The American Cheese Society is hosting its annual conference and Festival of Cheese (an event that's open to the public on Saturday, July 29) in Denver this week, aptly naming the entire group of events Cheese With Altitude. So what better time to talk about Colorado's own awesome cheese makers — who have plenty of altitude of their own? From creameries in Longmont to dairies in Basalt to goats frolicking in Keenesburg, these nine ventures show that the Centennial State is just as cheesy as the rest.
Since 2008, chefs and cheese lovers have gone batty over the cabra blanca and chevre coming out of this Basalt company's creamery. Made with fresh goat's milk straight from owner Wendy Mitchell's farm and dairy in Paonia, each hunk of these goat cheeses taste like the grass, hay and high-mountain flora the animals consume. Using the same milk, Avalanche also makes a delicate and approachable blue cheese and semi-soft cheddar.
Find it: Cheese + Provisions is an excellent shop to visit to get local goods, including a few options from Avalanche. Or grab a seat at the Truffle Table and get a bite of this creamery's product on a cheeseboard.
Fruition Farms Dairy and Creamery
Chef/restaurant owner Alex Seidel started this Larkspur farm in September 2010 with a herd of forty ewes and a ram. Almost seven years later, his dairy and artisan sheep’s-milk cheese experiment has proven a success. Not only can you find the three cheeses — cacio pecora, fresh ricotta and feta — in Seidel's two restaurants, Fruition and Mercantile Dining & Provisions, but in many other eateries around the metro area.
Find it: At Mercantile Dining & Provisions in Union Station, you will find all three cheeses for sale in the cheese case. Coperta in Uptown also frequently serves the cheese, especially the cacio pecora.
Haystack Mountain Cheese
This may be Colorado's most popular artisan cheese — an honor that's well deserved. After all, owner Jim Schott has been making the stuff since 1988, when he and his wife bought five goats and a six-acre farmstead in Niwot. Within a year, his handmade goat cheeses were being sold in farmers' markets and to local chefs, and by 1992 the goods had made it into the bigger markets and Schott had garnered his first award. Today the creamery also sources goat's milk from the Skyline Correctional Facility dairy in Cañon City and the cheese-making operation is headed by cheesemaker Jackie Chang. Haystack Mountain, which was named after the mountain adjacent that first tiny farm, now makes dozens of cheeses, including bloomy rind, fresh, raw-milk and washed-rind.
Find it: Honestly, of all the Colorado cheeses, Haystack Mountain is the most prevalent. You will see it at just about every shop and on most cheese boards. That said, one neat application of the creamery's product can be found at Rioja, where the goat cheese adds its creamy texture to artichoke tortelloni.
This little creamery is located in the Animas Valley in the middle of a larger ranch that produces meat, eggs, milk and other farm-fresh goods. Though it's not the main focus, the cheese coming out of this farm proves well worth talking about. For starters, it's made with milk from 100-percent grass-fed cows, which gives the cheese a fresh and clean flavor. Owners and cheese gurus Becca and Dan James only make cheese at a certain time of year, but since the cheeses get cave-aged, you can find them year-round. Options include a twelve-month-old Leyden with whole cumin seed, a Colorado blue that has a smoky mushroom essence, and the three-year-aged Belford reserve, which has a profile similar to that of Gouda.
Find it: Get the Belford at Cured in Boulder. Otherwise, Durango is the best town to find James Ranch cheeses.
Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy
Dawn Jump founded this Buena Vista dairy in 2002 as way to mesh her love of goats and cheese. She also wanted to create a sustainable food for her local community. Today those farmstead goat cheeses remain popular and showcase not only her skill at cheesemaking, but also the terroir of the area. Jump makes a handful of cheeses, including feta, a wine-soaked cheddar, and fresh Mexican-style quesos. You can even find fresh goat-cheese curds, which we haven't seen anywhere else.
Keep reading for more great Colorado cheese...
Moon Hill Dairy
The first cheese that owner John Weibel made and sold in Steamboat Springs was a fresh ricotta, which he whipped up in a mobile unit while his dairy was being constructed. Today Weibel, along with cheesemaker Laura Chisholm, creates fresh feta, a camembert-style wheel, a double-cream blue cheese with a layer of ash, and Joe, a coffee-rubbed Jack cheese. Not only does everything taste great, but Moon Hill Dairy is also practicing regenerative agriculture, meaning that Weibel is putting a lot of work into keeping the land those cows graze on healthy.
Find it: Take a chunk of cheese from this dairy to go from St. Kilian's Cheese Shop in West Highland or the Truffle Cheese Shop on East Sixth Avenue. You can also find cheeses from this dairy occasionally gracing the menu at Salt the Bistro in Boulder.
MouCo Cheese Company
Owner Birgit Halbreiter grew up in a small town in Bavaria where she trained and worked for Käserei Champignon, one of the world's largest soft-ripened-cheese companies. She met her partner, Robert Poland, after she moved to Fort Collins and worked for New Belgium Brewery, where he was the fermentation manager. The pair decided to move on from the brewery and open up their own soft-ripened-cheese company in 2001, and they have been going strong ever since. Now MouCo Cheese makes a handful of types including an orange-hued natural rind dubbed Colorouge; Ashley, a soft-ripened cheese coated with vegetable ash; and Fetish, a brine-ripened variety the company is sure you will get addicted to.
Find it: Right now, chef Paul Nagan of Range in the Renaissance Denver Downtown hotel serves an egg-white omelet with the truffle-laced MouCo Truffelo. Colterra Food & Wine in Niwot offers the Mouco ColoRouge on its cheese board. You can also seek out cheese from this small producer in specialty markets and Whole Foods grocery stores; Ashley is sold at Cured in Boulder.
Rocking W Cheese & Milk
Located on the Western Slope in Olathe, the sixth-generation, family-run Rocking W Cheese & Milk dairy and farm has been producing quality goods for 43 years. Run by Robert and Charlotte Webb, the dairy makes addictive fresh cheese curds, Asiago, baby Swiss, mild white cheddar, farmer's style and chipotle Jack, among other cheeses. All of the products are made in small batches by hand, with milk from the farm's own dairy cows.
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Find it: Right now, chef Daniel Asher at River & Woods in Boulder is working with this cheese, as well as a few other local varieties including Haystack and Fruition Farms. The chef uses quite a few Colorado cheeses at his restaurant, so don't be surprised if other purveyors pop up on the menu. The Preservery also has Rocking W on the menu; the cheddar curds help make the fingerling poutine amazing.
Ugly Goat Milk Company
Although the goat's-milk fudge from this dairy has a bit of a cult following, it's the cheese that will really hook you. Owner Mike Amen let's his kids (the four-legged kind) run wild to munch on grass, grain and whatever else might please them. The operation is run from Amen's small farm in the tiny town of Keenesburg. Each goat is milked by hand, and the creamy milk is used to make cheddar, tangy chèvre, fresh ricotta and cabra al vino, a Spanish-style cheese rested in red wine for three days.
Find it: One of the best ways to get this cheese is by buying into a goat-cheese share, which you can do by contacting the farm.