DODGEVILLE — It’s been a successful 10 years for Uplands Cheese Co.’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve but maybe a little bit lonely.
The cheese has been Uplands’ sole consumer product, made with unpasteurized milk from the farm’s grass-fed cows. It also has stood alone among farmstead cheeses in the U.S., winning the American Cheese Society’s top honor three times in a competition in which no other cheese has even won twice.
Now, Pleasant Ridge Reserve is getting some company. Next month, Uplands will debut Rush Creek Reserve, a soft, rich French-style cheese that will be available for only a few months, said cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who has been at Uplands since 2007. “The hope is they will both express our farm. Pleasant Ridge is dry and aged for a long time; Rush Creek is young and moist. It’s two different ways to express the same terroir (the unique characteristics of a specific place).”
Ken Monteleone, owner of Fromagination cheese shop on Capitol Square, said there is much anticipation for the new cheese because of Uplands’ reputation and because the style is so rare in the United States.
“I think it’s going to create as much excitement as the 15-year Cheddar did last year,” he said.
Rush Creek Reserve is made in the style of Vacherin Mont d’Or (“gold mountain”), a seasonal raw-milk cheese from France and Switzerland.
In Europe, the cheese is aged 25 to 30 days. In the U.S., federal regulations require raw-milk cheeses to be aged 60 days. There are also restrictions on exporting unpasteurized milk products to the U.S., so cheeses like the Vacherin are tough to come by.
“It’s a coveted cheese in France and there are a lot of people in the U.S. who clamor for it and can’t get it,” Hatch said. “It has a cult following.”
‘It’s like an infant’
For Hatch, it was a matter of cracking the code: Coaxing the flavors to emerge in 60 days, not 30, without the cheese getting too soft or not soft enough. Conversely, Pleasant Ridge is aged for five months to two years, depending on how the flavor develops.
“It’s like driving a car 80 miles an hour instead of 30 miles an hour,” Hatch said. “It takes a lot more energy to stay on top of it. You almost don’t sleep when you have a cheese like this. It’s like an infant.”
Rush Creek is like its European ancestor in that it is made with milk from cows grazing on fall and winter grasses. It is wrapped in spruce bark to hold the shape as it softens, and the bark makes a natural serving container.
“I would never try to mimic another cheese, so this is our take on the process,” Hatch said. “As New World cheesemakers, we don’t have to adhere to strict guidelines. In France, if you were to make this cheese, they’d tell you what kind of breed of cow you’d use and what time of year you can make it.”
The grazing plan
It’s a new chapter for Uplands Cheese Co. in ways beyond the cheese.
At the end of August, Hatch took over managing the farm from Mike Gingrich. Gingrich and his wife, Carol, teamed up with Dan and Jeanne Patenaude to raise dairy cows using rotational grazing — moving the cows throughout the farm’s 300 acres so they always are eating fresh spring and summer grass.
The Gingriches and Patenaudes wanted to take better advantage of the unique flavor of the milk and looked into cheesemaking. They began making Pleasant Ridge Reserve in 2000. Production begins in May and ends in the fall.
In the past, Uplands sold the milk once the cows began grazing on fall grasses and some hay.
“It’s still a high-quality milk, it’s just not right for Pleasant Ridge,” Hatch said.
Learning the business
Hatch, 30, wanted to build on the farm’s business and saw a fall cheese as the perfect opportunity.
“It was just a personal challenge,” he said. “I wanted to learn how to make soft cheese. I spend so much of my life focusing on tiny details of Pleasant Ridge. So to do something new and get to paint with big brushstrokes was really enticing.”
Hatch always wanted to farm or make cheese, despite growing up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay. He studied biology at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., and after graduating got a job working for a corn breeder.
“I thought, ‘Well, if I can’t farm, maybe I can do research,’ but I didn’t really like it,” he said.
Then fate stepped in. The corn breeder had married into a Norwegian cheesemaking family and his elderly father-in-law died.
“They sent me to Norway to help the elderly mother-in-law because she had a farm full of lactating goats,” Hatch said. “So I learned to make cheese from her on the side of a fjord in a very remote area of Norway.”
Hatch stayed in Europe for two years and when he returned, he took UW-Madison’s cheesemaker short course. He apprenticed under master cheesemakers Gary Grossen at UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall and Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello. He has returned to Europe to learn from other cheesemakers, including a stint in France last fall to learn to make Vacherin Mont d’Or.
Hatch now lives in the farmhouse on the Uplands property with his wife, Caitlin. He has other plans to expand Uplands’ business, perhaps with meat or butter and maybe a farm shop. Any changes would be within the confines of the grass-fed, rotational grazing herd that is a cross of nine breeds, American and French.
“We can’t just scale up,” he said. “I want to grow in ways beyond cheese. I spend enough time on concrete inside white walls.”
For a special occasion
Rush Creek Reserve is the first step, and a big one not just for Uplands but for Wisconsin cheesemakers in general, Monteleone said.
“There’s been interest in the whole soft-fresh category because that’s not a category that’s well represented here in Wisconsin,” Monteleone said. “A lot of cheesemakers that moved here decades ago were Swiss and German immigrants, so we don’t have many French-style cheeses made by local producers.”
Hatch plans to start small, with 4,000 12-ounce rounds of the cheese, which will be distributed nationally. That’s in contrast to the approximately 10,000 10-pound wheels of Pleasant Ridge Reserve made at Uplands annually.
Monteleone plans to sell Rush Creek Reserve in the mid-$20 range, for the small wheel. It will also be sold at Whole Foods in Madison.
“It’s a special-occasion cheese,” Monteleone said.
Monteleone sees Rush Creek as being perfect for the holidays; it’s a food that people will eat together and will be available only at that time of year. The soft cheese must be eaten with a spoon, or spread on bread or vegetables.
“In France, it’s a big thing when the cheese comes out because it’s only available for three or four months,” he said. “That’s what Uplands’ plan is, too. When it’s gone, it’s gone. But it’s definitely going to be on my Thanksgiving table.”