As an internationally renowned heavyweight, Wisconsin is the Midwest’s undisputed champion of cheese. But don’t overlook its scrappy western neighbor. In Minneapolis, an urban creamery, a vibrant dining scene and bustling cheese shops put Minnesota on the cheese enthusiast’s map. True, winters can be brisk, but that’s nothing a locally-sourced cheese plate or a bubbling pot of fondue can’t fix.
For the cheese-focused tourist, The Lone Grazer Creamery is the obvious place to start. The creamery is housed in the Food Building, a Northeast Minneapolis venue for artisanal food producers. While this urban location offers easy access to consumers who are welcome to drop in for a self-guided tour, there are also unique challenges. According to cheesemaker and co-owner Rueben Nilsson, one of the biggest is milk delivery: The Food Building’s relatively small city lot makes it unable to accommodate a standard 6,000-gallon tanker truck. Instead, one of Nilsson’s assistants drives to the farmlands of central Minnesota using a much smaller trailer to pick up milk from the two family farms that supply The Lone Grazer with grass-fed milk. Although this workaround was developed out of necessity, Nilsson appreciates the close connection to farmers fostered by the thrice-weekly milk pickups.
The Lone Grazer started production in February 2015 with three fresh cheeses — curds, Ricotta and the stringiest sticks of whole-milk string cheese imaginable. Although time-consuming to produce, a first place finish in the artisan cheese category at the 2016 Minnesota State Fair boosted the string cheese’s popularity, and its familiarity has made it a good entry point for consumers. However, Nilsson’s long-term goal has always been to produce and popularize washed rind cheeses in Minnesota. Currently, the creamery’s two offerins are Hansom Cab, with a wash of Lapsang Souchong tea, and the delicate smokiness of 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey; and Grazier’s Edge, washed with 11 Wells Rye Whiskey, which is distilled in neighboring St. Paul and features meaty notes with a hint of spice. The Lone Grazer also produces Northeazy, a nutty Tomme with an almost Swiss-like piquant and a floral, mushroom-type rind.
The easiest place to enjoy The Lone Grazer’s cheese is at The Draft Horse, an adjacent restaurant that highlights the Food Building’s tenants. The cheese and meat plate features Lone Grazer cheese paired with cured meats from Red Table Meat Co. In an eco-friendly bit of synergy, The Lone Grazer’s whey byproduct is fed to the pigs that become Red Table salumi. Bread made from flour stone-milled by Baker’s Field Flour & Bread also is included. Even the honey garnish has a Food Building connection as it’s sourced by The Beez Kneez from hives on the building’s roof.
Just southeast of the Food Building is the North Loop, a former industrial neighborhood now home to condos, boutiques and some of Minneapolis’ best restaurants. One of the city’s most sought-after reservations is at Spoon and Stable, where James Beard award-winning chef Gavin Kaysen focuses on the seasonality of the Midwest. The Bachelor Farmer has a similar seasonal focus with a Nordic influence; try the popular toast served with fresh cow’s milk cheese and a selection of accoutrements like pancetta-onion jam and spicy mustard greens. Borough offers an innovative, ever-changing menu in an industrial-chic setting, with an exquisite cheese plate and a cozy cocktail bar in the basement. With views of the downtown skyline and a unique wine list, Toast Wine Bar and Café is the North Loop’s hidden gem — build your own cheese plate with selections ranging from Minnesota-made goat cheese to Vermont Cheddar to Dutch Gouda.
Another Minneapolis dining destination is the Eat Street neighborhood, a stretch of Nicollet Avenue with more than 50 eateries and a United Nations’ worth of culinary diversity that spills over to surrounding blocks. Begin the day at Glam Doll Donuts, a retro-themed bakery specializing in the offbeat. While you’re there try the Girl Next Door, a raised turnover filled with Provolone and Muenster cheeses. Black Forest Inn, an Eat Street favorite that’s been serving German specialties since 1965, offers a comforting spaetzle casserole with house-made noodles and three cheeses; other popular menu items include wiener schnitzel and sauerbraten. Gyst Fermentation Bar specializes in all things fermented, from cheese and wine to chocolate and kombucha. For the ultimate feast, gather some friends and order the motherboard, an expansive array of cheeses, meats, olives, fermented vegetables, dried fruit and nuts.
Although Minneapolis’ restaurant scene will keep food lovers busy, when the weather is chilly it can be nice to relax with a cheesy night in. Surdyk’s Liquor and Cheese Shop stocks more than 350 Minnesota, domestic and imported cheeses from A (Appenzeller from Switzerland) to Z (Zamarano from Spain), as well as artisan breads, meats, chocolate and specialty groceries. A third-generation family-owned business, Surdyk’s was among the first liquor stores to open after the end of Prohibition, and the cheese department, added in 1979, has become Minneapolis’ premier cheese purveyor. In addition to the extensive cheese selection, the shop does a brisk takeout business in specialty sandwiches and deli offerings, with cheese often playing a starring role.
Despite its small footprint, The Cheese Shop at Lake Wine & Spirits has an impressive selection, striking a nice balance between regional and imported cheeses. Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are made to order, and the shop also sells the accompaniments necessary to make a delectable meal, such as fresh baguettes, salumi, olives and chocolate.
In addition to these specialty cheese purveyors, upscale grocery chains Kowalski’s and Lunds & Byerlys stock a wide variety of artisan cheeses. At the Linden Hills Co-op and The Wedge Community Co-op, the cheese departments are smaller, but the selection is just as extensive, with a focus on locally-produced and organic offerings.
A visit to Minneapolis wouldn’t be complete without a side trip to St. Paul, Minneapolis’ neighboring twin city and Minnesota’s capital. The area’s best assortment of Italian cheese is found at downtown’s Cossetta, a three-story Italian food emporium complete with a grocery store, bakery, cafeteria, pastry shop and full-service restaurant. W.A. Frost and Co., a fine dining restaurant in the historic Cathedral Hill neighborhood, has an excellent cheese program highlighting local selections. The tasting menu is a worthy splurge and includes a cheese course served with house-made accoutrements. Stock up on cheese and gourmet groceries at the St. Paul Cheese Shop — the pocket-size sister shop of France 44 — or peruse the local and organic selections at the Mississippi Market Natural Foods Co-op.
The fertile farmlands of southern Minnesota are home to some of the state’s best cheesemakers, with award-winning offerings available from cheesemongers nationwide.
Shepherd’s Way Farms is a farmstead cheesemaker in Nerstrand, a small town about an hour south of Minneapolis. Jodi Ohlsen Read makes the small-batch cheeses by hand, while husband Steven Read tends to the flock of dairy ewes. Cheeses range from the mild Shepherd’s Hope to the full-bodied Big Woods Blue.
Alemar Cheese Co. is based in Mankato, about an hour and half southwest of Minneapolis, and produces French-inspired soft-ripened and fresh cheeses. Bent River, Alemar’s flagship product, is a Camembert-style cow’s milk cheese. Other offerings include Good Thunder, a washed-rind cheese inspired by Reblochon and washed with ale sourced from Minneapolis’ beloved Surly Brewing Co., and Blue Earth, a buttery Brie.
Located an hour south of Minneapolis, the Caves of Faribault’s claim to fame is that its sandstone caves, originally carved to store beer, produced America’s first cave-aged Blue cheese in the 1930s. Today, cheeses are still cave-aged and made by hand from raw cow’s milk. The flagship Amablu Blue cheese is aged for 75 days with a pleasantly tangy result, while the more complex St. Pete’s Select will delight Blue cheese aficionados.