The word “terroir” is French, derived from the Latin word for Earth: terra. Used most commonly in discussions about wine, it has made itself at home in the gourmand’s dictionary to indicate the way the land itself shapes the flavor of food — an acknowledgment that geology affects gastronomy.
There may be no more dramatic way to demonstrate terroir than to age thousands of pounds of cheese made from local milk in a network of caves dug out of a sandstone river bluff. If you like a sense of place to accompany your food, the cheese of Faribault Dairy Company is a goldmine: a symphony of complicated but carefully organized flavors, imparted by a hideously complicated combination of raw local milk, a rigorous make procedure, and the affinage (aging) that takes place in the caves.
“When we hire people — we have to make them think it’s easy, otherwise they’d freak out,” says Jeff Jirik, Faribault’s owner and head cheesemaker. “If you really knew what was going on with the pH and the proteins and so forth, their minds would explode and they’d leave.”
Jirik has the veteran cheesemaker’s traditional humility before the fickle nature of his product; you can tell that a cheesemaker’s been in business for decades when he — with all sincerity — claims to be baffled by the innermost workings of his product. Jirik exclaims: “Never does a day go by when I don’t spot something and say: ‘Wow! I’ve never noticed that before!'”
“Think of all the stuff that’s going on,” he continues. “You’ve got billions of organisms per milliliter — you’ve got so much life happening, so much complex stuff banging together… but it somehow follows a routine!”
‘We can ride on the edge of the flavor cliff’
With all the uncertainty in the quest for great, consistent cheese — cheesemakers confront everything from seasonal changes in milk to rogue bacteria to fussy equipment — the caves of Faribault provide a steady backbone around which to build a business. The 29,000 square feet of broad, tall underground chambers give Jirik and his co-workers a remarkable degree of control over the humidity, temperature, and oxygen that help define the way the plant’s blue and Gorgonzola cheeses age and eventually taste.
“There’s a place for every type of aging,” says Jirik, who learned much of his craft studying with old-school Wisconsin cheesemakers. “If I’m going to have a cured Brick, I want one that was aged in a cellar. Our caves give our cheese an incredibly clean background. We emphasize that and play with that.”
Faribault’s blues are complex but clean, satisfyingly flavorful but smooth and mellow. The caves play a major role: “They’re natural filters of ammonia,” says Jirik. The face of the bluff that covers the cave is constantly being heated and pulling out moisture, creating a slow movement of water from the cave interiors back to the outside world.
The result is Faribault’s distinctively clean flavor profile, which dates back to the founding of the Amablu label back in the 1930s.
“We can ride on the edge of the flavor cliff — that’s where the most intensity is — and the caves will keep us from falling over,” says Jirik. “The ‘falling over’ is if you push your cheese too hard and get too much complexity, you will get ammonia, and a cheese that tastes like Stilton.”
Jirik is both the heir to a long cheesemaking tradition in Faribault and the co-creator of the modern plant — the blue cheese manufacturing that began here in 1936 under the auspices of food scientist Felix Frederickson was halted by corporate owners for financial reasons in 1991.
“One day these guys with suits and cigars rolled in and said: ‘We’ve determined we can have the cheese outsourced and made less expensively,'” Jirik recalls. “And we said: ‘You think you can make the cheese we make?'”
Cheese Makes a Comeback
Three things gave Jirik the confidence to buy the caves and start the plant back up. The first was the caves’ unique sense of place.
“When you see our plant, and our caves, you realize this is the only place in the world that can make this cheese,” says Jirik.
The second thing was a skeptical banker.
“I kept going to the bank and looking for money, and they kept saying: ‘You’re crazy!’ And I said, ‘OK, if I wasn’t crazy, what would I need?'”
The bank demanded multiple location experience, so Jirik got a job at a firm with four locations. They demanded executive experience, so he worked for six years as a VP in a national firm. “My only business class in college was typing,” he recalls, laughing.
“Then the bank ran out of excuses,” Jirik recalls. The third thing that gave Jirik and his partners Joe Sherman and Randy Ochs the confidence to jump back into cheesemaking in Faribault was the original business plan. “I still smile about this today,” he says. “My background had been in quality assurance, so for our business plan, we took a HACCP [food safety] plan for the plant and we amplified that into the business plan. We started with what we had to do to make safe product — that was the core of the business.” Faribault Dairy is, to the best of Jirik’s knowledge, the smallest USDA-inspected plant in the country, an exhaustive process that helps guarantee the product’s safety.
The first test batch of the plant’s new era emerged from a University of Minnesota lab in 2001, and the first real batch of cheese popped out in Faribault precisely a year later. By 2003, the dairy was launching its now-popular line of Gorgonzola. The plant now processes about 180,000 pounds of milk a week, yielding roughly 20,000 pounds of cheese.
The Underground Lair
The Caves of Faribault first saw commercial use in the 1850s, as a German immigrant named Gottfried Fleckenstein tapped into their potential for brewing and storing beer. The brewery continued until Prohibition in 1918, but yeast still clings to the walls of certain caves, imparting some local flavor to cheese aged nearby.
Despite their original natural origins, the caves are mostly man-dug and reinforced to prevent collapse — the current network spans 29,000 square feet of arched chambers and connective tunnels. They start not far from the Straight River and burrow back into the St. Peter’s-type sandstone, a type of rock known for its ability to remain stable when carved into a Gothic arch. At their deepest, the caves are almost 200 feet below ground.
Your first impression after entering the caves is that you’ve dipped into someone’s basement or root cellar — stacked plastic crates of cheese and the occasional piece of industrial equipment render the chambers less wild than you might expect, or hope. But as you walk back through rooms known by colorful names — Louie’s Tunnel; the Davey Thomas Bypass; the Green Room; Kenyon; Northfield; the Trucker’s Lounge — your body tells you that you’re getting further and further away from the sun and fresh air above.
Shut a door and turn out the lights and it gets dark — truly dark, dark in a primeval way, dark like it used to be on a cloudy night in winter before the invention of electric lights.
When the lights come back on, Jirik may show you some of the experiments he has going in the more remote caves — cheeses exposed to the cave air, popping with all manner of wild and intriguing microorganisms. That is, if you’ve somehow convinced him to give you a tour; the caves are generally closed to the public in order to minimize the amount of foreign microorganisms tracked into this relatively self-contained environment.
Sales have been up for Faribault Dairy in recent years, and its award-winning cheese is distributed throughout the lower 48. Consumer tastes are moving forward, and Jirik’s product is well positioned to convert blue cheese skeptics who are willing to give the variety one last chance.
“The number one comment we get from new users is: ‘This isn’t blue cheese,'” says Jirik. “We did a demo at Seward Co-op last weekend and people said: ‘This doesn’t taste like blue cheese!’ People have an idea that blue cheese is supposed to taste like… all those garbage flavors, and they say: ‘Oh, that’s got a lot of flavor!’ Well, so does my garbage can, you know? But is it complete? Does it have harmony?”
In addition to continuing the plant’s Amablu (aged 75 days), St. Pete’s Select (aged 110 days), and Amablu Gorgonzola (aged 130 days) varieties, Faribault Dairy is in the process of launching the distribution of cheese curds in the Twin Cities; look for them to appear at Parasole’s new Burger Jones venture, among other locations.
Another new product — one with a limited distribution, through Lunds and a few Minneapolis / St. Paul co-ops — will be another Summit beer-washed cheese, a sequel to a Lunds / Summit Winter Ale / Faribault Dairy product called Winter Blues.
As long as Jirik and his team keep playing chicken on the flavor cliff, the cheeses of Faribault will continue to command the attention of cheese-lovers in the Midwest and far beyond.