Bringing a Touch of France to Minnesota  

Alemar Cheese Co.’s small batch cheeses have made big waves in the industry.

Southern Minnesota doesn’t exactly scream French cheese, but Keith Adams is quickly changing that thought process. As founder of Alemar Cheese Co., Adams has taken a few small-batch cheeses and reached great heights on the artisan cheese circuit, and his cheese products are now in fine restaurants, cheese shops and stores worldwide.

A native of Davis, CA, Adams knew virtually nothing about cheese when he made the leap into starting the venture. A friend, Rob Hunter, had made a name for himself as a winemaker, and Adams wanted to pursue his own business to try and find success.

“I charitably call this time a midlife crossroads,” Adams says. “I had a business—a small gathering of bagel shops I ran for a decade, which started as one shop and moved to five. It had a really nice run but ended badly.”

So, he took a corporate sales job selling children’s books, and did that before three years, before he got antsy and wanted to do his own thing again.

“Of course, I was afraid of failure but once you get used to your own ship, it’s something you really want to get back to,” Adams says. “I was living in Minnesota at the time, and saw my friends were doing well in winemaking and considered that because it seemed a great match for my abilities. But making wine in Minnesota was a tough go. It’s costly and takes three years before you even get your first crop.”

He knew there was amazing dairy in the state, so he turned his attention to cheese.

As Adams researched the idea, he knew he needed advice from some of the top experts out there, and found great help from many in the cheese community, singling out Sue Conley of Cowgirl Creamery in California as being among the most influential.

“There was nothing in my CV that you would look at and say, ‘clearly this guy is going to make cheese.’ But once I started looking into it, I knew it was a good venture,” he says. “I bought a book called “American Farmstead Cheesemaking” by Paul Kindstedt, and realized most of it is technical, and after reading it, I felt I could do it.”

And his idea was to make French-inspired soft cheese—something that didn’t seem to be done in his part of the country.

“I just loved Camembert and I wanted to make it, and by blind luck, it was a cheese that was missing from Minnesota, Wisconsin and the surrounding environments,” Adams says. 

Beginning Operations

In 2009, Adams was ready to give it a go and launched Alemar Cheese Co. (named for his daughters Alexandra and Mariel) in an old cinderblock building that housed a former Dominos dough commissary in Mankato MN. He utilizes gently pasteurized milk from grass-fed cows at a farm 40 miles away and a 200-gallon vat.

“I had a shoestring budget, and it was just me and a vat for the first three years,” he says. “I was doing whatever it took. There was a great blend of me being along making and tending cheese, then getting out and dropping samples off and doing a 10-second pitch.”

He knocked on a lot of back doors at restaurants, dropped off samples at co-ops and markets, and set up a booth at a farmers market in downtown Minneapolis on Thursday afternoons.

“I said yes to every invite that was given, and I demoed a lot at cheese shops and markets, which was a great bonding experience with cheesemongers,” Adams says. “The cheese started out not great, but the best thing about making Camembert is that in four weeks you have a product, and you can taste it and improve; so, six months in it was starting to get really good, and it just got better and better.”

At the time, his only product was the Camembert-inspired Bent River, which impressed critics and customers alike thanks to rich, full-figured flavor, and was soon in demand at cheese shops locally and around the country.

By 2011, Bent River was a finalist at the American Cheese Society’ artisan cheese competition, coming in second place for cow’s milk Camembert-style cheese.

“Slowly but surely we grew, and though we’ve never been huge, about the fourth year we started to make a bit of money,” Adams says.

Adding to the Line

With continued success of Bent River, in 2014, Adams began experimenting with the idea of adding more varieties to the Alemar cheese family.

“I wanted to focus on one cheese for a good long while and become really proficient at it,” Adams says. “Once I felt that core competency, then I felt like it was time to try something new.”

The first two were the creamy Blue Earth Brie and funky Good Thunder, both known for a special punch and preparation. Today, the company offers eight products overall, with St. James, Local Curds and Cream Cheese being its newest entries to the market. Each of these products are all made with grass-fed cows’ milk, a belief Alemar has had since its founding.

Corstar Farms supplies the milk from its herd of approximately 20 award-winning cows.

“The farm is about an hour west from the Twin Cities in a little area called Litchfield, and it has a very small dairy,” Adams says. “The milk is splendid, and that’s who we have been working with for the last five years exclusively.”

In July of 2019, a state-of-the-art creamery became available at the famed Food Building in Northeast Minneapolis, and Adams knew it was the perfect place to expand. After all, the Twin Cities had been Alemar’s first and loudest supporters since its beginnings, so moving production there seemed a natural fit.

In 2021, the company brought in Charlotte Serino as head cheesemaker, and she has been instrumental in helping the company grow these past two years. She is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, with a degree in Japanese and jokes that’s “exactly how you get into cheesemaking.”

“I had worked in food throughout college, studied food science and thought about doing something in the industry,” Serino says. “Much like Keith, I was debating between coffee and cheese, but coffee involved a lot more traveling, so I decided to put my efforts in cheese.”

She started making artisanal cheese at her home and got a job at a cheesemonger, where she met a goat farmer who was looking for some help at the farm. Serino eventually became a cheesemaker for the farm.

Over her career, Serino has also mongered at a local Minnesota gourmet grocery store (Lund’s & Byerly’s) and also Whole Foods Market. She met Adams through some mutual connections, and the two are enjoying their working relationship. 

Beloved Varieties at Alemar Cheese Co.

The French-inspired soft cheeses have proven to be very popular in Minnesota, with its flagship Bent River continuing to be the top seller, winning twice at the American Cheese Society in 2011 and 2014, and a 2015 Good Food Award.

“We stick to the soft spot, but we have a little bit of everything and cover each of the soft categories,” Serino says. “We have Good Thunder, a washed-rind square inspired by Reblochon that is washed in Nacht Rider beer, which we get from the area.”

Then there’s the Blue Earth Brie, which is a mild and sweeter cheese than the Camembert and reflects the fertile soils that dominate its namesake Blue Earth County. The cheese finished second at ACL last year; Boom Island is a scaled-down Camembert; and St. James is Alemar’s first foray into semi-hard cheese.

“Seasonally, in autumn we have Sakatah, which is wrapped in grape leaves with apple brandy,” Serino says. “The newest cheese we’ve made is Apricity, a soft-ripened, geo-rind cheese.”

In 2019, Adams went back home to launch William Cofield Cheesemakers, a California company specializing in the cornerstones of British-inspired cheddar and Stilton-style.

“This was more ambitious and a larger budget,” Adams says. 

But that hasn’t taken Adams away from his responsibilities at Alemar, and he has big plans for the company going forward.

“We are in a position for this year to be a really good one for us,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot over the years. Alemar started very slowly and built up. What I would like is for Alemar to be recognized in the top handful of soft French cheese makers in the country.”

To do that, he plans to continue making the best cheese possible and reach a point where sales allow him to get healthcare for all of his employees and have a stable organization making really great stuff.

“There are much more sensible ways to make a living then in artisan cheese,” Adams says. “But it’s a joy to be around cheese people. These are my people.”

Subscribe to our Email Newsletter!