Andy Hatch, co-owner of Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, makes exactly two cheeses: Pleasant Ridge Reserve in the summer, and Rush Creek Reserve in the fall.
Pleasant Ridge Reserve is an aged alpine-style cheese, like Beaufort or Gruyere. (It also just so happens to be the most-awarded cheese in U.S. history.) Rush Creek Reserve is a soft-ripened, fresh cheese wrapped in spruce bark, in the vein of Vacherin Mont D’Or.
The seasonality of these cheeses is not arbitrary. Hatch couldn’t switch it up and make Rush Creek Reserve in the summer or Pleasant Ridge Reserve in the fall even if he wanted to.
That’s because Uplands is one of a few U.S. producers whose intensely seasonal cheeses are linked to agricultural cycles that determine what animals eat and the quantity and characteristics of their milk. Some seasonal cheeses, like Uplands’ Pleasant Ridge Reserve, are aged and therefore can be released year round. Others have narrow windows of availability eagerly awaited by diehard devotees.
Understanding Winter Cheese
Because Uplands works with grass-fed milk, the availability of the cheese is parallel to the seasonality of the grass. In the summer, cows at Uplands glut themselves on an abundance of fresh, green pasture. As the weather grows colder, the cows start eating hay, a much denser feed, given its much lower water content than fresh grass. Hatch likens this to the difference between a strawberry and fruit leather.
The cows are also later in their lactation cycles in the winter. As a result, they tend to produce less milk, but with more fat and protein per ounce. Pleasant Ridge Reserve’s recipe is based on that lighter summer milk and Rush Creek Reserve’s is based on the rich winter milk.
Because Pleasant Ridge is aged, it’s sold year round. Rush Creek Reserve, on the other hand, is only available for purchase between October and January.
“Seasonal cheese isn’t something Uplands Cheese invented,” says Hatch. “Most of the great Old World cheeses are made by people making only one cheese for the same reason.”
Other winter cheeses from U.S. producers include Winnimere, a soft-ripened cheese from Vermont-based Jasper Hill Farm. Winnimere is also spruce wrapped and only made during the colder months of the year.
Rogue Creamery’s Rogue River Blue, which won World’s Best Cheese at the 2019/2020 World Cheese Awards, is made exclusively with milk gathered between the Autumnal Equinox and Winter Solstice in Grants Pass, Oregon, where Rogue Creamery is based.
“During these months, cooler temperatures and fall rains bring renewed growth to our pastures,” says Marguerite Merritt, marketing director at Rogue Creamery.” It is during this period that our cows’ milk is at its richest and most complex.”
Rogue River Blue is aged for 9–11 months, then wrapped in Syrah grape leaves that were soaked for months in pear liqueur. The wheels sit for a few weeks, soaking in the flavor of the grape leaves and the pear liqueur, and are then shipped and sold.
Complexity versus Consistency
In industrialized food systems, most foods are available year round and taste essentially the same each time. But seasonal cheeses have the same sort of variability as wine vintages because they reflect the environmental and climatic conditions in which they’re made.
“Though we aim to maintain a recognizable flavor profile across all vintages, every one has its own unique attributes that are influenced by the growing conditions and the composition of our herd each fall,” says Merritt.
Rogue River Blue’s 2020 vintage was characterized by “a prominent savory note akin to seared steak fat,” says Merritt, whereas 2021 has “distinctive herbal and spicy flavors with more focus on the fruity character of the cheese.”
“We should celebrate seasons as they come and be generous when we’re in them. That’s what makes them so special.” —Sarah Simms, Lady & Larder
This variability can be exciting for producers and people who love artisanal products, but there’s also potential for disappointment. This year’s iteration of your favorite seasonal cheese will never be exactly the same as last year’s.
“We are never going to compete on low-cost production or marketing budgets,” says Hatch. “So, rather than make a generic product, we want to make something that is unique and couldn’t be made by other people or land or animals.”
These cheeses are extremely small-batch. Whereas an operation like the Tillamook factory makes 170,000 pounds of cheese per day, Uplands produces 40,000 twelve-ounce wheels of Rush Creek in a season. Each tiny wheel of Rush Creek is made by hand and carefully ripened in Hatch’s on-site caves. In fact, Hatch sells some of the milk Uplands produces during the fall because his team can’t turn it into cheese fast enough. “We can’t process an entire day’s milk into Rush Creek, it’s too labor-intensive of a cheese.”
Markers of the Season
While the hype that surrounds limited-production craft beers or cult wines can seem exclusive, some members of the cheese industry believe that seasonal cheese releases create community as they build anticipation.
Sarah Simms, cofounder of Lady & Larder, a retailer in Los Angeles, says that fans of Uplands’ winter cheese call the shop for months ahead of its release to ask when Rush Creek will arrive.
“I love that Andy [Hatch] doesn’t make it feel like there’s a small amount of Rush Creek and not everyone can have it,” says Simms. “It feels like the opposite, actually, like we should celebrate seasons as they come and be generous when we’re in them. That’s what makes them so special.”
Besides, Simms says, there’s an emotional component to sharing cheese that’s so profoundly connected to its season.
“Cheese boards are magnets for human connections,” says Simms. “There’s something about sharing cheese with loved ones and maybe even strangers that makes the whole thing more special.”
Hatch calls the excitement that surrounds winter cheeses “remarkable,” especially during the wintertime as people gather to see friends and family.
“Cheese isn’t the reason people have these feelings for each other, but cheese is part of the moment,” he says.
Winter Cheeses to Try
Rush Creek Reserve
Generally available between the end of October and the end of December (or sometimes later at a shop near you, if you’re lucky). Buy it online, order it directly from Uplands or call your local cheese shop to see if they have it in stock.
Available in limited quantities starting at the end of December, then throughout the winter. Purchase directly from Jasper Hill or at a cheese shop near you.
Rogue River Blue
Made on the autumn equinox and aged 9–11 months, you can generally find Rogue River Blue at the beginning of October. Availability generally starts tapering off in January or February. Buy it online from a digital retailer, directly from Rogue Creamery or at a cheese shop near you.
Vacherin Mont D’Or
Generally available in the United States around Halloween through February. Buy it online or find it at a cheese shop near you (sometimes sold as Petit Vaccarinus).