.”
So now that he has these amazing, award-winning Cheddars that heretofore no one had ever seen, how can the average person buy it? That’s a good question, Gentine says. Because the wins at ACS were a surprise, he didn’t have any of the cheese yet placed in the retail market. He’s now working with distributors and specialty stores to make it available to the public, as calls are coming in from the publicity garnered from ACS.
As for future awards and accolades for the Deer Creek cheeses, don’t expect too many. Gentine says he probably won’t enter them into the American Cheese Society competition again, because he felt awkward competing against Wisconsin cheesemakers, many of whom are his clients.
“We’ll continue to make it, sell it at retail, and I’m sure we’ll be exporting the heck out of it,” Gentine said. “But I think my time on the awards stand is done. I’ll leave those honors to the cheesemakers. They’re the ones who deserve it.”