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.

New Wisconsin Cheeses Debut at 2015 ACS

Cheese Camp for cheeseheads is in full swing this week at the annual American Cheese Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 1,000 cheese folk have gathered to celebrate a theme of Craft, Creativity and Community.

And, like usual, it takes me traveling halfway across the country to discover a half dozen new Wisconsin cheeses I never knew existed, many of which made their official debut to the world at tonight’s Meet the Cheesemaker event.

1. First up: a yet-to-be-named cheese from Landmark Creamery made in a Reblochon style – an oooey, gooey, stinky French cheese we Americans can’t get in the United States because it’s made from raw milk and aged less than 60 days. At six weeks old, the newbie pasteurized cow’s milk cheese from cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her sales partner, Anna Thomas Bates, is washed in mead from Bos Meadery in Madison, Wis.

“We washed batches in brine, mead and nut brown beer, and liked the mead wash the best. It adds a touch of sweetness that was missing in the others, particularly near the rind,” Landmark says. She’s right – her new cheese is stinky, sticky and meaty in true washed-rind form, with just enough tangy bite near the finish to make it particular interesting without being overly funky. Look for this new cheese on the retail market in a few months.

2. Buried in the midst of a mountain of Grand Cru at the Roth Cheese table tonight was a construction-orange wheel of aged cheese with no name tag and zero marketing materials. Turns out the cheese is based on an aged Mimolette and will be named Prairie Sunset. Aged six months, the cheese is riddled with eyes and boasts a crumbly texture with a creamy mouthfeel. No word yet on what date the cheese will be released to retail – stay tuned!

3. From our friends in Brooten, Minnesota (who I’ve officially adopted as close-enough-to-Wisconsinites), Alise and Lucas Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery debuted their new Little Lucy  tonight. Made in a small, tall 4-ounce top hat, and aged six weeks, this adorable little brie is – say it with me – amazing. It’s the perfect size to consume in one sitting with a baguette and glass of champagne.

“There are three types of people in Minnesota,” Lucas explains, in what would have been a Fargo-movie-worthy “up nort” drawl if it hadn’t been cultured up a bit from the couple’s spending a few years living in Vermont and Wisconsin. “You’ve got cheese curd people. You’ve got aged cheddar people. And you’ve got brie people. So those are the three cheeses we make.”

Little Lucy is, of course, named for the Sjostrom’s daughter, aged 2-1/2. Early indications lean toward her being a redhead like her mama. The little brie joins Lucky Linda in the Redhead Creamery line-up. Named for Alise’s mom, Lucky Linda is an aged cheddar crafted in two ways: first, as a clothbound cheddar, and, second with a natural rind. Alise says so far, the clothbound is more popular, so she will likely be making more wheels in that style as time goes on. All cheeses are produced and aged on the family farm in Brooten.

4.  Because there are only a handful of cheese plants in Minnesota, and because all seven of them are just so darn nice, I’m including a second “close enough to Wisconsin” company in this line-up: The Lone Grazer Creamery, a brand new urban cheese factory in northeast Minneapolis. Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson, former cheesemaker at Caves of Faribault; and Sales Director Seamus Folliard, a former English teacher who discovered his calling in sales, first at 2 Gingers Whiskey, and now in cheese, debuted two cheeses tonight: Hansom Cab and Grazier’s Edge.

Hansom Cab is 4-inch disc of stinky goodness, washed in the aforementioned Irish 2 Gingers Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. The result is a milky, meaty cheese with grassy notes of asparagus. Grazier’s Edge, meanwhile, is an 11-inch, taller wheel, washed with St. Paul’s own 11 Wells Rye Whiskey. It is milder, more buttery, with an open texture and melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Milk for both cheeses comes from two nearby dairies, both of which pasture their cows: Sunrise Meadow in Cokato, Minn., which milks 25 Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorns, and Stengard Dairy, near Wadena, Minn., which milks Swedish Reds and Milking Shorthorns. The result is a unique milk profile with distinct grassy notes that Nilsson expertly turns into two fabulous cheeses.

5. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the folks at LaClare Farms tonight debuted their new goat’s milk yogurt in plain, vanilla, strawberry and blueberry. The yogurt has just started production, with no date set yet for a retail launch, other than “soon,” says farm matriarch Clara Hedrich. Prototype cups sport attractive arty labels, and the yogurt will be available in 6-ounce and 24-ounce sizes. The yogurt has a richer consistency than many goat yogurts, with a crisp, clean flavor.

6. Klondike Cheese in Monroe is seeing success with their new Adelphos Greek Yogurt Dips, which I tried for the first time tonight. The savory dips are made with the company’s Odyssey Greek Yogurt and are available in four flavors: Cucumber Garlic, Southwest, Red & Green Bell Pepper and French Onion. My favorite was the French Onion, which cheesemaker and yogurt maker Adam Buholzer helpfully explained has 25 percent less sodium, 50 percent less fat, 50 percent less cholesterol and three times the protein as a conventional French Onion dip. That’s good – this way I won’t feel so guilty when I consume the entire 12-oz. container in one sitting.

Last but not least, a hearty shout-out to two new products from Wisconsin cheesemakers: Marieke Gouda Truffle, which debuted in April, and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Curds, because in Wisconsin, we never have enough squeaky curd. Thanks to all of these fine folks for doing cheeseheads proud.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.