The quietly growing, deliciously quirky world of Utah cheese
There are plenty of things utah is known for: wacky liquor laws, hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics, superior dental hygiene à la the Osmond family, and phenomenal light-as-air powder widely proclaimed as “The Greatest Snow on Earth.”
In culinary circles, Utah’s artisan chocolate community — with internationally-acclaimed single-origin producers such as Amano, Solstice and Ritual based in the Beehive State — and fanatical cacao connoisseurship at the consumer level — is renowned.
As the predominant religion of the state eschews both alcohol and coffee, many Utahans choose their indulgences on the sweet, rather than savory, side, with some of the highest-per-capita consumption of ice cream in the nation in addition to their chocolate fixation. And although craft beer companies have flourished as the result of a strong home brewing counter-culture, more “subversive” crafts like distilling, coffee roasting and yes, even artisan cheese, with its relatively high price point and association with wine pairing, have lagged.
That’s gradually changing, echoing the shifting and more transient demographics of Utah’s urban centers. Particularly, in the three areas where the state’s top cheese makers, cheesemongers and discerning buyers have concentrated: the capitol and largest population center, Salt Lake City; winter recreation destination, Park City; and historic dairying district, Cache Valley.
The Great White North
“Watch out for their heads swinging up to greet you. They don’t realize how big they are,” says Rockhill Creamery co-owner Peter Schroff of the half dozen thousand-plus pound Brown Swiss cows ambling over to greet us, affectionate and affable as Labradors.
Still snow-capped even in late summer, the Wasatch Mountain range rises up in jagged peaks and rich green valleys to our east. Rockhill Creamery’s meticulously restored historic buildings house a modern milk parlor, cheesemaking cellar and underground aging cave. Visiting this tidy farmstead in the northern Utah community of Richmond is a reminder there’s a reason this part of the rugged intermountain West has long been called “the Little Switzerland of the Rockies.”
Rockhill Creamery co-owner and cheesemaker Jennifer Hines elaborates on their choice of breed, saying, “Swiss Browns are well-suited to our climate and geography. They’re hardy and handle the cold weather well.“ The high butterfat and protein of their milk is great for cheesemaking, says Hines, with the dairy making about 10,000 pounds of cheese annually from their six happy cows.
Schroff gives “the girls” one last rub over their noses and we head over a meandering path towards the historic granary built in 1893, now housing the creamery’s small retail store, where Schroff and Hines share samples of their raw milk alpine-style cheeses. There are small, 6-pound wheels of semi-hard Edam called Dark Canyon (aged two to four months) and Snow Canyon (12 to 17 months) with a lovely white rind and an almost Sbrinz-like richness. A 12-month-minimum aged farmhouse Gouda made with extra cultures, giving it a distinctively zingy strong flavor with shades of Swiss, hence the name “Zwitser” (the Dutch word for Swiss). And their most popular melting cheese, Wasatch Mountain: a whole raw milk cheese made in the French alpine style. It’s nutty, earthy and just slightly tart with a full-bodied flavor that’s mellow, buttery, almost decadently rich.
Rockhill’s Wasatch Mountain cheese has become a go-to favorite for cheesemongers all over the region, and Hines has an adoring following of former cheesemaking apprentices. Case in point: Abby Pfunder, who, after interning at Rockhill, met her now-wife, Zara Ahmed when they were both working at Cowgirl Creamery in California. Pfunder and Ahmed returned to Utah in 2016 and started a wildly successful pop-up and catering business called Raclette Machine, peddling (you guessed it) Raclette. “Pete and Jen are a big part of why we moved to Utah and the inspiration behind our business,” says Pfunder. Raclette Machine has now become one of Rockhill’s biggest customers, purchasing 70 wheels of cheese — a mix of Wasatch Mountain, Baby Boo Boo Swiss, Dark Canyon Edam-style and the Eclipse Raclette made exclusively for their business — in 2017 alone, in addition to another 100-plus wheels Ahmed sourced from Europe.
It may be a small operation in the scheme of Utah dairy history, but relatively new cheesemakers like Rockhill have had a mighty impact in the region’s artisan cheese scene.
Utah State University food scientist Dr. Don McMahon has seen Utah’s cheesemaking contingent changing significantly in the past three decades, especially through the collaborative outreach of the USU-based Western Dairy Center mentoring new dairy businesses, of which Rockhill is an early example.
After retiring from careers in journalism, Schroff and Hines created Rockhill Creamery out of sheer determination, hard work and a lot of cheesemaking trial-and-error between the time Schroff purchased the old run-down farmstead in the 1980s and Hines began making and selling cheese in earnest starting in 2005. They also involve the community in their adventure: The Creamery hosts the popular Richmond Harvest Market at the farm on Saturdays from June through mid-October, where in addition to selling cheese, there’s an open air farmers market featuring fresh local produce, honey, craftspeople and live music.
Of Utah’s approximately 180 dairies, all are family owned except for two: the USU research facility and a dairy owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS, a.k.a. Mormon Church). But like most of the country, artisan cheesemaking represents only a fraction of that agribusiness. Both McMahon and Rockhill’s Hines point to the influence and legacy of large-scale cheese producers in the region, such as Edwin Gossner, a fifth-generation cheesemaker who immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1930. After making cheese in Wisconsin and California, Gossner settled in Cache Valley, UT after visiting on vacation and seeing how similar the region was to his homeland. Bonus? Hundreds of small family-run dairies were already established in the area. He eventually oversaw the largest Swiss cheese production facility in the world through the 1940s. Gossner Foods, the company he created in 1966, still operates as a family-run business overseen by Edwin’s daughter, Dolores Gossner Wheeler, as chief executive.
USU’s agricultural and food science programs have coordinated a student-run creamery at the college since 1888. At the retail store, Aggie Ice Cream has traditionally been its best seller, but several varieties of student-made Aggie cheese — both sold in store and through online gift baskets — have become a growing share of their market. For the past 35 years, USU has also offered cheesemaking workshops and short courses open to the public. McMahon says that around 2000, “We decided to re-emphasize cheesemaking and upgraded our equipment and became more involved in helping artisan cheesemakers.”
Perhaps the most widely known success story coming from the USU consultation program is Logan-based Beehive Cheese, founded in 2005. “Beehive Cheddar is most people’s first exposure to Utah cheese,” says Vanessa Chang, a San Francisco-based Certified Cheese Professional (CCP), food educator and writer. “Beehive made artisan Cheddars approachable and fun,” says Chang, and she points to the company’s successful business model of making artisan cheese that’s also scalable to the restaurant industry and retailers.
Beehive Cheese president Britton Welsh, who is the son and nephew, respectively, of founders Tim Welsh and Pat Ford, gives a huge tip of the hat to the USU dairy program for Beehive’s genesis, as neither company founder had a background in food science, saying, “USU gave my Uncle Pat their recipe for Cheddar and essentially taught us how to make cheese.” Beehive’s milk comes from fourth-generation family-run Wade’s Dairy, a Holstein and Jersey cow operation 10 miles from Beehive’s Logan creamery. That original USU Cheddar recipe became Beehive Promontory Cheddar, the award-winning O.G. of their Cheddar lineup. In their first year in business, Beehive’s Barely Buzzed — a creamy textured hard Cheddar hand-rubbed with Utah lavender and roasted coffee — won an American Cheese Society 1st place for flavored Cheddar. The awards have snowballed ever since, with nine World Cheese Awards just last year. A personal favorite, Beehive’s “Seahive” cheese brings all of the tastes of Utah together in a full-bodied aged Cheddar rubbed with local honey and Redmond RealSalt, a red mineral salt mined from an ancient seabed in southern Utah. At the retail store attached to the Beehive creamery, you’ll often find experimental runs of small-release cheeses not usually available to the public, but Britton Welsh told me, “Most locals come here on the days we release fresh cheese curds.” That would be Monday-Wednesday afternoons after 2 p.m.
High Country Bounty
In terms of sheer volume of carefully curated artisan cheese sold in Utah, the local chain Harmons Neighborhood Grocers is hard to top for both international quality and quantity. Started as a fruit stand in 1932, the still family-run company now includes 18 markets in Utah, from neighborhood bodega-style shops in dense walkable Salt Lake neighborhoods to large suburban stores serving complex customer demographics. Harmons also has one of the most comprehensive artisan cheese education programs in the state, with each store having at least one dedicated cheesemonger, most of whom are CCPs (Harmon’s pays for their certification, including travel to the ACS meetings). USU Master’s program alumna and former Rockhill Creamery intern Jess Perrie, who now works for New York’s famed Essex St. Cheese, has nothing but high praise for Harmons’ reputation. “Harmons is committed to improving its cheese program every day,” as evidenced by their continuing support for education and the large number of CCPs they employ,” says Perrie. “They want to make sure the customer gets the best experience possible when they approach a counter.”
At a recent visit to my neighborhood Harmons at the 7th Street/Midvale location, I perused the specialty cheese case with the store’s cheesemonger, Carleen Mumaw. She is a big advocate for including several Utah cheeses at her store, noting that in addition to Beehive Cheese and Rockhill Creamery, some of her most popular sellers are two farmstead cow’s milk cheeses made near Park City, Heber Valley Artisan Cheese and Gold Creek Farms.
In fact, while I was chatting with Mumaw, a customer asked her about Heber Valley Artisan cheeses currently in stock, saying that he’d just been up to the Kohler family farm and creamery and thoroughly enjoyed his tour and cheese tasting experience. Cheesemaking is a relatively new 21st century endeavor for the Kohlers, who have been dairy farmers in the charming village of Midway for more than 100 years. Following the 2002 Winter Olympics, the region has seen an influx of tourists coming from nearby Park City, and to the Heber Valley for exceptional Nordic skiing opportunities and fly fishing on the blue-ribbon Provo River (recognizable in several scenes from the Robert Redford movie, A River Runs Through It). The Kohlers’ diversification in dairy has definitely paid off: they’ve garnered a slew of national and international awards for their approachable and whimsical offerings, including one of my family’s favorites, “Wasatch Back Jack”: an ACS champion with a smooth, uber-melty profile popular with local restaurateurs for topping everything from food truck poutine to fine-dining bavette steaks. It’s one of cheesemonger Mumaw’s favorites. “The gutsy, no-holds-barred pepper inclusions don’t lose their flavor, even when melted under high heat,” she says.
Cheesemongers and Utah restaurateurs alike credit Gold Creek Farms head cheesemaker, Chef Fernando Chavez-Sandoval, with bringing serious culinary sensibility to the farm’s line of farmstead cheeses, especially to their smoked hard cheeses. Chavez-Sandoval is justifiably pleased with the reception of local chefs in Park City and beyond, “I think 80 percent of the burgers on Main Street in Park City have our cheese on them,” he told me.
Chavez-Sandoval also makes one of the state’s only artisan Blue cheeses, with their Woodland Blue being a local favorite. Every time I visit the farmstead, I can’t resist the opportunity to pick up a wedge of their ACS gold award-winner “Chartufo” Truffle Cheddar, generously studded with shavings of Italian black truffle; and a generous chunk of bold Smoked Parmesan, an award-winner at both American Cheese Society and World Championships. Visitors to Park City who can’t make a trip to the Heber Valley Artisan Cheese or Gold Creek Farms farmstead stores can find a small selection of artisan cheeses, including both local producers, at the charming Deer Valley Grocery Café at the base of Deer Valley Resort, and on historic Main Street in Park City at Riverhorse Provisions.
Championing Local Artisans
Hines recalls Steven Rosenberg, owner of one of Salt Lake City’s oldest artisan and specialty foods stores, Liberty Heights Fresh, was Rockhill’s first advocate and purveyor. “Steven was a big mentor for our earliest cheese development,” says Hines. “He loved our raw milk Gouda and said, ‘Stick to making alpine-style cheese,’” and his input lead to the development of their most popular cheese, Wasatch Mountain. Rosenberg has been a champion for local food artisans going on 25 years, and in addition to a thoughtfully curated international cheese selection, stocks local producers like sixth-generation family run Drake Family Farms raw milk goat cheese. Their herbed fresh chèvre is a local favorite, with its earthy, rich flavor nicely balanced by tangy, zippy lemon notes.
Fine foods advocate and member of the ACS’s inaugural CCP class, Matt Caputo, has also been a fan of Utah cheese from the start. As chief executive of his family’s second-generation fine foods emporium Caputo’s Markets, Caputo also oversees one of the largest affinage programs in the intermountain West. At the Caputo’s original downtown location, affineur Antonia Horne supervises aging in two caves (soon to be three) and daily production of fresh cheeses, hand-pulled Mozzarella and traditional Burrata. One of her favorite projects has been developing Beehive Promontory cheese as the “Caputo’s House Cheddar,” which scored 95 points at last year’s ACS rating and won “Best in Show” at the 2017 Utah Cheese Awards. Cheesemaker Ford taught Horne traditional methods of wrapping wheels of Cheddar in bandages, and they played around with various animal fat-soaked bandages, looking for an ideal combination. Horne says even with the adjusted humidity levels of the cheese caves, there are parts of the affinage process that are specific to Utah, resulting in a very unique flavor and texture. “Working with a drier climate here in Utah, we finally came up with a system of initially using butter-soaked bandages and then changing them out with duck fat bandages,” on the Promontory Cheddar, which results in a rich, vibrant, nutty flavor and keeps the entire wheel of cheese supple and luscious.
Caputo has also begun ongoing collaboration with a legendary goat cheesemaker in Utah’s southern red rock country, Randy Ramsley of Mesa Farms, which is located on a lonely stretch of highway east of Capitol Reef National Park. Ramsley makes fresh chèvre, Feta and yogurt at his two-room farmstead store, and sells raw wheels of traditionally made Tomme to Caputo’s for affinage finishing. “I tasted something really special in Randy’s cheese,” says Matt Caputo, who releases the Tome at two different ages, a “Barely Legal” 60-day wheel and another aged for up to a year designated “Mesa Tome.” It’s a very unique cheese that reflects the ever-shifting nuances of the goats’ free-range diet and resulting milk flavor changing throughout the season. Caputo is justifiably proud of the Mesa Tome, a cheese that is traditional, yet at the same time reflects a very unique Utah microclimate.
“We’re not trying to beat the French at their game with this Tome,” opines Caputo of the Mesa Farm cheeses. “We love our quirky little Utah cheese. It’s weird, but that’s okay. We don’t feel like we need to ‘fix’ it.”
Utah Cheese Guide
Here’s where to find your cheese.
Note: Check websites for up-to-date hours and availability. Several farmstead stores only offer weekend or seasonal tours/tastings.
- Rockhill Creamery
563 S. State St. Richmond, UT 84333
- Beehive Cheese
2440 E. 6600 South, Suite 8 Uintah, UT 84405
- USU Aggie Dairy
Department of Nutrition,
Dietetics, and Food Sciences
750 North 1200 East Logan, UT 84322
- Heber Valley Artisan Cheese
920 River Rd. Midway, UT 84049
- Gold Creek Farms
6297 E. Bench Creek Rd. Kamas, UT 84036
- Drake Family Farms
(self-serve fresh goat cheeses, cash only)
1856 Drake Ln. West Jordan, UT 84084
- Mesa Farms Market
Mile marker 102, Highway 24 Caineville, UT
ARTISAN CHEESE SHOPS:
- Liberty Heights Fresh
1290 S. 1100 East Salt Lake City, UT 84105
- Caputo’s Markets
Four locations, check website for details
Cheese caves & affinage at downtown store
314 W. 300 South Salt Lake City, UT 84101
- Harmons Neighborhood Grocers
Seventeen locations, check website for details