Minnesota Artisan Cheesemakers Up Their Game

Grazier’s Edge, a mild, buttery, stinky cheese
washed in 11 Wells Rye Whiskey.

While Wisconsin has enjoyed a near-monopoly on the sheer number of artisan cheesemakers in the Midwest for the past decade, our sneaky neighbors to the West have steadily and stealthily upped their game in the artisan cheese department.

First, Steven and Jodi Ohlsen Read of Shepherd’s Way Farms near Nerstrand, Minn., launched a Kickstarter campaign last year that was 100 percent funded, and which will allow the couple to dramatically expand their flock and make even more of their fabulous sheep milk cheeses including Big Woods Blue, Friesago and Shepherd’s Hope. (View some stunning photography of Shepherd’s Way by Becca Dilley here).

Then, Keith Adams and Craig Hagerman at Alemar Cheese Company simply stomped all over the bloomy rind category with their amazing Bent River Camembert and Blue Earth Brie – two American beauties that rival even the French greats.

And now, two upstarts are taking the spotlight with brand new cheeses that debuted this summer at The American Cheese Society. Both cheeses are now available at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison, mostly because I hounded these fine Minnesotans until they shipped me cheese so I could share it with all of you. Thank you, unfailing Midwestern politeness!

First up: my new favorite cheese – and I don’t say this lightly – is Grazier’s Edge from the fine folks at The Lone Grazer in Minneapolis. Grazier’s Edge is comparable – do I daresay better? – than the original raw milk St. Nectaire I tasted in 2011 in the Auvergne region of France and aged on straw mats in the underground caves of Jean d’Alos Fromagerie.

Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson – born and raised in Wadena, Minn. – started making cheese seven years ago at Faribault Dairy Company. It was there he had the opportunity to work with grassfed milk, which inspired him to start his own business and specialize in pasture-based cheeses.

The Lone Grazer is a unique cheesemaking model, with milk coming from two local dairy farms – Sunrise Meadows Dairy near Cokato, Minn., milking 25 Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorn cows, and Stengaard Farm, near Sebeka, Minn (who on earth names these towns?), milking Swedish Reds, Milking Shorthorns and Red and White Holsteins.

Hansom Cab, rich and grassy, washed with 2 GINGERS Irish
Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea

Grass-fed milk is shipped to northeast Minneapolis, where inside the Food Building – an urban food production hub home to The Lone Grazer Creamery & Red Table Meat Company – Nilsson crafts two cheeses: Grazier’s Edge, and Hansom Cab. I haven’t even mentioned Hansom Cab yet, which if it weren’t sitting next to Grazier’s Edge, would be a righteous cheese and is very much worthy of its own merit. While Grazier’s Edge is a large-format cheese washed in 11 Wells Rye Whiskey, Hansom Cab is a small wheel washed with 2 GINGERS Irish Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. The result is a savory rind protecting a milky, meaty paste.

Nilssen, a tall, lean, quiet guy with a steady and slow Minnesotan accent, makes the cheese while his sales director, Seamus Folliard (SHAY-MUS FOAL-EE-ARD) – say that three times fast –  sells it in a high-energy, you-have-to-taste-this-cheese style that makes you just want to give him a hug. If he’s not truly Irish (and I forgot to ask), then Seamus sports one heckuva Irish accent. After drinking a beer with them at the ACS opening reception, I decided the pair could go into stand-up comedy if the whole cheese thing doesn’t work out. 

Alise and Lucas Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery.

So, while Rueben and Seamus have the urban artisan cheese market tied up, their neighbors to the north, Lucas and Alise Sjostrom, are making some amazing new cheeses at their farmstead Redhead Creamery near Brooten, Minn. Both have ties to Wisconsin, as Alise, the cheesemaker, worked at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wis., and Lucas wrote for Hoard’s Dairyman in Fort Atkinson.

However, both being Minnesota natives, they returned to their roots two years ago and are now making a few cheeses: fresh cheese curds, of course – which they market as “ridiculously good,” and Lucky Linda, a bandage-wrapped cheddar-style cheese that’s also available in a natural rind.

But it’s their latest cheese – Little Lucy – that I predict will truly put this pair on the map. Hand-crafted in 6 oz miniature top hats, this Brie is oozy and creamy at six weeks. With grassy and asparagus notes, this little cheese that could is just what we Midwesterners have been waiting for. Production is really just getting going, with 90 percent of it is sold at farmer’s markets, but the Sjostroms have made a case or two available each month to Metcalfe’s-Hilldale in Madison. This is the kind of cheese that if you see sitting on the shelf, you’re going to want to buy two, because they do not last long. I took three Little Lucys to a cheese class last week, and could have sold a round to every person in attendance. Because yes, it’s that good.

So while the lone grazers and redheads are rapidly upping the game in the artisan cheese community, both are so new to the industry that I sense their best cheeses – I know, it will be hard to top the current offerings – are likely still to come. Who knows what amazing cheese awaits us Wisconsin neighbors? I’m glad I live nearby.