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A Visit With the Big Cheese at Vermont's Jasper Hill Cellars

Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro, Vermont is making some of the finest cheese available, and they produce a number of truly unique and delicious cheeses sold at many of our stores, including Harbison, Bayley Hazen Blue, Landaff and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar.

I spent an afternoon at the Jasper Hill creamery in upstate Vermont with Mateo Kehler, one of its two co-founding brothers, to learn what it is that makes their cheese so special. “To do meaningful work in the place I love – it makes it easy to get up in the morning,” Meteo explained.

He and his brother, Andy, bought Jasper Hill farms in 1998 – previously the farm had been abandoned for 30 years.

To learn the trade, Mateo worked with farmstead cheese makers in the USA, England, France and Spain, and he took the techniques and recipes he learned back to Jasper Hill.

While the brothers were milking their own Ayershire cows to make cheese for Jasper Hill, they realized they might be able to help local farmers do the same thing.

Vermont has seen a drastic reduction in viable dairy farms in past years — the price farmers get for their milk barely pays overhead and production costs. The Kehlers saw that they could create a network of dairy farmers and cheese makers in their small Vermont community, which would renew industry and create jobs for the region.

So, in 2008 they opened the Cellars at Jasper Hill where they age, market and ship cheeses made by local farmers along with their Jasper Hill cheeses. It’s a great way to add value to local milk. Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, an English-style cheddar that’s available nationwide, is made by Cabot and aged at Jasper Hill.

The cheddar is rich and deeply flavored – benefitting from many months of ripening in the Cave. The “Cabot Cave,” one of five cellars at the farm, is stacked endlessly high with rounds of the clothbound cheddar.

This partnership with Cabot means steady business for the Cellars and acts as an anchor project. By aging the Cabot Clothbound at Jasper Hill, Cabot ends up with a distinctive, artisanal cheese served by the likes of Thomas Keller at The French Laundry.

We toured the other four caves, 35% full at this point, and saw an array of cheeses at varying stages of ripeness.

The thing I find compelling about Jasper Hill is that they are constantly looking for ways to work within their environment to create and improve a symbiotic business model.

Recently, Rachel Dutton, a Harvard microbiologist, visited the cellars to explore microbial communities in the Jasper Hill Caves. Artisanal cheese only begins with milk, lending most of its character to the microbial species that use the cheese like a blank canvas.

Dutton is helping to determine which bacteria are specific to Jasper Hill, creating a “fingerprint” that will help them understand and fully utilize the “terroir” in their caves.

Each batch of cheese has a chart attached, graphing a PH reference curve and compositional targets – almost like the DNA of the cheese. The Kehler brothers are working with an astrophysicist to build an application to create and understand these charts more easily.

You may not find these technologically advanced and calculated methods being used in the centuries old caves abroad, but unlike French affineurs, says Kehler, “We just don’t have 500 years to figure this out.”

The innovation at Jasper Hill doesn’t end with cheese. They’re working on a “Green Machine” project, which will use production waste to fuel their operation. Manure from their cows will be screw pressed and used for compost, as well as methane to heat a greenhouse on the property, and to heat hot water for the building — creating an estimated savings of over $30,000.

The greenhouse is expected to play a part in a wellness program for employees, which might include a CSA and a yoga studio to stretch out tired backs and arms from lots of heavy lifting and turning. Even the leftover whey from the cheese gets fed to pigs on the farm; once a year, every Jasper Hill employee who wants a pig receives one butchered any way they want.

As we talk about the future of Jasper Hill, Mateo says, “That’s the exciting part…the really exciting stuff is dreaming about what’s next.”

Have you tried cheese from Jasper Hill or a cheese like Cabot Clothbound Cheddar that is aged in the Cellars? We’d love to hear what you think.