Listen to an interview with the farmer, the cheesemaker and the cows behind two of the best cheeses in America on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
Located on scenic Highway 23 between Dodgeville and Spring Green, Wisconsin, Uplands Cheese is one of the best known farmstead cheese plants in the nation. Its flagship cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is the only cheese in America to ever win both the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and take Best in Show – three different years – at the American Cheese Society Judging Competition. Uplands is run by business partners Scott Mericka and Andy Hatch. Scott is the herdsman and Andy is the cheesemaker. Together, they and their families produce seasonal milk and seasonal cheese, two incredibly uncommon commodities in the United States, a country where everyone, it seems, wants their favorite food year-round.
Last week, we caught up with the pair just in time for evening milking and helped Scott bring in the cows from pasture. Then, we sat down with Andy in the cheese plant and talked about the difference seasonal milk makes in Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Rush Creek Reserve, and a new cheese he’s working on.
We arrive at Uplands Cheese just as Uplands herdsman Scott Mericka is coming in from building fence. He’s dressed in a bright blue t-shirt filled with holes, shorts that are a little too short, and knee-high rubber boots. I tell him I’ve never met a farmer before who wears shorts, and he laughs, and makes a joke that at least they’re not Daisy Dukes. We start walking out to the pasture to bring in the cows for the evening milking. We’ve gotten a lot of rain in southern Wisconsin this summer, and the pastures are unusually lush for late August.
“We’re milking a little over 200 cows right now and catching up on things that we couldn’t get done in the springtime,” Scott says. The cows at Uplands are rotationally grazed, which means the cows are moved to a different paddock every 12 hours with fresh grass. The cows are also bred seasonally, which means they all give birth to calves in the spring and are dry – or don’t need to be milked – for a few months in the dead of winter. This is the old-fashioned way of farming, long abandoned by most dairy farmers who like to get paid for milk year-round. But unlike Scott and Andy, most dairy farmers don’t own their own cheese factory.
“Most farmers don’t get a chance to own their milk market,” Scott says. “I have a way to control the milk price and volatility, which is really important for a young family. It’s nice for both Andy’s family and my family to be able to control the price we’re getting paid for our milk.”
At this point, we look up at the sky and see a thunderstorm is headed our way, so we let Scott do his thing with getting the cows in. They know that his whistle means it’s time to head to the barn.
We stand off to the side, and the cows slowly start walking past us on the way to the barn. It’s not raining yet, and one of them, a dark cow named Cocoa, walks right up to me and demands attention. “Ah, I see you found Cocoa, or that Cocoa found you,” says Scott, referring to the black cow that is currently head-butting me, demanding to be petted continuously.
After we get the cows up and into the barn, we head into the cheese plant, where cheesemaker Andy Hatch and Esther Hill have a table filled with dozens of plugs of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Andy and Esther are evaluating several vats of cheese and invite us to participate. We take our time, because it’s August, and that means Andy’s not making cheese. That’s because August in Wisconsin is usually hot and dry, and neither the grass nor the milk usually hits exceptionally high quality standards. So, Scott and Andy instead sell their milk to another manufacturer, and take time to work on other stuff. For example, today, Scott’s been building fences, and Andy took the time to answer his email, which means Cheese Underground Radio is sitting at his table.
As we taste different vats of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, I ask Andy to talk a little about what seasonality of milk means to a cheesemaker.
“There are a couple of ways to look at it,” Andy says. “First, there’s the poetic way: that we are preserving the bounty of summer. We make cheese seven days a week, and the cows are in a different pasture every day. It’s almost a log of the season, as if we’re bottling time. And, then there’s the practical way: it’s a competitive strategy. Seasonal milk is giving our cheese the most distinctive flavor possible.”
Andy starts making Pleasant Ridge Reserve in the spring, after the cows have calved in the pastures, usually starting the first week in May. Then he and his team will make Pleasant Ridge every day for a solid 80 days. They take a break in August because of the weather. This year, he could have kept making cheese straight through August because of the mild weather and steady rains, but his cheese caves are full. That’s why he’s planning an expansion for more cheese aging space. He resumes making Pleasant Ridge again in September into October, and then switches to Rush Creek Reserve in October into November.
After Rush Creek season is over, Andy says he still has a few weeks of beautiful grass-based milk in early November. It is this period of the year where he is experimenting with a new cheese: a small-format soft cheese, which to date, has only been tasted by Andy and his team, and the farm’s pigs. He’s still perfecting a recipe and is in no rush to release a third cheese to the market.
“There are only so many times in a cheesemaker’s career where you’re at the drawing board and you can do all sorts of goofy stuff. Once you hone in on a cheese, and the market has expectations for it, now you’re talking about a life of refining and tweaking,” Andy says. “So, to be at the drawing board is fun. We’re playing around with different shapes – rounds, squares, pyramids. We’ve learned a certain amount about cultures and ripening techniques. This year we’ll use last year’s trials and narrow it down pretty quickly. We know more about what we want. But then again, there’s what we want, and then there’s what the market wants.”
I tell him that he’s already making two world-class famous cheeses, and maybe he’s earned the right to be a little selfish and make a third cheese that makes him happy. He demurs. “I’m in love with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, really,” he says. “I wouldn’t make anything else. And maybe we won’t in the long run, but I know there’s milk there that can be made into another cheese.”
Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.