One of the pleasures of attending the American Cheese Society conference in Sacramento this summer is that it afforded me the opportunity to finally meet, in person, some of the cheese-world people whose cheeses I had tasted and enjoyed over the years — but knew only from social media or their names on the little signs in the cheesemonger’s counter.
One such cheeseworld luminary was Keith Adams, the founder of Alemar Cheese Co. — as they describe themselves, “small batch makers of French-inspired soft-ripened and fresh cheeses” — located in Mankato, Minnesota, about 80 miles south of Minneapolis. Long-time readers of the blog might remember my quest a couple years ago to find their Bent River, a Camembert-style cheese that had been getting rave reviews almost as soon as it hit the market, but was difficult to find outside of its home territory of the Midwest (I finally located some at Lucy’s Whey! These days it’s easier to get your hands on, thankfully).
Adams is an inspiration to anyone aspiring to make a career change to cheesemaking; A native of Northern California originally, before finding success in the world of curds he worked as a stockbroker in San Francisco and even ran a chain of bagel shops in Minnesota. The bagel business ran into financial hard times, and it was then, after the poppy seed-coated wheels had gone bust, that Adams decided to pursue his passion — and a different kind of wheel — through cheesemaking.
With some consulting help from the folks at Cowgirl Creamery and some family-and-friends investors, he built a small cheese plant, and found an organic dairy to supply him with milk from a mixed herd of Holstein, Normandy, Jersey, and Guernsey cows. Production began in the spring of 2009, and after many months of experiments, he had his flagship cheese, the Bent River, a Camembert-style wheel, named for the bend that the Minnesota River takes near their production facility.
Bent River was for a long time Alemar’s only cheese (other than a fresh fromage blanc that was sold locally), but after a couple of years of success and positive reception from customers, mongers (and even multiple ribbons over the years at the American Cheese Society competitions), Adams added a washed rind cheese to the lineup, the Good Thunder.
More recently, the Blue Earth has been added to the lineup as well; it’s not — despite the name — a blue cheese, but is a larger-format, soft-ripened bloomy-rind wheel inspired by traditional brie recipes, named for a river that runs through Minnesota.
It was only a few days after I got back from ACS that I found a large box on my front stoop; seeing the Alemar name in the TO field, I quickly hustled it inside to get it out of the searing early-August heat. The cheese was quite soft and the ice packs surrounding it well past room temperature, but the wheels had survived the trip relatively unscathed.
I tasted the Blue Earth first; It originally started as a larger format, but otherwise identical, version of the Bent River recipe, but over time evolved to use a different culture blend, and much longer ripening time due to the larger format, eventually becoming a deliberate effort to produce a Brie-style cheese. The Blue Earth has a milky and fungal aroma, a buttery paste, oozing and runny at the creamline, with a denser, fudgy core. Flavors are mild, earthy and buttermilky, with grassy and mushroomy notes.
The Bent River paste is similar in texture, a little more velvety and luxuriant, also with a core that hadn’t quite ripened as much, but, as with a traditional Camembert vs a traditional Brie, the flavor profile is distinctly different and more complex, milky and buttery, more meaty and less earthy, with a damp hay pungency and floral and fungal notes.
The Good Thunder is another creature altogether; named for a small town ten miles down the road from the creamery — located between the Blue Earth and Maple Rivers — the pudgy squares are washed in Bender, an oatmeal brown ale from Surly Brewing Co. in Minneapolis. The orange taffy-colored rind is lightly geotrichum-wrinkled and tacky to the touch, with a white frosting of mold scattered across it. the paste is custardy and more lip-smacking, similar to a Taleggio, and the aroma is pungent and subtly fruity. Flavors are robust and brothy, with smoked meat and yeasty notes. I first tasted Good Thunder at a Food Matters Again event in Brooklyn in the summer of 2013; on this tasting I found that this cheese has evolved quite a bit in the interim; the squares I tasted back then were on the firmer side, but this newest batch was much transformed in both texture and flavor profile and definitely even better than the first tasting.
Alemar, and Adams, are now entering a new phase; Adams, originally from Northern California, has decided to return to his home state, and will be starting a new cheesemaking business, focused on British-style cheddars. Adams will be headed to England shortly, to spend time working with celebrated cheesemaking operations such as Montgomery’s Cheddar, and will be attending the "Science of Artisan Cheese" symposium hosted by Neal’s Yard Dairy affineurs.
After that, it’s “Westward Ho”; Alemar’s original facilities will be left in the capable hands of head cheesemaker Craig Hageman, and Adams will retain ownership of Alemar and make periodic trips back to Minnesota, while he works on the new creamery. He hopes to have production up and running at the new facility by some time in 2015, so keep an eye out at the 2016 American Cheese Society conference for the latest ribbon contenders from this talented, and now multi-state, cheesemaker!