Four years ago this fall I was on a cheese junket, a tour of Wisconsin cheesemakers arranged by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (being so perishable, milk's only shot at wider markets comes in cheese form). We were at Uplands Cheese Co. near Dodgeville, makers of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which had just won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society's annual competition for a record third time. We were offered tastes of it, a wonderful nutty aged Alpine cheese a bit like Gruyere. But there was another cheese ripening then which, despite our best and most shameless efforts, we were not able to convince Mike Gingrich, the owner, or his young cheesemaker Andy Hatch to let us try. It was an attempt at a European-style soft cheese, despite FDA rules which required American cheesemakers to age raw milk cheeses twice as long as their European counterparts typically do. A couple of months later that cheese, Rush Creek Reserve, would hit the market and earn acclaim as one of the best soft cheeses America has produced.
And having observed its beginning, I can now record its apparent end.
On Friday Andy Hatch, who has since bought Uplands with a partner, sent out an e-mail saying that changes in the regulatory environment mean that making a 2014 Rush Creek Reserve would bring too great a risk of putting Uplands in violation—and so the highly acclaimed cheese is no more. It's not because of anything that has happened at Uplands—Hatch describes his most recent FDA inspection earlier in the summer as "really positive"—or, indeed, because of any particular incident anywhere that he knows of. But a cheese specifically designed for aging for 60 days—the rule since 1949—risks suddenly being afoul of newly imposed regulations which may mandate longer aging periods or other impossibly strict conditions for cheese making.
As with the attempt earlier this summer to ban wooden boards for aging cheese on, the rule changes from Washington seem to have caught FDA inspectors in the field by surprise, taking effect after none of the normal procedures and for reasons that remain unclear to the businesses that now scramble to react to them. The result is that a business could start making a product legally, only to find it illegal by the time its months-long production cycle has ended—and thus find itself facing intensified scrutiny for "violations" that didn't violate anything when they began. Under the circumstances, Hatch decided that the safer choice as a business is to sell off the milk that would have gone into 2014's Rush Creek Reserve and at least reap that level of return on its farm's products.
As Wisconsin cheese blogger Jeanne Carpenter put it, "The death of Rush Creek Reserve should act as the canary in the coal mine for all American raw milk artisan cheeses, because just as our great American artisan cheese movement is in serious full swing, the FDA has basically declared a war on raw milk cheese." I spoke with Hatch about what happened; today we'll talk about what made Rush Creek Reserve so special as an example of artisanal cheese making in America, and tomorrow we'll talk about how regulators doomed it—and maybe much of the artisanal cheese movement in this country.
Michael Gebert: First, tell me about Rush Creek Reserve.
Andy Hatch: Well, you really can't understand Rush Creek without understanding the rest of our farm. Our focus here has always been producing summer, grass-fed milk to make Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which is an aged, Alpine-style cheese. Those styles of cheese classically, traditionally were always based on summer pastured milk. For years that's been the focus of what we do—and when the cows come off of pasture in the fall, we always just sold that milk because it didn't have the same flavor complexity that you want for an aged cheese as did the pastured milk.
So a few years ago we decided to use that hay-fed milk in the fall to make another cheese. Rush Creek is a small, soft cheese—it's only for aged for two months—so it isn't really aged long enough to unlock any of the inherent flavor complexity in the milk itself. It derives its flavor much more from the way it's ripened—it's ripened more aggressively. There are different kinds of yeasts and molds that grow on the rind, and it's wrapped in spruce bark which is there to hold its shape—it's so soft that otherwise it would puddle out—but also to contribute kind of a woodsy, smoky flavor. We like to say that Pleasant Ridge is made in the field, but Rush Creek is made in the cave. Pleasant Ridge is much more of a direct expression of the milk, where Rush Creek, relying on less interesting milk, is more an expression of the way it's ripened.
It's a much smaller production for us than is Pleasant Ridge. It's become important not just as a source of income but because it has such a devoted following. It's become important to a lot of our customers, and so the fact that we're not going to make it this year is disappointing in a couple of different ways.
What are the characteristics of the cheese?
Rush Creek is loosely based on a classic French and Swiss cheese known as Vacheron Mont d'Or. This cheese is not sold in the U.S. any more, but I learned to make it in France as an apprentice. There, it's eaten at about 25 or 30 days old; it's very mild and milky, kind of lactic, sweet, mushroomy. Here, of course, we have to age raw milk cheeses over 60 days, and originally I thought of that as a handicap. It's a real challenge to age a cheese that soft that long. You're sort of running the gauntlet, trying to avoid the flaws that could develop—is it too soft, is it too hard, is it getting bitter or too salty?
But over time I came to realize that ripening that extra month or two, you're able to coax a lot more interesting flavor out of it. I'm just generalizing here, but Rush Creek has access to a lot more interesting flavors than most of the 25-day Mont d'Or cheeses.
You slice the top rind off and it's almost like a self-contained bowl, and the texture is custardy-soft, you can dip right into it with a spoon or a bread crust. There is a smoky, savory quality to it, not unlike a cured ham or bacon. The smoky, kind of resonant flavors come from the bark and the meaty flavors come from the way it's ripened. The soft, washed-rind cheeses like these were originally developed in monasteries by monks to eat during Lent when they couldn't eat meat, so they made cheeses that would give them those rich, umami-type flavors. That's what we're going after for Rush Creek.
What was the reaction when it came out? It was kind of a big hit, right?
We sold the first batch of it in 2010 and it was a big hit, as much as a cheese can be in a big country like this. It got a lot of publicity, and pretty quickly it was all gobbled up. Ever since then it's been pre-allocated, kind of like buying wine futures. We've made almost as much as we could in this facility, and we're still unable to satisfy demand. But it was a style of cheese that a lot of people hadn't seen before, and it also happens to be sold at a time of year when you feel like you can be indulgent. I mean, it's a fairly gluttonous experience, to eat one of these cheeses, and it usually takes two or three people. So it's perfect for late autumn, the holidays, sharing with people.
So I think all of those reasons contributed to what was, yeah, a big hit. The e-mails I'm receiving now, from people who've heard it's not going to be made—they border on amusing, but they're incredible. They joke about canceling Christmas.
When I interviewed Daniel Boulud a few months back, I asked him about what products from the midwest he liked, and the first thing he said was "Uplands Cheese, do you know it?"
I was in his restaurant this spring, with my cheese, and we talked about it. He's a tough man to impress, but when you impress somebody like that, you're doing something right. He could have any ingredient in the world.
Tomorrow: the end of Rush Creek Reserve