Master Cheese Maker Shepherds Others Into The Business

Oct 10, 2013

One of Vermont’s most successful cheese makers is giving fellow dairy farmers a boost into a competitive market.

Jasper Hill, in Greensboro, has opened its vast high-tech cellars to other artisans who need cash, facilities and expertise to get started.

And that expertise is valuable. Just say the words “Jasper Hill” to a gourmet cheese lover and you’ll get a mouth-watering menu of prize winners.

On a typical day inside the dark, cool 22,000 square foot cellar,  co-owner Mateo Kehler dons a clean hair net and booties and watches a couple of  workers brushing hot lard on wheels of cheddar, and bandaging them with a layer of cloth.

“That lard seals the cheese for a period and creates an environment that’s colonized by mold and becomes the rind of the cheese,” he explains.

But this cheddar did not come from Jasper Hill’s cows. It came from Cabot Creamery, a company that might be considered a competitor. Kehler and his brother Andy buy the un-aged cheddar from Cabot and then age, market, and distribute it under a dual label.

Jasper Hill’s owners don’t see other Vermont cheese makers as threats.  They see them as potential partners in an effort to put Vermont on the international cheese map the way France does--by making a wide variety of distinctive local products. 

“You know, in a sense Jasper Hill is really a response to globalization, right? We’re trying to create a linkage between a product and a place, and the people behind the product are an important component of that story,” Kehler says.

He introduces  "cheddar captain" Lonnie McLeon, a recent vet so grateful to be working in his home town that he’s tattooed a picture of the Jasper Hill cellars on his arm.

“It’s very important, a lot of locals work here, all the farms, and just brings everybody together—I’ve seen it grow just in the four years I’ve been here,” McLeon says.

When the Kehlers started making cheese from their own 15 cows in 2003, dairy farming in the Greensboro area was in steep decline. 

With public and private help  they have invested over three million dollars to build and equip the Cellars. Each of the seven rooms can hold up to 5000 cheeses.  So far, in addition to Cabot, three much smaller cheese makers have begun sending their raw product to Jasper Hill, and getting  technical advice there.

In a room near a brand new chemistry lab, Patty and Roger Scholten, who milk 75 cows in Weybridge, test and score variously aged samples of the cheese they named for their farm. For them, the Jasper Hill Cellars is an on-ramp into a tough business.

“The burden of making cheese is also selling it—distributing it, getting it to the stores, and they have had that process in place,” Roger says, helping himself to a gooey sample of Weybridge cheese.

His wife Patty, though, considers herself the creator, with Jasper Hill staff as mentors.

“I make it, yes, then, I bring it up here and taste it with everybody and then it’s out the door,” she says.

Jasper Hill’s cheese-making partners get half the price of their product when they deliver it to the Cellars, and the other half when it is sold to a retailer.  Mateo Kehler says that early cash infusion is helping fledgling artisans start their businesses.

And what does Jasper Hill get out for helping all these newcomers? For one thing, they don’t have to expand their own herd to increase raw materials. And for another, Kehler says, they are building Vermont’s reputation as cheese country—which is good for everyone.

“If you think of cheese as an economic mechanism to keep the landscape working, that’s essentially what we are building,” he says.

And they are putting a lot of cheese on a lot of  tables all over the world. There’s an economic ripple effect there. Just ask a local truck driver.

Or a baguette maker.