When it comes to American-made cheese, it’s time to choose it or lose it.
Often when you consider the concept of interconnectivity in business systems, technology and transportation come to mind. Less often do most people think of agriculture and food production.
The truth is this: agriculture and food production are the most diverse and impactful business systems in the world. Our civilization was built on the successful harvests of our earliest farmers, and the stakes are still just as high today.
As we reflect on American Cheese Month, a time of year when we celebrate the craft of cheesemaking in the United States and the farmers who inspire and sustain the industry, I ask you to become an American-made cheese advocate not for the month, but for life. I want to share my perspective on the rich ecosystem of stakeholders who help bring these cheeses to our tables.
I first discovered the thriving ecosystem of American-made cheese at my first American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference held in Burlington, Vermont.
There I found myself among hundreds of producers, writers, chefs, distributors and retailers who were brought together summer camp-style to share in our passion for cheese. It was an opportunity to learn from each other and advance our industry, a chance to turn challenges into opportunities for American-made cheese.
I was moved by the camaraderie, humility and openness of my peers in the American Cheese Society – we were a family brought together by our shared passion and it felt like important work.
When the industry got its start over four decades ago, people weren’t buying American-made cheese; “locavore” was not a word you heard on the street, and it certainly didn’t apply to cheese. Today the local food movement, including artisan domestically produced cheese, is commonplace, and maybe even taken for granted.
But getting that piece of deliciously crafted specialty cheese to your cheeseboard for a Friday night Zoom happy hour is a feat in itself – it’s a mix of magic, science and passion. That piece of cheese was likely carefully handled by a fleet of highly-trained cheesemongers, whether at your local cheese shop or behind the cheese counters of your favorite grocery store.
Yes, to be a cheesemonger is a real-life profession that requires tireless study and behind-the-counter experience. They are the sommeliers of the cheese world – the sensory educators, curators and storytellers who shepherd our cheeses into the world. There’s even an annual competition for mongers called the Cheesemonger Invitational (CMI) that crowns the top cheesemonger in the country each year. It’s the most epic cheese industry event I’ve ever attended.
Cheesemongers test their knowledge at the CCP and TASTE exam, both administered by the American Cheese Society, like how wine pros take the master sommelier exam.
To become a Certified Cheese Professional and add “CCP” to your email signature is a heady thing, and yes, we take this profession very seriously.
The Essential Supply Chain
But before these amazing American cheeses can be cut and wrapped by the mongers, they take an epic journey through the specialty cheese supply chain – a network of caretakers who go to great lengths to control the environment, including temperature and humidity, at every moment.
Specialty cheese is, indeed, special. It’s sold in smaller volumes than commodity products, it's highly perishable and delicate, and it needs to be treated as such. It is carefully managed by a team of experts in consolidation and distribution who can arrange pick-ups from all the small to midsized makers, consolidate it in their warehouses, and ensure its proper care.
Artisan cheeses are driven and flown overnight to make sure it’s always where it needs to be – all thanks to those specialty distributors who double as advocates for the makers.
The Craft is Our Life.
Cheesemaking is hard, this we know. Cheesemakers are linked together by a unique passion that is so evident. The craft is our life; it can only be perfected over time through patience and practice. It requires skill and, importantly, intuition. It’s seventy-five percent hard work and twenty-five percent magic, that mix of science and art that depends on nature’s most unpretentious ingredient—fresh milk. The test is not making great cheese today, it’s making that same great cheese day after day.
Even at Vermont Creamery, after thirty-five years, we are still working to perfect our craft. We strive to get those geotrichum wrinkles on our aged cheese just right, strive for the right balance of sweet cream and hazelnut flavors in our cultured butter, and work for the ideal thickness of our crème fraîche. Every delivery of milk is unique, changing with the season and it requires skill to accommodate these variations. We don’t always get it right, and in our efforts to make perfect happen, we sometimes scratch a batch. That’s our battle and obsession as cheesemakers.
Without Farms, there is no food.
We owe it to the farmers, the last and most important piece in the puzzle of our food ecosystem. Without their daily supply of fresh milk, there would be no cheese – pure and simple.
Behind each piece of cheese, there are hundreds of hands making it and as many hands giving us that precious milk. It takes 100 pounds of milk to make a ten-pound piece of cheese, depending on its type and moisture content. That represents thousands of dairy farms, and countless cows, sheep and goats. Those farms are the ties that bind our rural economy, keeping our farming towns and country sides thriving and our people fed. They are the hands that work seven days a week from dawn to dark, nurturing the land, and raising their animals to produce milk to make American cheeses.
United by Passion.
While this may feel like a simple schematic of the American-made cheese ecosystem, but there is more. There are restauranteurs and chefs who can put a cheese on the menu and in doing so, put a cheesemaker on the map like nobody else can.
There are the storytellers like Culture Cheese Magazine, whose editorial focus is solely on cheese, countless important influencers like Janet Fletcher, Laura Werlin, Liz Thorpe and so many more who educate consumers.
There are painters like Mike Geno who create beautiful portraits of our beloved cheeses. There are advocates like Vermont’s own Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts; there are researchers, Instagrammers, bloggers, brokers, teachers, journalists and — there is you.
You are choosing to support American cheese, and our ecosystem needs you now more than ever.
As we saw the rise of artisan cheese over the past four decades to where it is today, we are also seeing our industry under critical stress that is shaking this entire ecosystem I describe.
Milk is being dumped and inventories of fine cheeses are being lost; makers are running out of resources to feed their animals. The situation is urgent and the impact on the future of our dairy and artisan cheese ecosystem is real. By choosing American-made cheese today, and over the next weeks and months, you are casting a vote with your dollars for the farmers and makers, to save our food heritage, and to help build a resilient cheese ecosystem for the future.
To find out how to support American cheesemakers, visit Victory Cheese.
Adeline Druart is a French trained cheesemaker turned president of Vermont Creamery; she is a member of the American Cheese Society and on the board of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR).