American cheese gets flavor

Mike and Carol Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company in Wisconsin with wheels of their Pleasant Ridge Reserve. The cheese retails for around $29 a pound and won best in show at the American Cheese Society's annual conference in 2001 and 2005.

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Doug Krizner: What you think of when I say American cheese? Gone are the days of those school bus-yellow slabs wrapped in plastic. Today 43 states are home to artisan cheese makers. They're handcrafting more than 350 varieties, rivaling the best cheeses in the world. And people are willing to pay a hefty premium for these fine domestic cheeses. Daniel Weiss reports on the way artisanal cheese makers are doing business.


Daniel Weiss: Mateo Kehler is spending $3 million to dig a 20,000 square foot hole in the ground. He makes cheese at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

When it's finished, Kehler's underground aging cave will have room for a million pounds of cheese. A decade ago, an American cheesemaker wouldn't have dreamed of such an ambitious project.

Mateo Kehler: What we're really doing here is turning a movement into an industry.

The market for artisanal cheese is growing at around 20 percent a year.

American cheeses have become so popular that Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin can retail his Pleasant Ridge Reserve for up to $29 a pound. That's almost eight times what you'd pay for basic cheddar at the supermarket.

Mike Gingrich: Finances are pretty thin when you're just a medium-sized dairy farm in the Midwest selling fluid milk, so this really gives us a lot more elbow room.

Gingrich is one of the few small artisanal cheese makers with a nationwide distribution network. But many artisanal cheesemakers lack market power and have trouble making ends meet.

By building his cheese cave, Mateo Kehler is adopting a European model. He plans to age, market and distribute cheese made on dozens of local farms.

Kehler: They can concentrate on making great milk and turning that milk into cheese. We on the other hand will be able to capitalize on the efficiencies of scale that small producers can't afford to.

Kehler says his project should help make current cheesemakers more profitable. He hopes other farms will be encouraged to take up cheese-making as well.

There's plenty of demand for their product. American artisanal cheese flies off the shelves in the U.S. It's even catching the attention of European connoisseurs.

Allison Hooper, co-owner of Vermont Butter & Cheese Company, is working with a French distributor.

Allison Hooper: If we can sort of put our toe in the water and some people have an interest in our cheese, I think it would be foolish not to take them up on it, just to see what happens.

Hooper hopes her cheese will be available in finer French fromageries by the end of the year.

I'm Daniel Weiss for Marketplace.

PHOTO GALLERY: American Cheesemakers

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