These days, American cheese means a lot more than a shrink-wrapped, pale yellow processed cheese product. It's even more than Vermont cheddar.
Artisan cheesemakers across the country are producing more cheeses than ever, from creamy chevre, a goat's milk cheese, to nutty asiago, a hard cheese that originated in Italy.
About 350 producers are turning out artisan, or handmade, cheeses in the U.S. That's more than double the number of artisan cheese producers that existed in 2000, according to the "Atlas of American Artisan Cheese" (Chelsea Green Publishing Company, $35).
In Georgia, the number of artisanal cheesemakers recently doubled, too - from one to two. Since 2000, Sweet Grass Dairy in Thomasville has drawn raves for its handmade specialty cheeses, and now Flat Creek Lodge in Swainsboro is the second licensed artisanal cheese producer in the state.
The south Georgia hunting and fishing resort and spa recently opened a dairy, and rolled out its line of four cheeses - havarti, gouda, edam and colby - in June. Flat Creek serves the cheeses in its lodge dining room, and plans to eventually sell the cheeses in local stores and serve it in restaurants.
The business model is similar to that of the acclaimed Sweet Grass Dairy, which has become famous in the cheese world for its offerings, from the best-selling Green Hill cheese, a semi-ripened, double-cream cow's milk cheese similar to brie, to the Georgia Pecan Chevre, a goat's milk cheese with a Georgia pecan crust.
"It's totally different, we're the only one who makes it," said Sweet Grass spokeswoman Karen Harper.
In Gwinnett, Sweet Grass cheeses can be found at Whole Foods market in Duluth.
"Atlas of American Artisan Cheese" author Jeff Roberts points to Sweet Grass' Myrtlewood cheese, an aged raw cow's milk cheese rubbed with ground wax myrtle leaves, as an example of what separates artisanal offerings from supermarket Swiss.
"Sweet Grass is an example of very innovative cheesemakers. They have a real sense of style, and I like what they do in terms of making their cheese distinctive," Roberts said. "They used the wax myrtle as a way to get this cheese to ripen. That's really unique, it's really exciting."
Wax myrtle trees aren't found in the Northeast, so the cheese's flavor is very distinctive to Georgia, he said. Just as wine aficionados understand that a wine's taste depends on where the grapes were grown, cheese lovers are coming to realize different varieties have different tastes depending on where the cows or goats that produced them live.
"We're finally realizing food doesn't always have to taste the same. Places like McDonald's and Wendy's and Burger King, they want to give you the same food experience whether you're in Vermont or Georgia," Roberts said. "But when I go to Georgia, I want to eat what you guys eat down there, not what I could be eating in Vermont."
From the ground up
The folks at Flat Creek Lodge have been working closely with the Georgia Department of Agriculture for about two years to get their dairy up and running. Owners Steve and Caroline Harless have family ties to the dairy business and a long dedication to serving food that is grown in their own backyard. The new line of cheeses will complement the lodge's menu of quail, wild boar, deer, fish, vegetables and berries, all of which have been raised on the lodge's 2,000-acre property.
The plan is for Flat Creek Lodge cheeses to be available in metro Atlanta retail stores by the fall, said Rip Williams, the lodge's cheesemonger. For now, the cheeses are available for sale at the lodge, on the Flat Creek Web site or over the phone.
Making cheese by hand isn't easy, Williams said. First, the cows or goats have to be milked. From there, it takes about one whole day to make cheese, and up to six months for the cheeses to ripen.
The lodge makes its cheese from Jersey cow's milk, which has a very high butter fat content. The cows are grass-fed and able to roam free through the lodge's pastures, Williams said.
"That's why we get a really creamy cheese that's not like cheddar you might buy in a grocery store," said Caroline Harless, owner of Flat Creek Lodge. "It's a little bit denser and really creamy. It's a pretty color, too, and we add no additives."
And that's just what separates most artisanal cheeses from their industrial counterparts, Roberts said.
"In my opinion, it tastes a heck of a lot better," Roberts said. "It's better for you. Artisan cheeses are not manipulated, they're not processed. If you look at a label, there are no stabilizers, emulsifiers or preservatives."
SideBar: Grilled cheese sandwich with jack and smoked gouda
8 slices raisin bread
1⁄2 cup (4 ounces) butter, softened
1⁄4 cup honey mustard
8 bread-sized slices Jack cheese, such as Wisconsin Jack
8 slices applewood-smoked bacon, fried crisp
1 large Granny Smith apple, cored and cut into 24 slices
4 bread-sized slices smoked gouda cheese, such as Wisconsin Smoked Gouda
Spread each slice of bread on one side with soft butter. Turn over and generously spread with 1 tablespoon honey mustard. Place a slice of Jack cheese on each bread slice, mustard side up. Top half the slices with 2 slices bacon. Shingle 6 apple slices over the bacon. Top the remaining four slices of bread with a slice of smoked gouda.
Assemble the sandwiches, pressing together and leaving buttered side of bread exposed. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed saute pan or skillet over medium heat. Grill the sandwiches in batches, cooking until golden brown on one side, then flipping sandwich over and browning. Repeat the process with all sandwiches. Place on serving plates. Cut sandwiches in half or quarters on a bias. Serve immediately.
Source: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board