There’s more to Iowa cheese than Maytag Blue. Yes, that raw-milk wonder may be the state’s most coveted, but in the softly rolling hills just miles from the Missouri border, the Musser family is producing cheese worthy of similar acclaim at the Milton Creamery. Their flagship specialty is Prairie Breeze, an award-winning Alpine-style cheddar, made with vegetarian rennet and milk from Amish farms no more than 15 miles from Milton (the bulk comes from within three).
Prairie Breeze accounts for around 3,000 of Milton’s current weekly output of 3,700 pounds of cheese. It’s a dry, sharp cheese, aged at least nine months, with a slight nuttiness and a tangy finish. Bridget Haugh at Lake Wine & Spirits, who sells it for $11.99 a pound, says, “In all the time we’ve been selling it, I think I’ve only had a couple people not like it. And we sell a lot of it.” It is a very accommodating cheese — non-pungent, slightly sweet, creamy, and flavorful.
Rufus and Jane Musser, Mennonites themselves, moved their family to Milton from Pennsylvania in 1992 looking for cheaper land to dairy farm. In the early 2000s, looking for a way to add value to his farm during a stretch of low milk prices, Rufus became set on cheese making, eventually breaking ground on the creamery in 2005. They started by producing cheese curds and commercial-grade cheeses, but soon figured they had to do better to make it a financial success.
“We thought, ‘How are we going to be lucky enough to hit a bullseye in the dark?’” he says, on the perils of entering the specialty cheese market. “People are in the cheese world for their whole life looking for breaks.” He dreamed of emulating a European-style aged cheddar that he felt no one was producing in the Midwest. With a consultant’s help he obtained the right cultures, made preliminary batches, and debuted it at farmers markets. When it was well received, he brought on a new investor, ramped up production, and obtained his first distributor: Classic Provisions in Plymouth.
Trying to get an Iowan, much less a Mennonite, to brag much about their work is next to impossible. Let’s instead allow their laurels to do the talking – Prairie Breeze was tops in the open hard cheese class at the 2009 US Championship Cheese Contest and in the 12-24 month cheddar class at the 2009 American Cheese Society championships. It also scored an impressive best-in-category on cheddar’s home turf at the 2010 World Cheese Awards in London – the only American entry along with 10 British cheddars to medal in the Mature Block Creamery Cheddar class. Musser’s son, head cheesemaker Galen, won that first gold at the age of 17.
“A lot of credit for our success has to go to the families who produce our milk,” says Rufus. The cows are hand-milked and pasture grazed on small family farms. Of course, this old-school process isn’t laboratory sterile. The bucket-under-the-cow method means a certain level of ambient additions to the milk. Rufus draws a parallel with Swiss cheese makers in the mid-20th century, who found that the move to milking machines during the winter excluded the natural bacteria from the milk that was essential to developing the unique characteristics of their cheese. “We’re doing the same thing, in a more controlled process,” he says.
That’s precisely what makes Prairie Breeze such a charming cheese – the flavor expresses the terroir of Southern Iowa and the people who make it. Rufus calls Prairie Breeze “consistent, within a range.” He personally enjoys the Prairie Breeze made from late autumn milk, when the cows have been eating the lush end-of-season grasses.
Milton Creamery is expanding to meet demand. A new aging room, currently under construction, will supplement their current set of refrigerated semi-trailers. It’s a nice mix of old and new world techniques in Milton. Try Prairie Breeze with your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or brown ale.
Prairie Breeze can be found in most higher-end grocery stores and co-ops in the Metro.