One of the great things about cheese is that it’s a year-round food. We note shifts in the calendar by the fruits and veggies at our local farmers’ markets, for example. But cheese? It’s always there.
But that doesn’t mean that a given variety of artisan cheese stays the same through spring, summer, fall, and winter. In fact, the finished product will often have a different color, texture, flavor, or aroma depending on what time of year it was made—so much so that many of our most iconic cheeses are only produced during certain seasons.
How Seasonality Affects Cheese
To see how a type of cheese shifts with the seasons, we have to look at the milk it’s made from.
Milk used for cheesemaking has to meet particularly high quality standards: in dairy speak, that means it has higher levels of “components”—the fats and proteins we want to capture in the cheesemaking process—than fluid milk bottled at the grocery store.
To be clear, we’re not talking about commodity cheeses like supermarket cheddars and deli Swiss, which are produced to look and taste the same every time. Milk from pasture-based animals, though, is prized for the way its character changes from season to season. Those changes come from what the animals eat as well as variations in lactation cycles that cause levels of fats and proteins to shift.
Alfalfa is a nutritious forage in the diets of dairy cattle
How Does Animals’ Food Affect Their Milk?
Cows, sheep, and goats graze from late spring through early fall. During this period, their forage—the mix of up to 100 different grasses, wildflowers, herbs, and other broadleaf plants they eat—is fresh, green, and lush. The additional moisture, along with the terpenes some plants produce, can change the character of the milk.
However, because the moisture content of the milk is higher thanks to that fresh forage, the percentage of fat in the milk is lower—meaning cheesemakers have to adjust the styles or recipes they make to account for changes in texture and flavor that correspond to that lower fat content.
In the winter, the opposite is true: as cold weather slows or stops that fresh forage from growing, the farmer transitions the herd to dry hay (either homegrown or purchased from another farm). It’s the same kind of nutrition as fresh forage but in a more concentrated format. This means that in the winter, the fat percentage in the milk is higher, and the moisture is lower. This creates a richer texture that particularly suits some styles of cheese, like lush, bark-wrapped bloomies and washed rinds.
But it’s not just the character of the milk that changes: the color can, too. Cows expel yellow beta carotenes from fresh plants in their milk, meaning cheeses made with summer milk tend to have a deep golden color as well as livelier flavors.
In the winter, because the forage is dried rather than fresh, you don’t get those same golden carotenes in cow’s milk, making for a paler color in the milk and in the finished cheese when compared to summer batches. (Sheep and goats don’t expel beta carotene in their milk, so their milk stays the same color throughout the year.)
How Lactation Cycles Change Your Cheese
It’s not just what an animal eats that shapes the composition of her milk throughout the year. Where she is in her lactation cycle has an impact, too. The cycle begins when a cow, for example, gives birth to her calf, typically in late winter to early spring.
The calf will survive exclusively on mother’s milk for the first seven or eight months of its life, and Mom starts her young off with milk that’s particularly rich in fat and protein. After the first several weeks, the fat and protein levels of milk drop, then gradually rises until the cow is weaned. These upticks in components occur roughly in spring and fall—the times of year when milk for cheesemaking is highly prized.
Rush Creek Reserve by Uplands Cheese. Photo Credit: Uplands Cheese
Which Cheeses Are Seasonal?
To taste the difference for yourself, get in the habit of purchasing cheeses from small-scale, pasture-based, local or regional cheesemakers (like the ones we source from for our online cheese shop). Pick a style or two to try at different times of the year, noting the age of the cheese to calculate when it was produced. Note the changes you experience in texture, flavor, aroma, and even color from batch to batch.
As an example, consider Alpine styles made during the summer months. Varieties labeled “Alpage,” a term that can only be used on the flavorful wheels made when the cows are grazing on fresh grasses and wildflowers of high mountain pastures.
Domestically, Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese highlights summer milk with Wisconsin terroir. Its counterpart, the sought-after bark-wrapped wheel Rush Creek Reserve, is only made with fall milk during the cows’ transition from fresh grass to dry hay, capturing the lively flavors and rich textures of both seasons.
The makers at Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia practice similar seasonal production with their Alpine-style raw milk cheeses, while Vermont Shepherd makes just two cheeses—Invierno and Verano—named for the seasons in which they’re produced.
Seasonal shifts in cheese function as a component of terroir—the unique taste of place that pasture-based artisan cheeses offer. So while a cheese might be produced year-round, what you taste in a cheese produced in April won’t be exactly the same as what you’ll taste in one made in August or January. It’s still the same cheese—just another delicious variation on its flavor profile.
What are your favorite seasonal cheeses? Let us know, and tag us on social media @cheesegrotto to share your favorites!
Leave a comment