It’s a sub-zero December evening in small-town northern Vermont, and the dining room of the Highland Lodge is packed. A side closet overflows with down coats and wet snow boots. In one corner of the dining room, rosy-cheeked people of all ages circle around a fondue pot, while on the other side, revelers in holiday sweaters graze across small mountains of cheese wedges. A shout goes out for everyone to quiet down, and a man with a gray sweater and five o’clock shadow stands up on a chair above the crowd. “2016 was a rough year,” he says, “But I’ve got a feeling 2017 is going to be Jasper Hill’s best year yet.” The crowd smiles and raises their drinks in agreement, before joining in a joyous cheer. They are on board with Mateo Kehler. “Something special is happening here.”
Never before has Jasper Hill cheese been more popular. What started as a small-town farmstead cheese operation has today turned into one of the most celebrated cheesemakers in the United States. They’ve consistently taken home American Cheese Society and World Cheese awards, and their cheeses are featured on some of the best restaurant cheese plates in the country.
The crown jewel of the 85-employee operation are the Cellars at Jasper Hill. These seven tall, deep rooms, arranged like spokes on a wheel, are where the famed cheese wheels rest and get washed under tight temperature and humidity controls. It’s here that the Cabot award-winning Clothbound Cheddar firms up, and the spruce belt strapped to the wheels of Harbison begins to impart its woodsy flavor to the cheese. Led Zeppelin plays in one of the affinage cellars, where beige wheels of young Willoughby are getting their rinds washed, while older wheels slowly turn a frosty tangerine color. Bustling in and out of the Cellars are a cadre of highly-skilled Jasper Hill employees, many of whom have packed up lives in San Francisco and Brooklyn to relocate to the tiny, 700-person Greensboro, VT, for the chance to work alongside the Kehler brothers and create something special.
Up Close And Personal
We got the chance to sit down with Andy and Mateo Kehler to discuss why they do what they do, and what Jasper Hill has in store for the year to come.
Mateo, 47, is the more outspoken of the two brothers, a people-person with a loud laugh and gesticulating hands. He’s clearly excited about his job, and his ebullience is contagious. Andy, 45, leads with a wry silence, often listening to Mateo with a sly sparkle in his watery blue eyes, and piping up to finish his brother’s sentences or to translate Mateo’s effusive language into concrete data points. “Andy is head cheesemaker, but we don’t reference each other with titles,” says Mateo. “The nature of our communication is mind meld.”
Cheese is changing, and Jasper Hill is quickly evolving, so both Andy and Mateo kick off our meeting talking about their plans for the future. In fact, “visioning” is a formal process at Jasper Hill. Talking about what success means for the company, Mateo nibbles on some Clothbound Cheddar as he says, “if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t happen.” On that note, Mateo pulls up the latest visioning document from the company, where they discuss how many liters of milk their cows are producing now, how they plan to produce 1,000 pieces a week of Winnimere in the coming months, with plans to turn that to 3,000 over the next four years, and their debt-payment plans for the company.
It’s a lot of business talk for two family guys who don’t have much business experience at all. “We’re professional amateurs,” laughs Andy.
Though it’s rather remarkable to see the two brothers finishing each other’s sentences, it’s even more striking when you find out that growing up, they never got along. “I used to torture him,” Mateo sheepishly admits. Mateo is one-and-a-half years older than Andy, and the older brother dynamic defined their relationship for years, they agree. Until, that is, they got some time apart. “After high school, Mateo went traveling for years,” says Andy, “to California, out West…” Mateo finishes his brother’s sentence, “And Andy stuck around here, but he always came to visit me. He’s a nice guy.”
“Nice guys get to deal with insurance and IT,” jokes Andy, referring to a few of his roles at the company.
Reunion In Vermont
The fact that the two ended up reuniting in Vermont and forming a hyper-localized company that depends on Vermont’s particular climate is ironic in a lot of ways. Both boys were actually born in Colombia. Their parents had moved to Latin America with the Ford Foundation in the 60s, and, says Mateo, “they slid right into life down there.” In fact, their father started the first hot dog business in Colombia back in 1966. But by the 80’s, they found themselves as a young couple in a country ravaged by narcotic traffickers; it was time to move with their sons back to the States, and back to Vermont.
The boys spent their teenage years in rural Vermont, but “We’re not farm boys,” clarifies Andy. “Our uncle had a dairy farm, but we didn’t grow up milking cows.” Instead, the brothers found work in construction and spent their time hammering together vacation homes on the Vermont land once occupied by dairy farms. But something didn’t quite fit. “We had a realization,” recalls Mateo. “Instead of participating in the construction of those houses in the middle of those fields, why not create an alternative use of that land?” Mateo describes why he loves Vermont, and “the pastoral beauty of this place… It’s a landscape that was built by dairy farms.” He adds that dairy farms are “huge cash recyclers,” in that the economic impact of a dairy farm is felt in concentric waves by everyone from the grain salesman to the retailer. In 1999, the brothers decided to pool together all of their money and buy a plot of land in little Greensboro.
Soon enough, they saw just what kind of an impact the dairy industry — and its slow demise — can have on a place. The same year the brothers bought their plot of land, Greensboro lost three out of its 10 farms. Dairy was quite literally disappearing from the town and its surroundings — but not if the brothers had something to say about it. Within just a few years, a remarkably short time for a business with such high overhead and infrastructure costs, Jasper Hill had become the darling of Vermont farmstead cheese lovers.
But in spite of their success, the brothers remain firmly committed to that original lure; the concept of reviving the dairy industry in northern Vermont.
Today, a big part of what gets the brothers excited is talking about their food venture center, a nonprofit aimed at helping to incubate an agricultural economy in northern Vermont. As Mateo starts to talk about the center, his upbeat, casual way of talking gradually slows. He sits up, and thinks through his words before speaking. It’s just another indicator of how important the project is to him personally. The concept is essentially one of business incubation for food entrepreneurs, and the Jasper Hill team, with the help of a government stimulus grant, has built a large facility in Greensboro to enable it. The facility currently has 100 different clients, but Jasper Hill is the biggest tenant. It’s inside that facility that some of Jasper Hill’s most beloved cheeses are made, including Alpha Tolman, Willoughby and Harbison. The brothers see the center as a key step in the revival of Vermont’s farmstead agricultural industry.
And speaking of cheeses, we couldn’t help but pick the boys’ brains about their favorite varieties.
Picking A Favorite
Mateo looked down at the milky-colored piece of Alpha Tolman in his hands before saying, “Alpha Tolman is my favorite, because of how it’s made. It’s hot, it’s fast . . . it’s a dramatic cheese.” He’s referring to the high temperatures required to get that smooth alpine texture. He says the Alpha Tolman cheesemaking process is “really efficient, and then the labor is on the affinage side. But there’s something satisfying about being able to process 200 pounds of milk for one wheel of cheese.”
“Asking me which of our cheeses is my favorite
is like asking which child is my favorite.” — Andy Kehler
He adds that Alpha Tolman is his favorite to make. But to eat? “Bayley Hazen,” he says, referring to the company’s popular blue cheese. “When Bayley is spot on, it’s one of the best things ever. I eat it straight, no cracker, no nothing.” He thinks a bit more on this and adds, “Actually, I love Bayley with chestnut honey; it is so simple but that combination is insane it’s so good.” In general, Mateo says he prefers to eat cheese without background noise,” that is, without any bread or crackers or accompaniments, but he admits, “there’s something delicious about the bitterness of an IPA and the nutty sweetness of Clothbound Cheddar.” For Mateo, an ideal cheese board has a Winnimere or Harbison as the center feature, “because there is something about putting a spoonable piece of cheese in the middle and then surrounding it with blue, Cheddar, Alpine, and another soft or washed rind.”
When asked if he agrees with his brother’s choices, Andy smiles and shakes his head. “Asking me which of our cheeses is my favorite is like asking which child is my favorite.” With that admission out of the way, though, Andy starts to reveal a bit more. “Well, Winnimere isn’t available half of the year, so I eat it as much as possible when it is available. And Moses Sleeper has been really amazing lately.” Andy gets up and walks into a back office, before returning with a brown paper bag of Red Barn Lavash crackers. “These are local crackers made from spent brewers’ grains, and for me, that might be the best cracker for our gooey cheeses right now.” He adds that he loves their cheeses with local beer, like Vermont’s lauded Heady Topper brand.
As for which cheeses outside of Jasper Hill’s catalog they prefer, the brothers have quick answers, without needing to reflect at all. Mateo jumps in with a confident answer, “Colton Bassett Stilton,” he says, referring to the British blue. Andy also answers quickly, “Comté, it’s simply the greatest cheese from start to finish.” Referring to the hyper-localized rules governing the production of Comté, he adds, “It’s what local cheesemaking is all about.”
What’s In Store
And before we finish our conversation, the brothers drop a few exciting hints at what’s in store for Jasper Hill in the years to come. Andy points over his shoulder at a long safe in an office behind him. “Over the past few years we’ve been screening our milk, collecting microbes and putting the DNA in a freezer.” “It’s a negative 80-degree freezer,” adds Mateo. “Negative 81,” Andy corrects with a smile. The brothers are now beginning the process of developing cheeses with indigenous micro flora, which would replace the commercial cultures produced on an industrial scale for cheesemakers. The idea is to get as local as possible, even down to the cultures, and to open up the possibilities for cheesemaking beyond the currently available cultures. Mateo says the current situation for cheesemakers is as if you have a box of 12 crayons. “But imagine what you can do with a 200-crayon set…”
Meanwhile, they have two new cheeses in the works. One will be a Camembert-style cheese made with the indigenous microbes, which Andy notes they hope to have on the market in 2018.
And — you heard it here first — the brothers are now planning on bringing back a cheese they had to discontinue years ago: Bartlett Blue. The super creamy, Stilton-style cheese was always a favorite of cheese connoisseurs, but back in 2007 the brothers had to pick and choose which cheeses to commit their milk to, and Bartlett Blue got the axe. Now, with Jasper Hill hitting its stride, and with the Creamery, Cellars, and venture center all up and running, the brothers are able to bring back the cheese they left behind, which should delight cheese lovers everywhere. And that’s something special indeed.