Jasper Hill Farm

8 Influential Artisanal Cheesemakers Redefining American Cheese Culture

“American cheese” doesn’t mean quite the same thing as it did 40, or even 20 years ago.

As the American artisanal cheese industry has been growing steadily over the past 30 years, and American cheeses have been earning accolades worldwide for their excellence and creativity, the words “American cheese” are hopefully becoming less and less synonymous with individually wrapped singles.

Many of the game-changing cheesemakers in the American cheese landscape are centered in California, Vermont and Wisconsin, though arguably, the most important American cheesemakers you should know are the ones in your local area. Cheese is made in all 50 states, and sourcing as close to home as possible is always best for both environmental impact and quality of cheese. Not to mention that having local makers on your menu is a good look, whether for a full cheese plate or even just as a component in a plated dish.

As you get to know the makers in your region, here are eight important American cheesemakers you should know: many who helped introduce Americans to the concept of quality, artisanal cheese and others who raised its profile around the world. By no means an exhaustive list, and in no particular order, these cheeses are widely available in the United States, and always a solid bet for chefs and consumers alike.

Laura Chenel

While a goat cheese salad is now ubiquitous in American dining, fresh goat’s milk cheese was largely unheard of by Americans less than 50 years ago. Laura Chenel, a Californian who had spent a decade in Europe, introduced Americans to the very concept of fresh cheese made from goat’s milk in 1979, and her cheeses are still synonymous with quality and consistency.

Notable cheeses: Original Goat Cheese Log, Garlic and Chive Goat Cheese Log, Thyme and Rosemary Marinated Goat Cheese

Related reading: Understanding Goat Cheese

Cypress Grove

Cypress Grove has a special meaning to me personally, as it was one of their cheeses — Midnight Moon — that opened my own eyes to how much more interesting and delicious cheese could be than that which is typically found in a supermarket. (Luckily for everyone, Cypress Grove products have such wide distribution now that you could likely find them in your local supermarket.) Founded by Mary Keehn in 1983, her goat’s milk cheeses go further than only fresh varieties, showcasing what goat’s milk can do in formats such as cheddar and gouda.

Notable cheeses: Humboldt Fog, Purple Haze, Midnight Moon

Cowgirl Creamery

In 1997 Cowgirl Creamery founders Sue Conley and Peggy Smith helped introduce Americans to the idea of locally made, farm-to-table European-style cheeses, where they were otherwise only familiar with those that were industrially produced. Cheeses such as their Mt Tam clarified that bloomy rind cheeses were better sourced closer to home than industrial, imported brie. They were also among the first to showcase artisanal American versions of Alpine-style and washed rind cheeses.

Notable cheeses: Mt Tam, Red Hawk, Hop Along

A wheel of Vermont Shepherd Verano cheese
Courtesy of Vermont Shepherd.

Vermont Shepherd

Limiting this list to even eight important Vermont-based creameries would have been a challenge, but Vermont Shepherd, founded in 1993, is an especially important one for its focus on sheep’s milk cheese. While many cheesemakers on this list are credited with not only raising the profile of American cheese but of goat’s milk cheese, Vermont Shepherd has done the same for sheep’s milk with its two seasonal, farmstead expressions: Verano and Invierno. (Italian for “summer” and “winter” specifically.)

Notable cheeses: Verano, Invierno

Related reading: Understanding Sheep’s Milk Cheese

Jasper Hill Farm

Vermont is a great deal smaller than both Wisconsin and California in size, but punches above its weight class where cheese is concerned, which can at least be partially attributed to Jasper Hill Farm and its impact on the American cheese industry. Founded by brothers Mateo and Andy Kehler in 1998, their highly awarded, mostly raw milk, European-style cheeses are typically named after legendary local residents. Further to that, however, they also established a facility for cave-aging cheeses, and also acted as affineur to a number of other American creameries, enabling smaller projects to also enter the scene.

Notable cheeses: Moses Sleeper, Bayley Hazen Blue, Harbison

Related reading: Understanding Affinage

Rogue Creamery

Oregon’s Rogue Creamery did what no other American cheesemaker had done before, which was to take the top prize in the annual World Cheese Awards. While the American cheese industry had long been making wonderful things, it was Rogue Creamery’s win in 2019 that signaled that American artisanal cheese could compete on an international scale. Founded as a creamery in 1933, with its first cheese presented in 1954, Rogue is also one of the oldest artisanal cheesemakers in the U.S. While the award-winning Rogue River Blue is only available seasonally, the creamery also produces a number of other worthy blue and cheddar cheeses.

Notable cheeses: Rogue River Blue, Caveman Blue, Smokey Blue

Related reading: Understanding Blue Cheese

A cut piece of Uplands Cheese's Pleasant Ridge Reserve
Courtesy of Uplands Cheese.

Uplands Cheese

Wisconsin was settled by a large number of Swiss immigrants, hence its reputation as a dairy state. While Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state, it isn’t only about industrial cheese operation, however, and their artisanal creameries have been making waves for the last several decades, alongside those in Vermont and California. Uplands Cheese, founded in 1994, does something distinctively Swiss, in the style of its Alpine ancestors, which is to only produce two types of cheese, one made from flavorful summer milk, and one made from rich winter milk. Uplands also holds the distinction of having the most-awarded American cheese, its summer milk-based Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Notable cheeses: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Rush Creek Reserve

Marin French Cheese Co.

Founded in 1865, Marin French Cheese, located in Marin County, California, has the distinction of being the United States’ oldest artisanal creamery. While it would be some time before the rest of the American cheese industry caught up, Marin French Cheese has been quietly putting out handmade, brie and camembert-style cheeses for Northern California for well over a century, which can now be found throughout the country.

Notable cheeses: Traditional Brie, Triple Crème Brie, Camembert, Petite Breakfast

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