The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt., won “Best of Show” for its Winnimere cheese at the 28th Annual American Cheese Society Competition on Aug. 3. The results were announced in a ceremony in Madison, Wis., followed by the society’s signature event, the Festival of Cheese.
Brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler, the founders of Jasper Hill Farm and later the Cellars at Jasper Hill, beat out a record-setting 1,794 entries for the same top award they took home in 2006 with Jasper Hill’s Cabot Clothbound Cheddar.
Winnimere is a monastic, washed rind cheese inspired by the cheeses produced in the abbeys and monasteries of northern Europe in the 15th century, which owned dairy farms and had access to fresh milk and a space for aging. The Kehlers are one of a select group of cheesemakers that can make a soft-wash rind raw-milk cheese, and it encapsulates a lot of what they do on the farm.
“Winnimere represents the soul of our business, and the award is recognition for the hard work of so many people,” said Mateo Kehler.
A washed rind cheese, wrapped in bark cut from the spruce trees on Jasper Hill Farm, Winnimere is known for its complex flavor, texture and strong aroma. The cheese is produced during the winter months from the farm’s herd of 45 Ayrshire cows as their fresh, raw milk achieves peak richness.
The washing part of the process takes place when the rind is sprayed or rubbed with brine, beer, or another liquid to encourage the growth of certain microorganisms on the surface. The cheese matures for about 60 days in a cool and very humid environment. Batches of Winnimere vary from a smoky, sometimes fruity, sometimes mustardy, to sometimes meaty flavor.
The farm sits on 263 acres of land the Kehlers purchased in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, an area where visionary entrepreneurs and farmers have set the bar for the rest of the “real-food loving world.” The brothers bought a bulk of the land in 1998, built the cheesehouse in 2002, and began making cheese in 2003. The farm settled on Ayrshire cows (their herd ranges in size from 40-45 depending on the time of year), primarily because their milk is high in butterfat and has small fat globules which break down evenly, good for the development of cheese. They also wanted animals with good hoof health for the type of rocky pasture at Jasper Hill Farm, as well as appropriate-size animals for their barn.
The cows graze on grassy pasture from late spring to early fall and feed on hay in the barn during winter. Winter milk is richer because grass is about 80 percent moisture and hay is essentially grass with all water taken out. With less moisture in the cow’s diet, it means less moisture in the milk and more fat solids, which makes the milk better for certain types of cheeses.
A bovine vet visits the farm every two weeks to look at milk quality results.
This year, the farm will make around 135,000 pounds of cheese. While that might sound like a lot, it’s actually small when compared to industrial cheese production. On-the-other-hand, its much bigger than just a cheesemaker making cheese in a pot.
The Kehlers use the milk from their 45 cows at the farm and buy additional milk from local dairy farmers.
All of that cheese is aged in The Cellars at Jasper Hill, a 22,000-square-foot underground network of seven concrete vaults (or cheese maturing caves) the Kehler brothers built into the hillside across from their barn and cheesehouse in 2003 for $3.2 million.
Each vault creates a particular environment for growing rinds on cheeses. Each vault is naturally cool and humid, because it is underground.
“We are also able to calibrate them to specific consistent temperatures and humidity for different styles of cheese,” said Vince Razionale of Jasper Hill.
During the ripening process, batches are tasted multiple times before getting wrapped up at their target age profile.
Local dairy farmers and cheesemakers benefit from the vaults as well, with cheeses from Cabot Creamery, Landaff Creamery, the von Trapp Farmstead, and the Scholten Family Farm maturing next to Jasper Hill Farm’s cheeses in the vaults.
The Kehlers’ model is to build a collection of cheeses that are different styles made by different cheesemakers from different milk sources.
“This fits really well into a lot of the cultural trends happening right now in terms of locavore and our reawakening to flavor and the story,” Razionale said. “Cheese is a really unique product, especially when it comes to tasting. Not much more than a handful of products you taste before you buy.”