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Cheddar Culture: The Science & Tradition Of Vermont Cheese

Things as seemingly indirect as the water and soil of the grass eaten by cows in a specific region influence the flavor of cheese. In Vermont, that means a "sharp, bitey and bitter" cheddar, according to international cheesemonger and author Gordon Edgar.

Vermonters are proud of many things: maple syrup, skiing, a presidential candidate and, of course, cheddar cheese.        

Vermont Edition spoke to Gordon Edgar, international cheesemonger and author of Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America's Most Iconic Cheese, about the role Vermont plays in the cheddar cheese industry.

On Vermont cheddar's distinct flavor

Edgar claims that Vermont cheddar's flavor is notably different from that of other cheddars. It's more "sharp, bitey and bitter," boasting stronger sulfur tones than one would taste in cheddar from other regions. He notes that these are actual flavor profiles used to qualify cheeses, not personal judgments.

"A lot of people coming into our [San Francisco] store, you can tell if they're from the northeast, or Vermont specifically, because they come in and say, 'Don't you have any real cheddar?'" says Edgar. "That's the first question. They're kind of angry because they can't get that flavor everywhere."

Regional differences in the flavor of milk and the flavor of cheese are to blame. Things as seemingly indirect as the minerals in the water and soil that sustain the grass eaten by cows in a specific region influence the flavor of cheese.

On the science of cheesemaking

Because of these nuances in flavor, people often prefer consuming cheddar with the particular regional flavors they grew up eating.

"Back in the olden days, all cheese was raw milk cheese. You'd really taste the regional differences because there wasn't the pasteurization process that would kill bacteria," says Edgar. "You were always, for good or for bad, tasting in the cheese whatever you would find in the soil of the area."

The first factory cheddar was made in 1851, indicating a shift from the farm to more mechanized production. Over the next 20 to 30 years, cheddar became an industrialized cheese.

"Vermont cheesemaking predates the factory era of American cheese," says Edgar.

"Vermont cheesemaking predates the factory era of American cheese." - author and international cheesemonger Gordon Edgar

Today, cheesemakers can purchase cultures specific to a region in order to fine-tune their cheese's flavor. 

"There's a real trend in cheddars to go for a sweet, crystalline cheddar," says Edgar. "It's almost like cheese candy. Not that sweet, obviously, but Americans like sweet."

Cheesemakers looking to create these sweeter cheddars have the option to buy engineered cultures, and to dip their toes into the more "experimental" cheesemaking that is popular in places like San Francisco, where there is no distinct flavor tradition.

On dyed cheese and Vermont's 'rivalry' with Wisconsin

Color tops the list of differences between Vermont cheddar and Wisconsin cheddar. Dairy farms outside of New England utilize dyes like annatto to give their cheese a uniform orange coloration that helps mask seasonal differences in the milk.

"The history of annatto, some put it strongly, is like the history of fraud," says Edgar. "If you want to put it not so strongly, it's the obvious conclusion to trying to standardize cheese."

Beyond the color, Edgar says the flavors of the cheddars also differ between the two hubs for cheddar production.

"The history of [the dye] annatto, some put it strongly, is like the history of fraud. If you want to put it not so strongly, it's the obvious conclusion to trying to standardize cheese."

"Wisconsin cheddars are not as challenging as Vermont cheddars, in general," says Edgar. "But I think there are some great cheeses there. Not gonna lie."

Lighthearted competition aside, both Wisconsin and Vermont share a unique penchant for defining their culture by the cheese they produce.

"I think that, when you go to Wisconsin, the cheese pride is everywhere," says Edgar. "Vermont handles it a bit differently — Vermont is proud of its cheese making, but it's not quite as showy as Wisconsin is. You can't buy cheese heads in the airport as easily."

Why cheddar?

"We're clearly in the middle of this American cheese renaissance," says Edgar. "We're in this moment where there is more good cheese being made in the United States than there ever has been, in terms of different styles and original cheeses."

After raising the question of why America needed this renaissance, Edgar found the answer in cheddar.

"The way that cheddar became industrialized, it changed cheese from a farm product to a factory product," says Edgar. "And the way that that industrialization [occurred] really mirrors the American food system and how that has changed."

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Erin was an assistant producer for Vermont Edition.
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