The best cheese produced in the US almost went extinct in 2014. But luckily for all of us, miracles do happen.
Uplands Cheese perches itself atop one of the highest points in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin. Known for its deeply carved river valleys, the Area's unique terrain sets it apart from the prairie and rolling hills with which the Midwest is typically associated. Drawing comparisons to the world's more mountainous regions with tougher soil, it's not the greatest place to grow beans and corn. But if the accolades behind the farm's cheese are any indication, it's one of the best locations for cows to graze.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve—until recently, the only product Uplands made and sold—is the most-awarded cheese in the country. It's the only variety that's won both the American Cheese Society's Best of Show and the US Cheese Championship. In fact, it's won the former three times total, and it's the only product ever to have done so.
"Pleasant Ridge Reserve won Best of Show the year after it was first produced. Demand has always outpaced supply," says Uplands owner and head cheesemaker Andy Hatch. "We only make about 10,000 wheels each year, because we only make it for six months out of the year. It's a very expensive, time-consuming process we follow. But the remarkable thing is that over the last 15 years, the business has been able to scale up without compromising any of our original principles. We still do it the same way."
That way is simple on paper: Uplands cheese—both Pleasant Ridge and its new variety, Rush Creek Reserve—is made from raw, fresh milk taken from grass-fed cows in small batches, and washed by hand in brine every week for a year. But unlike many industrial food producers who make cheese from milk supplied by dozens of farms, Hatch and his team follow in the tradition of European farmers who built their operations to produce only one variety of cheese from one herd of cows, with methods and recipes passed from generation to generation.
"When [cheesemakers] ask themselves, 'What kind of cheese should I make?' they ask, 'What does the market want?'" Hatch says. "Our founders were more interested in what they had and what they knew."
That might seem like a relatively exclusive philosophy, but the cheese's complex taste—subtle fruit and nuts, with a much deeper earthiness—reaches more diners every day. Hatch is talking to me over a cellphone as he drives his truck into downtown Milwaukee. He's spending his night there talking about Pleasant Ridge and Rush Creek with roughly 300 diners at Lake Park Bistro's annual Black Truffle Dinner, the flagship meal prepared at the flagship restaurant owned by the city's famed Bartolotta family. The next morning, he tells me, he's flying to San Francisco for more of the same.
That taste comes by a delicate tradition. More "species" of cheese have gone extinct than other kinds of manufactured food, because events like World War II and regional famine have wiped out and displaced farmers, their cows, and their land, which in turn erased their product. The Etrurian town of Luna, for example, produced one of the first well-known cheese brands until 1016 AD, when the city was leveled in battle, and the recipe and advanced methods for the cheese's production were lost. Dramatic events like those aren't commonplace in 2016 American farmland. But that doesn't mean the environment in Washington can't have an effect.
Hatch learned that lesson the hard way, when in 2014 he found himself facing his own product's imminent extinction. That year, the FDA began enforcing food safety regulations outlined in 2010 that demanded raw milk cheese contain no more than ten E. coli bacteria per sample to be deemed safe for sale. (Previously, the threshold had been 10,000.) Raw milk, of course, contains a certain measure of bacteria while pasteurized varieties don't, but it also reflects the cow, the grass, and the land—complex characteristics that would be lost if that milk were to be completely sanitized.
"There are many different species of E. coli that are common in the environment at large, and in your body," Hatch explains. "So when people talk about getting sick from E. coli, it's just an off-hand way to refer to a particular strain—O157:H7. Different kinds are relatively prevalent and have no food safety risk. So the perplexing thing about what the FDA is doing is testing for and regulating bacteria that don't pose any health risk."
That same year, the FDA also banned aging cheese on wooden boards. Together, Hatch says, those abrupt shifts made his brand of traditional cheesemaking feel much more unpredictable and hostile than he and his young family could stomach. So that year, Uplands pulled Rush Creek Reserve from the shelves. The outcry was swift: Hatch found himself joining many other independent dairy farmers who began working to educate both lawmakers and the public about craft foods, and the particular care artisans place in their manufacture.
Over the course of the next year, the industry worked to open more fluid communication between the FDA and cheesemakers. The Administration eventually retracted its ban on wooden aging boards, but the stringent standards related to E. Coli still remain.
"We make 100,000 pounds of cheese a year, compared to 3 billion in Wisconsin, which makes about 25 percent of the nation's supply," Hatch says. "But safety ought not be related to scale. We've built our facility properly, we've tested the environment, we train our employees. In Wisconsin, you're even required to have a cheesemaking license backed by a number of apprenticeships, which is different than other states. It's a shame some argue that small shops can't run like the big guys."
This year, Hatch put Rush Creek back on store shelves. He still disagrees with the stigma attached to raw milk cheeses, but says that open communication between legislators and farmers has provided a certain measure of security around his practice. He says he understands the regulatory burden better now that the FDA provides more frequent updates about where food safety standards are headed, and its rational behind implementing them.
Has he thought of diversifying or changing course in any way?
"We've never had an incentive to make anything else," Hatch tells me. "Places that make ten, 15, 25 different cheeses can't put the attention into a particular variety the way we can."