Driftless Terroir: Tasty Microbes Are Flavor Heroes of Local Cheese

By Andy Hatch

Like good soil, the concept of terroir is malleable and fertile, and it feeds all sorts of lives. Writers of this column have shown us that terroir, or the influence exerted by a particular place, extends through agriculture, art and architecture. Our dairy farm and Uplands Cheese business have a particular focus on terroir, and I’ll explain here what that means to us.

Andy Hatch

The aim of our farm is to make cheese that carries a sense of place. Besides making romantic brochure copy, this concept has practical implications for how we survive in a competitive cheese market. Small producers like us will never have a cost of production as low or a marketing budget as big as the large, automated cheese companies. Instead of making those same styles of cheese and competing on price, we have instead chosen to compete on flavor by making unique cheeses that can’t be produced by anyone else, anywhere else.

Uplands Cheese releases different batches of Pleasant Ridge Reserve at different ages depending on how the flavors develop. It is one of the United States’ most-awarded cheeses.

How do you make a cheese that can’t be produced by anyone else, anywhere else? One option is to use proprietary equipment, processes and additives to transform commodity milk into a novel cheese. This strategy often falls short because it’s hard to prevent imitators these days, and we’ve all seen small producers run aground when their niche product is copied by a large company who can scale up production at lower costs.

So instead of focusing on novel processes and additives, we focus on producing milk with unique character that can’t be replicated. Our cheesemaking processes and ingredients aim to distill that character into our cheese, not to reconfigure it into a recognizable commodity. If this still sounds like romantic brochure copy, bear with me while we look at it through a microscope.

Like making beer and wine, cheesemaking relies on microbes to ferment a perishable and relatively bland material (milk) into something stable and delicious (cheese). Which microbes we allow to be present and how we manage their behavior during the cheesemaking process will determine the cheese’s texture, flavor and aroma.

We are now starting to identify all the microbes responsible for creating specific flavors in fermented foods. It’s like spending years just reading box scores from yesterday’s games, only to now turn on the TV and actually watch the players play the game.

Andy Hatch

We use our own, unpasteurized milk, which contributes dozens of different types of microbes to the cheesemaking process, almost none of which are available for purchase as commercial cultures. Similarly, our wheels of cheese age in open-air ripening rooms, where their natural rinds host dozens of other types of microbes, yeasts and molds. This wide, diverse set of microbes — in the milk and in the ripening rooms — is our farm’s most valuable harvest. It’s the product of our unique circumstances: our climate, soil, geology, cows, pasture plants, grazing practices and so on. Some of the same microbes exist in other places, but never in the same combinations as they do here. 

Terroir expresses itself in cheese through microbes, and unpasteurized milk and natural rinds offer cheesemakers the deepest and most direct access to those expressions. This is not a secret and it is why most of the great, old-world cheeses are still produced this way. But while these traditions have produced delicious cheeses for centuries, we are just now beginning to discover exactly how this happens.

It turns out that several strains of Geotrichum Candidum unique to Uplands Cheese, pictured as a colony at macro scale, are one of the major terroir taste-of-place players of this cheese.

For many years we have sent samples of each batch of milk and cheese to microbiological labs for testing. Until recently, those tests focused only on ensuring that no dangerous bacteria were present. Now, however, next-generation sequencing, the same technology that gave us home DNA test kits and the COVID vaccines, allows these labs to quickly catalogue the entire microbial population of a milk or cheese sample.

All of a sudden, the curtain has been pulled back on fermented products like wine, cheese and kimchi. Instead of simply replicating certain production practices blindly, because those techniques have produced certain flavors in the past, we are now starting to identify all the microbes responsible for creating these specific flavors. It’s like spending years just reading box scores from yesterday’s games, only to now turn on the TV and actually watch the players play the game.

And what a surprise it was to find out who is actually playing! One of the most influential players on the rinds of our cheeses turned out to be of the genus halmonas, a microbe most associated with Antarctic ice (it likes cold, wet and salty conditions) that until recently wasn’t known to be involved in any cheeses. Another major player for us is a well-known yeast called geotrichum candidum, of which there are several strains commonly sold to cheesemakers. However, the lab found no fewer than six different strains of geotrichum on our rinds, none of which is currently sold by culture labs. The list goes on into the dozens.

It will take years for food producers to understand exactly how to harness all this new information, but initial data have confirmed what believers in terroir have known all along. Foods produced with microbe-rich raw materials have far more tools in the toolbox when it comes to creating flavors, and they have tools that the guy down the road can’t buy in a store. This is good news for small producers who need to carve out market niches with distinctive products. The road to commercial success is not getting any easier, but this new technology can help us harness the advantages of terroir-driven products.

Here in the Driftless, our topography, soils and climate give us unique terroir that has been expressed for years through cheese, cider and other products. It can also be expressed in ways we haven’t even discovered yet. Let’s keep probing and experimenting and tickling the landscape to see what it gives us.

And let’s keep supporting our small producers as they grow through the awkward years of finding the right products, investing in facilities and figuring out how best to express their terroir. Let’s celebrate the romantic and delicious side of this and also recognize the more practical benefits of terroir-driven businesses. Terroir helps us small producers compete and that success spreads. By supporting place-based foods in the Driftless, we are making long-term investments in our natural resources, in our people and in our local economy.

Together with his wife, Caitlin, and Scott and Liana Mericka, Andy Hatch owns Uplands Cheese, an award-winning cheese producer located on Pleasant Ridge, between Dodgeville and Spring Green. Learn more at uplandscheese.com.