Alemar Cheese Company Founder to Move to California

Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table
Natalie Champa Jennings / Heavy Table

Minnesota is losing one of its top cheesemakers, though luckily his cheese will still be produced locally. Keith Adams, the founder and cheesemaker at Mankato’s Alemar Cheese Company, plans to move to California later this year to launch a new cheesemaking operation focusing on a very different kind of cheese — English-style Cheddar.

Citing a desire to move back to his home state now that his teenage daughters both will be in college this fall, Adams posted a statement on his blog early this morning confirming his plans:

For a long time, I’ve operated on the premise that once the girls were up and out, so was I. I’m from Northern California, and though Minnesota has been home for a very long time, I’ve had an unwavering notion that I ultimately should be back in the place I started.

To be clear: Alemar Cheese will remain in Mankato, hopefully for a very, very long time. I have a vision to start a new cheese venture out West, with the intention of being back in Minnesota often. The girls will both be in school in the Twin Cities, and I want to come back to Alemar regularly. If I’m able to pull this off, I’ll have my own small version of the best of both worlds.

Jill Lewis / Heavy TAble
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Adams began making Bent River, a soft-ripened Camembert-style cheese, five years ago, and it quickly gained a national following and accolades from the American Cheese Society. To the delight of both cheese and beer fans, he added the Surly Bender-washed Good Thunder to his repertoire last spring. Both cheeses will continue to be produced in Mankato by Craig Hageman, a former chef who began working with Adams in October.

2013 American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Competition in Madison, WI

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

Madison, WI, seems like the natural place to hold the American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Competition, but it had been 15 years since the nation’s top cheesemakers, mongers, and enthusiasts gathered in America’s Dairyland for the group’s signature event. That all changed this past weekend when more than 900 attendees descended upon the Monona Terrace for four days of talking about cheese, judging cheese, and — oh yeah — eating cheese.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

With topics ranging from “From Friendraising to Fundraising: Leveraging Social Media to Turn Customers into Investors” to “Oh Sweet Cheeses! Chocolate & Cheese,” educational sessions covered the pressing issues facing the American cheese industry and inspired the cheese elite with new ideas to advance their businesses. But the highlights of the conference were the awards ceremony Friday and the next day’s Festival of Cheese, during which conference participants and guests could sample most of the 1,794 cheeses and dairy products submitted for judging.

Though this year’s Best in Show prize was awarded to a cheese from Vermont — the washed-rind, bark-wrapped Winninmere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill — Minnesota and Wisconsin cheeses had a fine showing. Keith Adams from Mankato’s Alemar Cheese won a third-place ribbon for his Fromage Blanc, as did Shepherd’s Way Farms’ Jodi Ohlsen Read and Steven Read in Nerstand for their Big Woods Blue (pictured right), and the Caves of Faribault’s Jeff Jirik for his Amablu St. Pete’s Select.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table

For the first time, two cheeses from a single cheesemaker tied for third place in the overall competition: Big Sky Grana and Bandaged Cheddar (pictured at top) from Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, WI. Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner (pictured left) also won a first-place ribbon for his Alpine Renegade and third place for his Reserve Bandaged Cheddar in their respective categories. A Dane County Farmers Market regular, Lehner was back at the market the day after his win, selling out of his award-winning cheeses and leaving latecomers with just samples to savor (below). Uplands Cheese Company’s Andy Hatch, who won Best in Show in 2010 for the Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, took home a third-place prize for the same cheese this year.

Wisconsin cheeses blew away the competition, with 90 awards staying in the state (excluding Best of Show). Of those 90, 13 went to Carr Valley Cheese Company alone — and two were awarded to Kraft. California was a very distant second with its 35 awards, followed by Vermont with 27. The complete list of winners is available on the American Cheese Society’s website.

Before the conference ended, talk already turned to the 2014 event, scheduled for July 29-August 1 in Sacramento. Let’s see how happy those California cows will be when the best of the Midwest invades their turf next summer.

Jill Lewis / Heavy Table
Jill Lewis / Heavy Table