In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places. Details are at www.maplecornermedia.com.
He’s caveman-in-chief, overseer of a dank, cool, pungent $3 million subterranean empire.
He’s also a not-so-mad scientist in charge of a remarkable experiment, not to mention probably Vermont’s most unusual workplace.
He’s Mateo Kehler, one half of the dynamic duo (along with brother Andy) who founded Jasper Hill Farms in Greensboro after a career search that meandered from beer making to tofu. They eventually looked to the dairy farms that dotted this northern landscape as a way to make a living and hew close to their roots on the 200-acre farm near where they spent summer childhood vacations.
So in 1998, the two linked their fortunes to making cheese from Ayrshire cows. In the 15 years since, they have also spent a small fortune expanding their operation and reinventing the whole cheese-making process.
It’s an odd place to carry out a bright vision, in a 30-foot-high domed concrete vault buried under as much as 12 feet of rock and dirt. But not to Mateo Kehler, who already sees a sunny future in the 22,000-square-foot cheese ripening cellars that he and his brother finished building three years ago at Jasper Hill high above Caspian Lake.
We are standing amidst towering racks of special Cabot clothbound cheddar, thousands of wheels stacked on fir planks rising to the ceiling. Their color is dusky mottled light brown, and the aroma in the vault is not cheesy but an unexpected and almost overpoweringly that of ammonia – a healthy sign, says Kehler, because ammonia is a natural byproduct of the ripening process.
How many 35-pound wheels of Cabot’s finest, racked 14-feet high for 10 to 14 months, are in the vaults? Kehler doesn’t pause to think: 5,860, he says.
It’s just one sign that Kehler is the big cheese here. Another comes when he bends down with a special coring tool that he pushes into a wheel kept for tasting. He offers a sample of the top-line cheddar – each wheel is worth around $850 or more retail – to his visitor. It is super sharp yet not bitter, crumbly but not dry, all you could expect.
Three years into their grand experiment in affinage – the French term for ripening or aging cheese – Mateo Kehler is enthusiastic about how far they’ve come and the successes the Cellars at Jasper Hill have achieved. Which he has every right to be.
Jaspar Hill’s Winnimere, a mountain cheese aged for 60 days, won Best of Show this August at the 2013 American Cheese Society competition in Madison Wis., beating 257 other companies and well over 1,000 cheeses.
Willoughby, a washed rind cheese (also the name of a Northeast Kingdom lake) made by the Kehlers took first in its class, and Harbison, a soft ripened cheese made by the Kehlers, took a third place. Two cheeses aged at the cellar also took awards: Cabot’s clothbound cheddar won first place in its class and Landaff, a farmstead cheese from Landaff, N.H., won a second. It was a stunning haul.
“They did not see us coming,” says Mateo with a smile.
While the prizes are a validation of the cheese cave idea and affirmation of the skills of Jasper Hill’s 35 employees, Mateo is ever mindful of how much more there is to do and learn as an affineur. In Europe, fine local and regional cheeses have been developed through the accumulated wisdom of decades, even centuries, of careful trial and error in the aging process.
“We don’t have 500 years to figure this out,” he says, explaining he’s on a 20-year timeline to decipher and understand the ripening process and make the facility pay.
It is hard to overemphasize the complexity of what happens to cheese as it ages and the importance of aging to flavor, which experts say gives cheese as much as 50 percent of its taste. It is a process fraught with risk and opportunity. On one side is the cheesemaker’s art and intuition, on the other is science, all the chemical and biological processes that come from a potent mix of molds and enzymes, yeasts, fungus and bacteria.
They all work together – or at cross purposes.
It’s very much a mystery, says Mateo. “It’s a little bit of a rabbit hole,” he says of the chemistry involved as he walks his visitor through some of the seven different “caves” in the complex, each with its own humidity and temperature controlled by a sophisticated environmental system. The concrete underground vaults are tucked into a hillside, stretching off like spokes on a wheel from the main office building and loading dock.
Access is strictly controlled, and hairnets, special shoes and clothes and antiseptic wash is required to protect the cellar microbial environment.
Besides their own six cheeses, The Cellars at Jasper Hill age the product of eight other farmstead cheesemakers, and then market and sell their cheese, transport it and collect the bills, taking advantage of economies of scale. The Cellars is 50 percent filled now, producing around 850,000 pounds a year, and that’s one place where the Kehler’s ambitious vision comes in. They are developing cheeses, like a new gruyere that Mateo says they hope to get new cheesemakers to start producing.
“A product like that could probably support four farms,” he says, while keeping the landscape open, helping struggling farmers and adding to Vermont’s robust cheese cachet.
On their end, the Kehlers are doing novel research to try to nail down the best aging practices in the cellars. “Deliciousness is a founding principle of our business,” he says. “We’re selling a little bit of joy, you know what I mean?”
They have hired a microbiologist who is sampling the cheeses to discover and detail the entire ecosystem found in the cellars and what the yeasts, bacteria and fungi do.
The Kehlers also have teamed up with Harvard University to map and delineate the microbial climate on the farm. Using thousands of samples, from the teat of the cow to the finished cheeses, “we will have basically a genetic model of our product,” Mateo says – sort of a scientific map of the components of “terroir,” the taste that emerges in the farm’s products. The cellars and the level of scientific exploration into the process occurring there is unique, he says. “There isn’t even anything like this in Europe,” says Mateo.
Talking with Kehler, a trim and animated person with bushy eyebrows and a square face, it’s clear his mind is as sharp as the finest cheddar. His brother Andy is the finance and numbers guy and runs the farm, but Mateo wields myriad numbers as well, all of them as important as any bottom line. Cave temperatures (48-56 degrees). Humidity (91-98 percent). Length of storage. Moisture content. Number of rind washings, number of cheeses in each cellar, not to mention some other stunning numbers, such as yards of concrete it took to build the caves (330,000).
But it is clear that science aside, he has utmost respect and wonder at art involved in turning mere milk curds into award-winning flavors.
“I think it’s mostly intuition,” he offers, going off on a riff about the mystery of cheesemaking and his belief that “cheese actually speaks to you,” if you learn how to listen.