In March, we visited with Greg Hageman of Alemar Cheese of Mankato, Minnesota. Alemar has been a supplier to People’s Food Co-op for six years now. Greg is head cheesemaker and partner with Keith Adams.
Greg is from south Minneapolis, having returned to Minnesota after a stint in California working as a chef. After twelve years in the kitchen, he was looking for something new and closer to his family in Minnesota. He’s excited about the possibilities of cheese. “It’s where beer brewing was ten years ago—there are opportunities to do something different.”
Alemar made national headlines a few years ago when their Camembert-style cheese, “Bent River,” won an American Cheese Society competition, placing third for that style.
It starts with the milk
According to Mark Johnson, food scientist at UW–Madison, there are several variables that a cheesemaker can adjust in crafting a cheese. Among them are aging, starter culture, additional cultures added to the cheese, and wash treatment, but perhaps the most important variable when someone sets out to make cheese is the quality of the milk. When Keith Adams started his business, he went to the best local, organic dairy farm he could find in his region and was fortunate to strike a deal with Cedar Summit Dairy of New Prague. Cedar Summit supplied organic milk from pasture-grazed cows.
“Making cheese is all about starting with the best milk that you can,” Greg says. “You’re showcasing what the farmer’s doing. Start with good milk and you end up with good cheese.” Alemar’s first cheeses were made with milk from Cedar Summit, but that dairy shut down in 2015 when power lines were routed through the farmland. The farmers, getting on in age, decided not to relocate the operation. Fortunately, Alemar was able to locate another local family farm producing organic milk from pasture-grazed animals. The current dairy’s herd is 100 to 150 head.
Having a single milk source allows Greg to adjust his process as he makes the cheese. Large farms, batching all their milk together, even out the variability in flavor and proteins in their product. Working with small producer, single-sourced milk, Greg sees changes in the milk over the seasons, which affect the flavor of the cheeses Alemar produces. It’s the sort of advantage that a small cheesemaker can use to create exceptional cheeses that express the quality of a local dairy—something large cheese manufacturers can’t match.
It’s all about seasonal quality. “There’s much higher fat content in winter months,” Greg explains, “but you don’t get the nuance that you have in the spring and summer when the cows are out on fresh pasture. We’ll bring the milk in and you can see it’s got a yellow color that it doesn’t have in the winter.”
|Cheesemaker Greg Hageman.|
From pasture to plate
Food critic Dara Moskowitz-Grumdahl has described Alemar’s cheese as “mushroomy and deep, but also buttercup and honeysuckle light, because it’s a pure and beautiful expression of the gorgeous pastures” of Southern Minnesota.
The arrangement with their new dairy farm is almost a partnership for Alemar. “We’re happy to pay more for all grass-fed, organic milk; the end product is substantially better,” Greg explains.
As our region’s small dairy farms go out of business one by one, the importance of their existence is underscored by craft producers such as Alemar. A recent article by Mark Kastel, of the Cornucopia Institute, notes that since the mid-1980s the number of dairy farms in Wisconsin has gone from 45,000 to the current 7,600.
Nor are the numbers encouraging for the small-scale, organic dairies that were expected to be an alternative to agribusiness’s requirement to “get big or get out.” On the basis of the most recent USDA records, the six certified organic dairies in Texas produce 1.4 times more milk than all 453 organic dairy farms in Wisconsin combined. Like the farmers of Cedar Summit, small dairies are under immense pressure as they now compete with CAFO-style organic farms that have 10,000 animals in production. What kind of “pasture” will be expressed in that milk’s cheese?
When we lose our small, family farms, we also lose the flavors of our country.
Alemar cheese is available in both PFCs.
|Assistant Cheesemaker John Polo with Greg Hageman of Alemar Cheese.|