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The Romance & Realities of Small-Scale Artisan Cheesemaking in the U.S.

Behind the Rind

When you hear about artisanal cheesemakers in the United States, it’s easy to picture rolling meadows, happy cows, hands lovingly stirring a batch of curds. And that certainly captures a part of their work. But being a small American cheesemaker encompasses so much more than the idyll of our imagination. From the unique challenges of running a small business to the unparalleled quality and innovation, we’re learning about all that goes into the one-of-a-kind small-batch cheeses that make us excited about the future of American cheesemaking.

For most of the 20th century, American cheesemaking was synonymous with mass-produced, commodity products. A revival of artisan cheesemaking in the 1970s and 80s saw producers (largely women) working to reintroduce traditional, small-scale, hand-made cheeses. But what are the realities of this industry several decades in? To find out, we spoke with Perrystead Dairy (Philadelphia), Sequatchie Cove Creamery (Tennessee), the Farm at Doe Run (Pennsylvania), and Blakesville Creamery (Wisconsin), whose work is defining small-batch American cheesemaking in the 21st century. 


The Challenges

“Artisan cheesemaking is often seen as a romantic and sensual art form, and while that’s true, many underestimate the extensive sensory skills, scientific knowledge, and constant vigilant care it requires—especially under stringent regulatory constraints,” explained Yoav Perry, founder of Perrystead Dairy. Randall Tomlinson, director of operations of Sequatchie Cove, agreed: “It’s very un-sexy. ... Making cheese can feel like being a janitor in a laboratory: cleaning 85% of the time, very little time for sitting around and snacking on cheese.” 


Many who we spoke with noted the high costs of cheesemaking—from equipment to animal feed to packaging to timerelative to their output. Not to mention the difficulty of working with a temperamental, perishable product where not every batch can be sold. Olivia Haver of the Farm at Doe Run, a farmstead operation with goats, sheep, and cows, notes that these challenges are not dissimilar to those faced in larger-scale artisan cheesemaking: “Artisan cheesemakers seem to face similar obstacles no matter the scale. You learn to work with seasonal changes in your milk and facility.” 

Image Source: Sequatchie Cove Creamery
Image Source: Sequatchie Cove Creamery
Image Source: Sequatchie Cove Creamery
Image Source: Sequatchie Cove Creamery

“Artisan cheesemaking is often seen as a romantic and sensual art form, and while that’s true, many underestimate the extensive sensory skills, scientific knowledge, and constant vigilant care it requires.”

In addition to high costs, artisanal cheesemakers are also in competition with larger producers. “Our main competition automates a lot of their processes, where almost everything we do is handmade,” explained Veronica Pedraza of Blakesville Creamery. This hands-on process and dedication to quality translates to a more expensive product—and it’s not always apparent to customers why they’re paying a higher price for these cheeses. 


Some of the roadblocks these cheesemakers face are unique to their location. At Perrystead, for example, Perry noted the difficulty of balancing growing demand with the limited space at his urban creamery where he ages multiple cheese styles in one aging environment. In rural Tennessee, Sequatchie Cove struggles with sourcing milk and the limited housing stock in the area. “It’s hard to build a workforce when people can’t afford to move nearby,” Tomlinson shared.

The Opportunities

If you’ve ever tasted Perrystead’s Intergalatic, Sequatchie Cove’s Shakerag Blue, Doe Run’s Seven Sisters, or Blakesville’s Shabby Shoe, you know one of the benefits of keeping things small. There’s a quality you can taste. The dedication to being hands-on at every stage of cheesemaking results in exceptional products. “Being small allows us to spend extra time with each batch,” Haver explained.


The tenets that guide the work of these cheesemakers aren’t new. “Cheese has always been a product of locale, place in history, and human circumstances, so this rather novel model [in the U.S.] actually epitomizes the very tradition of cheesemaking,” Perry said. In Europe, there are centuries of cheesemaking tradition influenced by the landscape and seasons. Much of this has been codified in the protected designation of origin (PDO) system: traditional cheeses must be made in a certain region in a specific way. It creates terroir: a taste of place. American cheesemaking is a more recent phenomenon, not bound by ancient traditions or PDO regulations. Terroir isn’t a given. But small U.S. cheesemakers have a unique opportunity to focus on terroir. 

Image Source: Blakesville Creamery
Image Source: Blakesville Creamery

“It's more about us wanting to do something in a way that recognizes the human experience.”

Blakesville and Doe Run operate their own farms, maintaining control over the quality of the milk and infusing their cheeses with that taste of place. “The combination of our exact fauna, climate, herd, facility, and people who produce the cheese cannot be replicated. Every small detail culminates into what makes our cheese the taste of Doe Run,” Haver told us. While not farmstead operations, Sequatchie Cove and Perrystead get their milk from small local farms where they maintain close personal relationships with the farmers. 


The dedication to being hands-on throughout the cheesemaking process—and the benefit that brings to the final productinvolves a rejection of automation that could ease some of the burdens of this work. Pedraza acknowledged that automation could reduce Blakesville’s labor needs, but, she continued, “It's more about us wanting to do something in a way that recognizes the human experience.” 


One of the most exciting opportunities in this industry is where it veers away from replicating the traditions of Europe. The lack of centuries of cheesemaking tradition in this country, and the resulting lack of expectations and PDO guidelines, encourages joyful (and delicious) innovation. “With artisan cheese still being so young in the U.S., we have so much room for more original styles and experimentation,” Haver explained. Many of these makers aren’t trying to create an American Gruyère or an American Gorgonzola. They’re creating something entirely new. That innovation is built into the ethos of Perrystead Dairy, which is dedicated to creating American originals. “Being uniquely American, we aim to celebrate the diversity and innovation of America through a playful mixology of time-honored techniques that typically aren't found together,” Perry told us.   


Despite the high costs and intense labor involved, small cheesemakers across the country continue to do this work because of the customers who are as excited as they are about these products, as well as the processes used to make them. “Customers want the farming practices and small-scale food systems that we support,” Tomlinson explained. 

What’s Next for Artisan Cheesemaking in the United States?

Makers in the artisan cheese industry rely on each other through the hardships and joys, and that camaraderie is here to stay. “The culture of artisan cheese as an industry in the U.S. is very collaborative and mutually supportive, which is something we love being a part of,” said Padgett Arnold, co-owner of Sequatchie Cove. 


But there are challenges in opening the door to the next generation of cheesemakers. Haver sees the biggest opportunity in creating more high-level education for artisan cheese production: “Accessible education would make it easier for those interested in cheese to get a leg up in the industry. It would also help creameries connect with those who are passionate enough to want to be in cheese.” 

“We must develop resilient models that attract and support this new generation.”

Perry also sees the need for the industry to adapt to help new cheesemakers work through the myriad challenges. “I hope to nurture the next generation of independent cheesemakers committed to original, unapologetic cheesemaking that reflects our story, our time, and our human circumstances,” he explained. “This endeavor faces challenges from a stringent regulatory environment, tight margins, sustainability demands, and competition from subsidized overseas producers. We must develop resilient models that attract and support this new generation.” 


What can you do to support these cheesemakers and the industry today and in years to come? Continue to enjoy the incredible products they pour their heart into day after day. Shop and discover the cheeses from these makers and more below, as well as at our NYC shops and at Murray’s in Kroger (availability may vary). 

Shop Small-Batch Cheeses

Artisanal wheels and wedges from across the country.