In the 1990s, young brothers Andy and Mateo Kehler were looking for meaningful work in a place that they loved—so together with their wives, Victoria and Angie, the two pooled their life savings to purchase a an old hillside dairy farm in Greensboro, Vermont, a sub-arctic zone near the Canadian border where their family had found summer respite for more than 100 years.
From the start, the brothers realized that in order to survive, their little 50-cow dairy farm would have to be different. They set out to create a model for small-scale dairy farming by transforming a raw material like milk into something much more valuable before it even leaves the farm. In 2003, the Kehler brothers began selling Jasper Hill Farm cheese. as well as a natural-rind clothbound cheddar created in partnership with Cabot Creamery, which would go on to have international acclaim.
Today, Jasper Hill Farm is a working dairy with an on-site creamery, and an underground aging facility, called The Cellars at Jasper Hill, maximizes the potential of cheeses made by the creamery, as well as those made by other local producers. We spoke to educator Zoe Brickley to about what truly sets Jasper Hill apart from other cheeses on the market.
Tell us a little bit about where you are located. How do the characteristics of where you farm influence your cheese?
The Northeast Kingdom is especially rural, even within a state that is home to fewer people than the city of Brooklyn. The remote location, wintry northern climate, and rocky landscape makes farming difficult. These unique challenges have been turned into opportunities by plucky young ag entrepreneurs.
Jasper Hill is part of a growing network of progressive innovators, working to keep their community, environment and economy—their “working landscape”—vibrant. For instance, Jasper Hill partners with Pete’s Greens, a four-season organic vegetable farm, to raise pastured, heritage breed pigs by supplementing their foraged diet with leftover veggies and whey from cheesemaking. The climate, landscape and community all point towards value-added, specialty production to keep the wheels turning in the place that we love.
What would you say most differentiates you from other cheeses on the market?
The cheeses are all cave-aged. We believe that a cave-aged cheese has more potential for complexity and deliciousness. The techniques behind these styles of cheese are very laborious, but the additional added value makes the small scale approach work.
Beyond the traditional, cave-aged style, we are unique in the fact that we make raw milk cheeses from single herds of cows. Jasper Hill has two creameries now, and two herds of cows, instead of a larger cheese plant and dairy barn. Our farmstead partner farms produce cheeses in creameries adjacent to the barns where the cows are milked. This close relationship between the land, then animals, and the cheesemakers allows us to maximize the potential value of the milk by keeping a total control of each part of the process.
Which of your cheeses is most popular?
Our most popular cheese in terms of volume is our Cabot Clothbound, mature bandaged cheddar. It’s becoming a staple of specialty cheese counters. The sweet, nutty, deeply savory character is as interesting for connoisseurs as it is approachable for newcomers to the fancy cheese world.
Our cheese with the biggest cult following is Winnimere. One of our original farmhouse cheeses, it is only made from the milk of our original herd of 45 Ayrshire cows. It’s a raw milk, winter-seasonal cheese made from the rich milk of cows munching locally harvested dry hay and non-GMO grain. During ripening, the cheese is wrapped in a strip of spruce bark and washed with a brine. The resulting cheese is rich and a little funky, tasting a bit like sweet cream and smoky bacon. The seasonal release is definitely a treat worth celebrating in the dark, cold depths of January in Vermont!
What’s one way to serve your cheese that people don’t necessarily think to try?
For our favorite everyday soft cheese, Harbison, the best plan of attack is to peel back a bit of the rind to make it easier to dive in from the top and scoop out the gooey interior. The band of spruce bark wrapped around the edge creates a natural little serving dish that holds it all together. It’s like an instant, room-temperature fondue!
What’s one thing you wish consumers knew about cheese?
The way we make cheese means that we always take the path of most resistance. There is an easier, more efficient way to do every step of the process, and while we work to integrate back saving technology whenever possible, there are shortcuts that just aren’t worth taking. For instance, we’ve hired a full time Ph.D in microbiology to help us study and cultivate the native microflora that makes our raw milk cheeses unique and delicious. This way, we can work towards using homegrown flora in place of more standardized commercial cultures for both our raw and pasteurized cheeses to kickstart the process in a way that amplifies our taste of place.