Uplands Cheese Company, located a few miles north of Dodgeville in Wisconsin’s Iowa County, made a big splash in the cheese world when it first released Pleasant Ridge Reserve in 2000. Since then, Uplands has named the American Cheese Society (ACS) Competition’s Best of Show an unprecedented three times in the past 10years, as well as the 2003 US Cheese Championship Best of Show.
In 2010, under the guidance of Andy Hatch, Uplands released its second cheese, Rush Creek Reserve. Rush Creek is a soft Alpine cheese called Vacherin Mont d’Or that is being lauded in its own right. Only 4,000 wheels were produced that first year, and now production has jumped to 18,000 wheels, still barely meeting nationwide demand. Hatch sat down with us to talk about the cheese and how traditional farming and cheesemaking techniques fit perfectly in southwestern Wisconsin’s heritage and landscape.
HEAVY TABLE: Andy, describe your journey into cheesemaking.
ANDY HATCH: My parents didn’t milk cows or make cheese. But I wanted to farm and a way to get into agriculture. I started working for a corn breeder at the Michael Fields Ag Institute just south of Milwaukee and thought I would go into a career into ag research. I grew bored with that job and was ready to quit, but this corn breeder had married a Norwegian woman from a cheesemaking family in Norway. The corn breeder’s elderly father died in Norway right when I was ready to leave, so they sent me over to Norway to help out this little Norwegian woman — his mother-in-law — on her goat dairy, way up on the side of a fjord. So I first learned how to make cheese from this little old lady named Uni in Norway and just stumbled into it that way.
Once I started making cheese it clicked that this was something I was good at, and it was a way to get into farming without being subject to commodity markets. You can add value to product, set your price, and have a little bit more control that way. So I got hooked on it there, and stayed in Europe for about two years doing apprenticeships with different cheesemakers. I came back to Wisconsin and went back to school at UW [Madison] for dairy science and started my apprenticeship here in Wisconsin. I took classes and did everything I needed to do to get my cheesemaker license.
HT: And how did you get involved with Uplands Cheese?
AT: Right when I was getting out of dairy school, Mike Gingrich [former cheesemaker at Uplands, above] was getting ready to sort of retire from the vat. He needed somebody else to come in and make cheese. We had known each other for a while. I had worked on some grazing dairy farms. I was interested in this style of farming, you know, grass-based farming. I had asked him for a job earlier, but he was still making cheese himself. In the summer of 2007 they hired me as sort of an assistant cheesemaker.
HT: What kind of development goes into making a new cheese?
AH: Oh geez, it’s impossible to count the hours that it costs. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of experiments and failing and tinkering and talking to people and reading books. With Rush Creek, for a whole year in 2009, I just played around with it to get a feel for the big issues. Then I went back to France and worked for somebody making Vacherin Mont d’Or.
You know, in France they sell that cheese at 25 days old and here, because it’s raw milk, I had to get it out over 60 days [60 days is the minimum aging required for unpasteurized cheese]. I came back with the French process and had to retinker it. Every little step in the make process has implications, especially months down the road when it’s aging, so I had to take the French recipe and change it to make the cheese age 60 days.
HT: How did you land upon Vacherin Mont d’Or as your next style of cheese?
AH: It ticked all the right boxes! It can be made in the fall when our cows are eating hay so that milk is inherently less flavorful. It doesn’t have the complexity of grass-fed milk, so you want a cheese that will develop flavor in other ways from the milk. It has much more influence from the rind, from the molds we grow on the rind, and from the spruce bark. It’s a soft cheese, and the milk from this time of year is much richer and adds to that creamy texture of the cheese. Mont d’Or fits the same niche in their cheesemaking calendar.
HT: What would happen to the cheese if you use grass-fed milk?
AH: Well I do, now, because everybody wants it in October, which means I make it in late August / early September when the cows are still on grass. The Rush Creek season spans this total transition of the cows’ diet. I start making the cheese in late August when they’re on all grass, and then it gets into early October and they get onto hay — about 70 percent hay, 30 percent grass.
HT: How does the flavor change between grass-fed and hay-fed Rush Creek?
AH: Not very much. Now, we only have two years of data on that, so it’s something we’re going to continue to learn about and look at but no, not very much. The flavor complexity in grass-fed milk takes a lot of aging to reveal. You know what I mean? An aged cheese will show off the flavor complexity of the milk whereas a young cheese just doesn’t have enough time to ripen to reveal that complexity. Pleasant Ridge doesn’t develop its flavor complexity for six to seven months. Rush Creek is sold at two months. Rather relying on the flavors inherent in the milk itself you have to rely on the skill of the cheesemaker and especially on the way it’s ripened. The cliché that we are saying is that Pleasant Ridge is made in the pastures and Rush Creek is made in the cave.
HT: Is Rush Creek your personal project, or did you have collaborators?
AH: I had to get a lot of help because my background was only as a hard cheese maker. Making soft cheeses is totally different. I talked to a lot of people: Soyoung Scanlan in [Andante Dairy in Santa Rosa] California, Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill [in Vermont].
HT: Were you concerned that such an obscure style might not received well by the public?
AH: Yes, of course! Nobody else was really doing it, which was appealing and a little worrying. We made such small quantities at first, and still, with five times as much as we made the first year, but it’s still — to be sold throughout the country — it’s still a tiny amount. It doesn’t require a lot of customers.
HT: What has the reception been?
AH: Totally overwhelming! We pretty much sell it all before we ever release it. You know, The New York Times wrote about it when it first came out in 2010 and since then we just haven’t been able to make enough.
HT: Where did you get the name for Rush Creek Reserve?
AH: It’s a pretty prominent creek around here, and actually the headwaters are on our farm. We’re the highest spot around up on Pleasant Ridge, so the creek starts up here and then it drains into the Wisconsin River about 10 miles north of here. It’s a local landmark tied to our farm.
HT: Why does Uplands have such a focus on Alpine cheeses?
AH: Our style of farming mimics theirs. They send their cows up into the mountain pastures in the summer, which we don’t do, but we do follow that seasonal model which relies on feeding the cows pasture just like they do in the Alps. It’s the same that they do in the Pyrenees, you know, it’s a natural rhythm. There are cultural interpretations of it — hard cheese from the grass, soft cheese from the hay.
HT: Does that mean we will see a Tomme- or Basque-style cheese in the near future?
AH: Yeah, maybe! We’re about the start playing around with the milk here in the fall that we still sell. We’ll never use all this autumn milk for Rush Creek, I think, so we’re going to go back to the drawing board and we’re looking at a Tomme style. And if anyone has any ideas, we’d love to hear them!
HT: And since you do mostly grazing, has Rush Creek been affected by the drought this summer?
AH: No, the cheese doesn’t derive its flavors from the pasture. By August it had cooled down a little and we had some rain so the cows were more comfortable. If we had tried to make it in July with that heat —you could say their diet was OK, it was hay — but that would have been a challenge. The cows were so uncomfortable.
HT: Pleasant Ridge Reserve has brought home numerous awards. Are you going to submit Rush Creek to any competitions?
AH: No, because there are no real competitions that fall in the Rush Creek time span. ACS is in the summer, the US and the World’s [Cheese Championship Competitions] are in, what, March?
HT: What are some of your favorite things to serve with Rush Creek?
AH: We drizzle it on roasted potatoes a lot — heat it up in an oven, dip a spoon in, and drizzle it on roasted potatoes. Or any roasted root vegetables. Sometimes we’ll cut little slits in the rind and pour a little Riesling or Gewürztraminer in there and wrap it in tin foil and bake it. That’s awful nice. It’s important to know that it needs to warm up before it’s served. A quick bake in the oven — 200°, 15 minutes — or leave it out at room temp for two hours. Lots of people aren’t use to preheating cheeses like this, so if somebody eats it right out of the fridge it won’t have the right texture or flavor.
HT: In your opinion, as a cheesemaker, what are some questions consumers should ask about cheese when making a purchase?
AH: In a cut-to-order shop [Surdyk’s or St. Paul Cheese Shop], they’re ahead of the game because they’re getting their cheese cut fresh off a wheel. If they’re buying it in a shop where it’s pre-wrapped, the most important question they need to ask is how long it’s been wrapped. In a cut-to-order shop, you should ask to taste it first. That’s the greatest advantage a shop like that has to offer, along with getting a fresh-cut piece: the ability to taste before you buy. That’s not usually possible with Rush Creek, actually, but still.
Rush Creek Reserve is available locally:
Surdyk’s — 612.379.9757
Goes fast; best to call ahead to reserve one
$30 / lb — sold in whole wheels that are between 3/4 and 1 pound
France 44 Cheese Shop — 612.278.4422
Very limited availability
$24 / wheel
St. Paul Cheese Shop — 651.698.3391
$24 / wheel