Winnimere: crafting a lush cheese with bark and beer
Two brothers embark on a winning path
For adults, memories of youth often conjure a beloved summer place—a park, camp, or swimming hole where most of the good times occurred. For Mateo and Andy Kehler, brothers with deep family roots in Ver- mont, childhood summers unfolded at the state’s scenic Caspian Lake in Greensboro, on a section of shore known as Winnimere.
“My family has been summering at Winnimere since the early 1900s,” says Mateo. But in the late 1990s, with dot com fortunes driving up property values in the area, the brothers began to worry. “We were looking at being priced out of the happy place of our childhood.”
Determined to own their own piece of this vacation paradise, the brothers bought a derelict dairy farm near the lake a decade ago. Five years later, they had released the first cheeses from Jasper Hill Farm and soon devised one they christened “Winnimere.”
Saving the Farm
Initially, the brothers had no clue what to do with the 240-acre parcel they bought, but they knew the venture would require a new business model. All around them, dairy farms were closing. “if we were going to make it work, we were going to need to add value to the milk on the farm,” says Mateo. “there was just no chance we could possibly make it shipping milk.”
Winnimere, a washed-rind cheese similar to a French Mont d’Or or a Swiss Vacherin, embodies the strategy the brothers eventually hatched. They purchased 15 Ayrshire cows, a Scottish breed whose milk is well suited to cheese- making. Andy, a former building contractor, designed and built a state-of-the-art creamery. Then, the brothers began creating cheeses to show off their raw milk.
Introduced in 2005, Winnimere debuted two years after Jasper Hill’s first cheesemaking successes: Bayley Hazen Blue and Constant Bliss, the latter a mold-ripened cheese initially patterned after France’s Chaource. For the aromatic Winnimere, Mateo, who oversees the cheesemaking, found his inspiration unexpectedly in New York. During visits to the cheese counters at Murray’s and Artisanal, two premier Manhattan retailers, he sampled Forsterkase, a pungent Swiss wheel washed with white wine and encircled with a strip of fir bark. the little-known cheese, likewise made by two brothers, fascinated him.
Washed With Beer
Bringing the taste memory back to Jasper Hill, Mateo began experimenting. To get the luscious richness he wanted, he decided to make Winnimere only from October through April, when the cows are on dry feed. Their milk is more than 20 percent higher in fat then, says Andy, who manages the herd. The brothers persuaded a friend with a talent for home brewing to produce a beer on their premises, a lambic style fermented spontaneously with the ambient yeasts. Mateo mixed the resulting brew with salt and used that brine to wash the first batch of Winnimere, laboriously basting the one-pound wheels with a paintbrush twice a week.
“It ends up being a circular track,” says Mateo, with the cellar microflora fermenting the beer, and the beer then flavoring the cheese.
Winnimere spends 60 days in Jasper Hill’s aging room, the legal minimum for raw-milk cheese. During that time, yeasts, molds, and bacteria colonize the rind, lured by the sugar in the beer and the cheese’s moist surface. As enzymes break down the milk fats and proteins, the cheese becomes creamier and more fragrant, and the spruce scent works its way into the paste from the band that encircles each wheel.
Aromas the Room Can’t Contain
A ripe Winnimere glistens on the surface, its crusty rind the color of crème caramel. Brought to room temperature on a kitchen counter, it exudes aromas that the room can’t contain—a yeasty, woodsy, fruity fragrance that suggests porcini mushrooms, bacon, and ripe tropical fruit.
Learning to manage the cheese’s maturation so that it reaches 60 days without over-ripening has made him a better cheesemaker, says Mateo. Last year, on a visit to France, he brought a wheel of Winnimere to a lunch at the home of a prominent affineur, or cheese-aging expert.
“He was blown away,” says Mateo. “He said, ‘I haven’t tasted cheese like this in France for 30 years.’ Cheesemakers aren’t making cheeses that can go the dis- tance, because they don’t have to.”
French cheesemakers, who can sell their semisoft raw-milk cheeses before 60 days, have no financial incentive to give these wheels extended aging.
Mateo developed his affinage skills during a three-year stint in europe before launching Jasper Hill, much of it spent at Neal’s Yard Dairy, the London retailer and exporter. He also apprenticed with several of the British cheesemakers who supply Neal’s Yard, such as the producers of Ticklemore and Berkswell.
Wrapped with Spruce
Jasper Hill makes Winnimere once a week, producing about 180 wheels at a time. One day’s evening milk is combined with the morning milk from the following day, cultured, then coagulated with animal rennet. the fresh curds are molded, drained overnight, then unmolded and brined before being wrapped with their spruce bands.
The Kehlers’ beer-making friend has moved to Copenhagen, so Mateo expects to transition to a commercial brew for the 2008-2009 vintage of Winnimere. What won’t change is the brothers’ commitment to using raw milk from their own cows, nourished largely on their neighbors’ hay. Like the other Jasper Hill cheeses, Winnimere is “rooted in the landscape,” says Mateo. For these two brothers, who hope to encourage others to invest in Vermont cheesemaking, success brings rewards and at least one frustration.
“It’s kind of ironic,” says Mateo, “but we don’t get to the lake much anymore.”