The Cellars at Jasper Hill: Researching for Our Cheese Caves

A Visit to Jasper Hill Farm

TOP ROW (L-R): Cabot airing, Bayley Hazen salting, Bayley Hazen pH graph + rocks under the cheese racks help with moisture control. BOTTOM ROW (L-R): Moses Sleeper in 20% brine, Landaff cheese and Bayley Hazen in its forms.

Some weeks ago, I made an immensely informative and inspiring trip to Jasper Hill Farm and The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vermont.

The Jasper Hill enterprise was started by two brothers, Andy and Mateo Kehler. The determination that they have towards revolutionizing and solidifying the cheese-making industry in their state and in this country is unmatched in its political, scientific, and pastoral fervor. As a result, I want to share a bit of what got me so excited!

I start with a little bit of background into cheese terms and then give a snapshot view of my cave tour at Jasper Hill:

What is ‘Affinage’

Affinage is a French term used to refer to process or art of aging cheese.  A person who ages cheese in France is called an ‘affineur’ (male) or ‘affineuse’ (female). When Ihsan Gurdal took over the reigns of Formaggio Kitchen, his intention was (and remains) to import, sell, maintain and serve cheese at its peak – perfectly ready to eat and pair with breads, meat, wines, etc. The art of affinage involves a large amount of science. Temperature, humidity, air flow of the storage space, salting, washing, and flipping of the cheese – all of these factors need to be taken into account.

Tools of the Cheese Trade

What Is a Cheese Cave?

Essentially, a cave is an ideal cheese aging environment. Caves are cool but generally have high humidity levels. Cheesemakers and affineurs recreate and refine this environment in order to bring out the maximum flavor potential in a cheese. At Formaggio Kitchen, we have two cheese caves where we monitor both temperature and humidity. Recently, we have been reexamining how we age our cheeses – something that was necessary, as we have been bringing in an ever wider range of cheeses. As such, the timing was perfect for me to tour the Cellars at Jasper Hill.

The Cellars at Jasper Hill

Bayley Hazen Road SignJasper Hill Farm is located in Greensboro, Vermont. The farm was started by Andy and Mateo Kehler who, in the last few years, have added The Cellars complex. This facility supports numerous cheesemakers in Vermont by providing storage, aging space and a distribution line for their cheese. Their caves were built to alleviate the structural and economic challenges small cheesemakers face in aging, selling, and distributing their own cheese.

The Cellars at Jasper Hill have 22,000 square feet of cave space dedicated to aging cheese. This square footage is divided between seven underground vaults, each housing cheeses of different styles or types.

Vault 1

This vault is currently empty and will be filled with cheeses yet to be determined.

Vault 2 – Washed Rinds

Jasper Hill - Vault 2

Washed rind cheeses are kept in this vault at 50°F with 97% humidity. Oma is among the cheeses stored in this vault, a cheese made by two brothers, Dan and Sebastian von Trapp. A take-away from my visit is the fact that they will soon be molding Oma in a smooth form – no more basket shape! The Jasper Hill team often have issues with the Oma rind developing mold in the crevices created by the basket-shape mold. Lesson: basket weave pattern on the rind seems better for hard rind cheeses, not high-moisture washed rind styles.

Washed rind cheeses are low in acidity and require very high moisture in order to maintain their lightly damp rinds. Their rinds are washed weekly with a brine and flipped once a day. Flipping the cheeses maintains even water retention throughout the cheese body.

The culture solution used to wash the cheeses attracts many different types of halophile bacteria. Halophile bacteria thrive in extremely high concentrations of salt. They often have an orange hue that is characteristic of many washed rind cheeses. If you have ever tasted Winnimere by Jasper Hill, you will recognize that salt is a key ingredient!

Vault 3

This vault is currently empty and will be filled with cheeses yet to be determined.

Vaults 4 and 5 – Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

Cabot Clothbound Cheddar at Jasper HillThese vaults, kept at 52°F and 87-90% humidity, hold the signature Jasper Hill cheese, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. The affineurs in charge of aging the cheddar rub lard on the cheeses and then wrap them in cloth.

The Jasper Hill team feels that the ideal age for Cabot is generally somewhere around 12 months. We tasted several different batches, ranging in age from 10 to 14 months. These wheels are flipped once a week due to their lower moisture content.

Vault 6 – Bloomy Rind Cheeses

Jasper Hill - Vault 6This vault, maintained at 49°F and 97% humidity, contains bloomy-rinded cheeses like Moses Sleeper and Constant Bliss, as well as Ascutney Mountain. The bloomy-rinded (containing penicillium candidum and geotrichum candidum) cheeses thrive at very high humidity levels. Because they are high in moisture, they need to be flipped at least once a day in order to drain correctly.

Ascutney Mountain is a bit different. It is aged for four months at Cobb Hill Farm, where it is made. However, Cobb Hill only has enough space for four months of aging so Jasper Hill holds some Ascutney and ages it for up to an additional 4 months. The rind becomes darker because the humidity level is so high in this cave.

Vault 7 – Natural Rind Cheeses

Landaff Cheese at Jasper HillThis vault is kept at 52°F with 87-90% humidity and contains natural rind cheeses like Landaff and Bayley Hazen Blue. “Wait,” you say, “can you mix a cheese like Landaff with a blue like Bayley Hazen?” Yes! It is just fine to put natural rind blue cheese in the same cave as non-blue, natural rind cheeses. The reason? The rind on Landaff provides a natural barrier to prevent the blue molds from entering the cheese. Landaff is also a pressed cheese with a tightly knit curd structure so even if the mold found its way through the rind, the interior of the cheese discourages any blueing.

These cheeses are also flipped once a week.  They are lower moisture, so they only need once a week flipping once they arrive at The Cellars.

The Nature of Cave Work

Sanitary Gloves and Aprons at Jasper HillThe work in the Cellars is filled with repetition and a keen awareness of cleanliness. The folks at Jasper Hill want to understand what types of bacteria and mold are growing on their cheeses so each step in the cheese maintenance process must be extremely hygienic and methodical. There are no windows in these caves and temperatures are strictly maintained. Thank goodness there is a stereo system in the cave. Bill, the affineur in charge of the washed rind cave, admitted that he would go crazy if he couldn’t listen to music!

Back in Cambridge

In our caves, I work with over 250 different types of cheese, each with their own ideal conditions for storage and aging. Our caves are in the basement of the shop where there is already a cool and relatively humid environment. However, from season to season, the humidity, temperature and airflow fluctuate and I am constantly working to make sure our cheeses’ needs are being met. From my visits to cheesemakers and affineurs, such as with the folks at Jasper Hill, I am learning techniques to create a consistent environment so that all of our cheeses will thrive. Working in this way allows us to develop a unique relationship with each type of cheese, each batch and indeed each wheel we have in the shop. So far, the results have been promising and I look forward to sharing more of our cave adventures!

Jessica Sennett is a cheesemonger and the Cave Manager at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge. She has previous experience as a cheesemaker both in the United States and in France and teaches our “Introduction to Cheesemaking” class.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.hamner Jason W. Hamner

    Pretty cool. What kind of cheeses do you age in your caves? You guys don’t make your own, right? So is wheels you get from cheesemakers that you age another 6 months or something?

    • http://www.formaggiokitchen.com formaggiokitchen

      Hi Jason – excellent questions… Right now, we keep a range of cheeses in our caves including washed, natural and waxed. Most of these cheeses are already aged to the point where we’re focused on keeping them in excellent shape. We have found that with attention to the environments, we can keep the cheeses longer so that they develop new dimensions of flavor. For example, we just finished up a beautifully aged batch of Pecorino Caggiano that we had been working with since December of 2010. We got it at 3 months and we finished off the last wheel when it was about 10 months old. We also work with a variety of young, rindless goats’ milk cheeses which we age in a separate area so that they can develop rinds (see our Aug. 19 post). We do not make our own cheese to sell, although Jessica teaches classes about home cheesemaking and aging.