Talking Cheese Trends with Jeff Roberts

Photo by Dennis Curran

In 2007, Jeff Roberts compiled The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese, a book I often turn to when I plan to do some dairy hopping. Last week, I caught up with Roberts over the phone when I was in search of some cheese statistics. Fresh from the American Cheese Society Conference in Raleigh, he was eager to wax about the state of artisan cheese in the U.S. Since Roberts is not only an author but also the co-founder of the Vermont Artisan Cheese Institute (the training grounds for so many wondrous cheesemakers), I thought I’d share some of his thoughts here.

Do you still stand by the word “artisan,” which has become co-opted by so many big brands? I keep hearing the term “small-batch” used in its place.

I have colleagues who that say any company making more than a million pounds of cheese shouldn’t be called artisan, but for me, it’s not about production; it’s about how the cheese is made. I can tell you when I see an artisan versus an industrial process: artisan cheesemakers still cut their curds by hand, and if they’re making Cheddar, they use the traditional cheddaring process. “Artisan” doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re milking by hand and stirring the curds until your arms fall off – cheesemaking is hard work. Unless you’re working in really tiny batches, you’re going to use some mechanization. That doesn’t mean you can’t be an artisan.

As for small-batch, where do you draw the line? I can make outstanding cheese but if I make 500,000 pounds a year, is that somehow less desirable than someone who is making 5,000 pounds a year? Frankly, you’re not in business if you only make 5,000 pounds – you’d have to have another job. To me, “small-batch” simply refers to something like Flagsheep [which won Best of Show at the American Cheese Society Conference this year]. Beecher’s Cheese only made 23 wheels of it so it’s clearly small-batch, but Beecher’s is also a medium-sized company that produces other cheeses at its two locations [Seattle and New York].

Do you have comments about any other ACS winners?

I was happy that second place went to Eran Wajswol at Valley Shepherd Creamery. Much of what he does is by hand, and he’s been working at it forever. His cheese that won, Crema de Blue, is from cow’s milk but he also works with sheep’s milk. He’s a very good cheesemaker with a very small-scale operation. Contrast that with the third-place winner, the Grand Cru Surchoix from Emmi Roth Kase in Wisconsin — they’re a big company but they’re not enormous. They’re making a lot more than a million pounds per year. I’ve been in the plant, and I know that a lot of what they’re doing is by hand. Some people might say that they shouldn’t qualify as artisan, but I disagree.

Do you have any predictions for the future of American cheese?

I don’t like forecasts, but it’s interesting to note that the huge rise in cheesemakers over the last ten years has happened during one of the toughest economic periods in our time other than The Depression. Unbelievable! I think some of this is the result of traditional cow dairies moving toward adding value to their business [through cheese], but that’s not a slam-dunk. The real growth has been in goats on the national level. That’s surprising on the one hand, but not so surprising if you factor in the cost of setting up a system: I can make fresh chèvre and get cash flow. Working with goats is a lot easier for some people than cows, due to the size. There are also the broader issues of health and nutrition, not to mention the growing lactose intolerance to cow’s milk.

Do you see any downside to the artisan cheese scene?

My biggest fear is what’s going on with the weather this year. The cost of feeding animals is going off the charts, and if you’re working in organic — even with fluid milk — you may be outta business. We’re going to see the price of beef and pork drop and then skyrocket: farmers are going to have to slaughter their animals because they can’t afford to feed them. And then there will be fewer animals for meat and milk. That’s the sad cycle of agriculture.

In terms of cheese, one of my concerns is that the costs of working as a small-scale cheesemaker will put them out of business. When I talk to cheesemakers, they say that their costs are growing faster than can raise their prices. Now, people haven’t stopped buying artisan cheese, but instead of buying a half pound, they’re buying a third of the pound. It’s going to be a rocky year. I fear for some of the really good producers who can’t get what they need to feed their animals.

Is there a sequel to The Cheese Atlas in the works?

A lot of people are asking me about what I am going to do with the statistical information I’ve continued to gather about licensed artisan cheesemakers in the United States, and I am thinking about another book. But it may not be an atlas.

Philly connection: Jeff Roberts attended Temple and was once the development director of the Morris Arboretum and associate dean at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine before he moved to Vermont in the mid-1990s. He remembers buying cheese at Di Bruno Bros. from the original owners, and when he comes through town he still hangs out near the Italian Market, often at the restaurant Kanela.

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4 Responses to “Talking Cheese Trends with Jeff Roberts”
  1. mike says:

    I met jeff at the conference and he was sharing a lot of wisdom about these very subjects. He’s pretty fascinating and generous with his knowledge. Great interview lady lactose!

  2. Amanda says:

    This is a great interview! Good luck to all of those small producers. Do you have anyway to track that? What if there were a forum where consumers could see who was hurting and help out. Like a Curdstarter of some kind?

    • tdarlington says:

      Curdstarter?! That’s brilliant! Thanks, Amanda. I imagine that Jeff is doing some tracking through VIAC and the American Cheese Society may be as well. I’ll try to follow the story here.

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