The Silver Whisks celebrate the best of local food in the Upper Midwest; only three are given out, for Best Chef, Best Purveyor, and Best New Restaurant.
Our list of nominees for the best purveyor covers all the hedonistic bases: alcohol, cheese, caffeine, and chocolate. It’s hard to think what else you might need to be happy in life. But as much as this list says about our vices, it also says a lot about our principles: That a defiantly nonconformist cider maker, a micro dairy, an unbendingly fair coffee roaster, and a micro-micro chocolatier can all not only survive but thrive — that’s a huge part of what makes the Upper Midwest a great place to live and eat.
You might say that someone trying to build a cider brand in a place without a strong cider culture is fighting an uphill battle. But don’t say it to Joe Heron of Crispin Cider (bel0w).
“We have a tremendously strong history of cider,” he points out. (Remember Johnny Appleseed? In those days apples were for drinking, not eating.) “It’s the original American drink, really, but we lost it. And a full-blown renaissance is coming up now; cider is the fastest-growing beverage category in America.”
Joe Heron is an unlikely leader of that renaissance. He’s a native South African who spent the past couple of decades moving around Europe and the United States and who readily admits he didn’t really like cider before getting into the business.
“I thought it was sweet beer for people who didn’t like beer,” he says. “But we’ve really worked to change that…. We’ve given it credentials. It pairs well with everything from spicy to sushi, from cheese to chocolate.”
Beyond changing the way we think about hard cider, Heron has also been tinkering with the drink itself. Rather than looking to English pubs or old Appleseed for inspiration, Heron says, “The influences in our business are foodies, wineys, and craft beer geeks.” Heron describes his approach as a little bit “rock and roll.” Take the upcoming special release, Desert Noir. Flavored with prickly pear and agave, it was inspired by the schlocky cult horror film From Dusk Til. Dawn. And the three ciders in Crispin’s premium line, Artisanal Reserves, throw out the playbook altogether, starting with apple wine rather than apple juice, and featuring — yes, it’s a feature — a flavorful layer of sediment at the bottom.
Crispin is also still growing: This year they acquired the California-based Fox Barrel, which makes apple, pear, and black currant ciders. That’s the sort of thinking that makes Crispin a contender for this year’s Silver Whisk Award: combining craft-brewer creativity and big, nationwide ambitions, while remaining true to Minnesota roots. And, of course, truly delicious cider that has earned a place in our culture and at our tables.
Uplands Cheese Company
Cheesemaking has always been a means to an end. Its original purpose was to preserve perishable milk for the off-season; the tasty bacterial goodness was just a byproduct.
When Andy Hatch went into the dairy business, he, too, thought of cheese as just a way to get what he really wanted. A self-described city boy from outside of Milwaukee, he wanted to find a way to farm. But, “Milking cows just to sell milk is almost suicidal at this point, especially when you’re just starting out,” he explains. “Making cheese to add value to the milk is the way to make it possible.”
Pragmatism, however, has now turned to passion. Hatch joined Uplands Cheese Company four years ago as a cheesemaker and now manages the operation. Two dairy farming families, Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude, began making cheese together 10 years ago. They looked around for models for their operation and decided that what they had — and what they wanted to achieve — most resembled cheesemaking in the Swiss Alps. Their cows graze on grassy hillsides in the Uplands region of Wisconsin. They milk only in the summer, when the cows are entirely grassfed, and when the quality of the pasture declines — say during a dry spell — they stop making cheese and sell the milk instead.
The result is Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a hard, nutty, raw-milk cheese that took best in show at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition last year. It won the same honor in 2001 and 2005 and took the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest crown in 2003. Pretty remarkable for a tiny operation that makes just 90,000 pounds of cheese a year.
Until this year, Pleasant Ridge Reserve was Uplands’ only product. But this fall, Hatch decided to put the fall milk, made when the quality of the pasture is starting to change, to good use. Rush Creek Reserve is his soft and stinky washed-rind cheese, similar to the Swiss Vacherin Mont d’Or. In November, Surdyk’s kept a waiting list — yes, you read that right — for customers eager to scoop out a liquidy round of the stuff. It’s that good.
Fortunately for us in the Twin Cities, there is no shortage of shops carrying Uplands Cheese. Besides Surdyk’s, you can find it at France 44, the St. Paul Cheese Shop, Heartland Farm Direct Market, and Lunds and Byerly’s. And that says something about the reach and tenacity and integrity — not to mention the quality — of this tiny dairying operation.
You’ve probably seen the Peace Coffee bike delivery guy chugging down Twin Cities streets, pulling a 400-pound trailer. Or maybe the biodiesel delivery truck. You have definitely seen the beans for sale in nearly every local grocery store and dozens of coffee shops. We might even take Peace Coffee for granted — we’ve got easy-to-find, midpriced, high-quality, fair trade coffee available wherever and whenever we want it.
But it wasn’t always so. Peace Coffee got its start 15 years ago, in a closet in the offices of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in South Minneapolis. As company lore has it, a Mexican coffee farmer had challenged the IATP that its approach was all talk and no action. A year later, a shipping container full of Mexican beans landed in Minneapolis.
Nobody at IATP ever intended to start an iconic local brand, but a combination of good timing and remarkable persistence made it so. Now Peace Coffee, still owned by IATP, buys from 18 farm cooperatives in about 15 countries. It works through an importing cooperative, which is like a big buying club. “There’s nobody in between those farmers and us,” says project manager Anna Canning. “So we’re able to pay a good price and then turn around and sell at really competitive prices here. We want to make excellent coffee accessible.”
The next logical step for Peace Coffee was to start pouring excellently brewed cups directly for customers, and that’s why they opened their own coffee shop in the Longfellow neighborhood last year. “We have stewardship of those beans all the way, right up to our relationship with our customers,” Canning explains.
The building, it almost goes without saying, was remodeled with environmentally-friendly materials and techniques because, as Canning puts it, “We want to be doing as much good and as little bad as we can.” Staying true to your principles should always taste this good.
Did you ever have a hobby that started taking over the whole house? That’s what happened to Colin Gasko (above), otherwise known as the Rogue Chocolatier. His interest in chocolate making started with truffles, melting down store-bought chocolate. But soon he wondered if he couldn’t actually make the chocolate himself — meaning, starting with cacao. Turns out he could.
“I was roasting chocolate in my oven,” he explains, “then I got a mill I put in the basement.” When his next new toy — a mill from India — arrived, it proved too big for the basement, so Gasko started looking around for a place to put it. He rented a 400-square-foot warehouse space and decided, “Let’s see if it pays the rent in six months.”
That was late 2006. By late 2007 the first Rogue Chocolatier bars were in specialty stores. And Colin Gasko had taken each and every one every step of the way, from bean to bar.
Now he produces about 500 bars a week and it’s all that retailers can do to keep them in stock. Gasko is the only chocolate maker in the Upper Midwest currently focusing entirely on single-estate chocolates, meaning that each of his four lines of bars uses beans from just one cacao farm: the Rio Caribe from the Paria Peninsula in Venezuela, the Sambirano from Madagascar, Hispaniola from the Dominican Republic, and the Piura from Peru. And that’s it. Four 60-gram bars. No truffles, no fillings, no sea salt, no bacon, no chile. Just chocolate.
That single-minded focus and the quality he coaxes out of every bean have earned Gasko a national reputation. Martha Stewart featured his chocolates in 2008 and he just got back from picking up a Good Food Award in San Francisco.
Unfortunately, Minnesota will be losing this energetic entrepreneur in the upcoming months. After eight years here, the call of home and family has proved too strong and in April Gasko plans to move the whole operation to central Massachusetts, where he grew up and his family still lives.
Our loss and New England’s gain no doubt, but Gasko promises that he’ll still be shipping bars out to Midwestern retailers. “Some of my best stores are out here,” he notes. “Minnesota has been very good to me.”