It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Uplands Cheese Co., so we were beyond thrilled to see it was on the agenda for our Wisconsin Cheese Tour. The fact that our visit was timed to coincide with this year’s release of Uplands’ Rush Creek Reserve only heightened the anticipation. But let me back up a step.
For 10 years, Uplands’ dedication to making the best cheese from the highest quality milk meant they made cheese only in the summer months, when their cows were grazing on fresh grasses. And what a cheese — Pleasant Ridge Reserve is the only three-time Best in Show winner at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition, the most decorated cheese in America. This Gruyere-style raw milk cheese reflects the complex flavors derived from wild grasses and from the mixed breeds of cows selected by Uplands to achieve the ideal blend of characteristics. The cows are rotated around the farm’s 300 acres, moving as much as every hour to maintain the grass for optimal flavor in the cows’ milk. The flavors in the milk can fluctuate day to day depending on which pasture they’ve grazed on, requiring careful testing and adjusting to ensure a consistent flavor when Pleasant Ridge ripens after 4 to 6 months in the caves (or 12-18 months for the Extra-Aged). On days the milk isn’t up to par — or when the grass dries out, if there is a particularly hot stretch as occurred this past July — the milk is sold to other cheesemakers.
After Andy Hatch assumed cheesemaking operations at Uplands in 2008, they began to think of ways they might be able to use their cows’ rich fall milk, after the first frost when the cows switch from grass to hay and before their lactation cycle naturally winds down near the end of the year. This milk is not ideal for hard cheese, so they looked once more to the Alps for inspiration and found it in Vacherin Mont d’Or, a spruce-bound, young, gooey, washed-rind cheese whose import to the US is forbidden due to our 60-day raw milk aging rule. Hatch went to Lake Geneva, on the French-Swiss border, to learn how to make this cheese — then came back to Wisconsin and reverse-engineered the formula to create a cheese that could successfully age 60 days without falling apart.
“Pleasant Ridge is made in the pastures, Rush Creek is made in the cave.” — Cheesemaker Andy Hatch
Remember how elusive Rush Creek was last winter? (Thanks in part to its write-up in the New York Times.) These white tubs were the entire production capacity in the cheese’s first year. Moreover, they made 4,000 wheels last year and threw away 1,000 that weren’t up to their exacting standards. (“The pigs got a lot of cheese last year,” Hatch noted.)
This year, a custom-made stainless steel vat has been deployed, but each batch is still stirred by hand for an hour, before being hand-ladled into plastic molds, drained, wrapped, brined, and placed in the caves to ripen. While the cows’ milk is less complexly-flavored once the cows feed on hay, Rush Creek picks up flavors from the yeasts thriving in their aging caves, the spruce bark wrapping, and a salt-water brine in which it is dunked. The bark lends a woodsy, resinous flavor to the unctuous paste, but the taste is milder than you might expect.
Explaining the care and attention that Rush Creek requires, new-father Hatch remarked, “It’s like having a child and you’re staring at it all the time.” We couldn’t help but stare either. Once ushered into the inner chamber where a first-of-the-season wheel waited, lid removed, to be tasted, the cameras went wild with a frenzy that can only compare to the paparazzi catching a glimpse of Suri Cruise or the latest celeb baby. Yes, Rush Creek Reserve is our Suri, and we’re not ashamed to call ourselves groupies.
The first batch was made at the end of August and shipped out to select retailers at the beginning of November. It will be available, in extremely limited quantities, until mid-February. Contact your cheesemonger today to get on the waiting list.
Disclosure: The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board paid for our travel and expenses during the cheese tour. We would (and have) say nice things about Uplands Cheese Co. anyway, and as always, all opinions, words, and commentary are our own.