We conclude our History of Cheese series with the story of how artisan cheesemaking in the United States blossomed from an industry producing forgettable commodity and processed cheeses in the mid-20th century into the vibrant artisan cheese community that’s grown across the country since the 1970s. The cheesemakers in our online cheese shop and cheese subscriptions are writing the latest chapter of this story with every wheel. Here’s how we got there.
A Century of Cheese Change
The 20th century saw a great deal of change take place in the cheese industry. The English-inspired Cheshire and Cheddar-style wheels that Americans produced regionally largely disappeared as small farms were absorbed into much larger dairy operations. Cheesemaking changed from regionalized farmhouse production to large-scale factories producing mild, pasteurized and processed cheeses lacking in flavor and character.
But as our homogenous midcentury culture began to change in the late 1960s, so did its agricultural landscape and food ethos. Americans traveling to Europe experienced artisan cheeses for the first time, then struggled to find similar products when they returned home. Back-to-the-landers, whether homesteaders or small-scale farmers, sought a connection to food made with natural growing practices and traditional methods, and many were able to meet this market demand with their products.
Women Pioneers of American Artisan Cheese Industry
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the pioneers of this now-thriving movement established farms and creameries, especially in the Northeast and on the West Coast. Many of them were run by women, such as Laura Chenel and Cypress Grove’s Mary Keehn in California; Vermont Creamery, Lazy Lady Farm, and Orb Weaver Farm in Vermont, and Mystique Cheese and Seal Cove Farm in Maine. In fact, women operated half of the artisan cheese companies in the United States in 2006.
The story of American artisan cheese in the second half of the 20th century is one of rebirth, reconnection, and growth. Just 48 artisan cheesemakers existed in the US in the late 1970s, and 826 were counted in 2012. It also meant greater diversity in milk types, as many of the aforementioned cheesemakers began to work with goats or sheep, although cow’s milk continues to dominate the industry in the U.S.
The 1990s and 2000s brought further growth, with creameries like New York’s Lively Run Dairy—now the nation’s oldest continually operated goat dairy—Missouri’s Green Dirt Farm, Maine’s Lakin’s Gorges Cheese, Vermont’s Boston Post Dairy, and Pennsylvania’s Yellow Springs Farm. The movement also includes new urban creameries like Cincinnatti’s My Artisano.
The Future of American Artisan Cheese
As consumer interest in organic and natural foods, regenerative farming practices, fermented foods, and compelling flavor grows, our nation’s artisan cheese movement grows with it. In 1983, the American Cheese Society hosted its first conference; its 1985 cheese competition included 89 entries, while the most recent competition judged more than 2,000 cheeses for quality, flavor, and technical merit. It’s estimated that the specialty cheese category, which includes imported European and domestic artisan cheeses, has grown five times faster than cheese consumption overall in the U.S. since 2010.
And while Europe still sets the standard for cheese culture quality globally, the U.S is catching up: In 2019, Rogue River Blue from Oregon’s Rogue Creamery was named the World’s Best Cheese at the World Cheese Awards—the first American cheese to earn the honor.
A great way to taste your way through the American cheese landscape today is to try out one of our quarterly or monthly cheese subscriptions. Each shipment features a different artisan cheese made the traditional way by our small-scale farms and creameries.
What’s your favorite American artisan cheese? Let us know!
Sources: The Oxford Companion to Cheese, ed. Catherine Donnelly
Industry Data, American Cheese Society
Cheese Industry Profile, Agricultural Marketing Resource Center