Saturday, March 29, 2008

This Ain't Your Mama's Cheddar

When Otter Creek Organic Farm first discussed partnering with Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills to craft seasonal cheddars from the milk of their own herd, a lot of people thought they were crazy.

Why make a commodity product from raw, farmstead organic milk? Because everyone knows "Wisconsin cheddar" will never be seen as an artisan cheese, right?

Think again. Because Otter Creek has earned the awards and customer base to prove Wisconsin cheddar is no longer a commodity -- it can be an amazing artisan cheese in its own right and a force to be reckoned with.

I caught up with the company's marketer and all-around manager, Bartlett Durand, last week. He's busy writing a Value-Added Producer Grant to apply for more working capital to produce more seasonal cheddar. Usually farmers apply for these grants to market their cheese. Not Otter Creek.

"It's been an amazing year and now we have the inventory of cheeses -- raw milk, aged 10 months -- for us to really concentrate on selling," Durand told me. "When we first started this, we were told that Wisconsin Cheddar was a commodity product and wouldn't be accepted in the artisan cheese world. Boy were they wrong!"

Customers in retail shops, restaurants and specialty cheese stores are now swooning over the cheeses -- labeled as Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter Cheddar -- and demanding them. Local consumers have been snapping up the seasonal cheddars as well at the stores where Otter Creek self-distributes in Madison: Steve’s Wine, Grape & Company, Metcalfe’s Sentry at Hilldale and Willy St. Coop.

The cheeses are also featured in restaurants in Chicago and at all the Lunds & Byerly's in Minneapolis. Durand says he's had requests from Indiana, Oregon, California, Arizona, Tennessee, Hawaii and Florida for Otter Creek cheeses. The company also works with distributors in Minneapolis, New York, and the Rocky Mountains and is close to settling on a distributor in the Northwest as well.

Ironically, Otter Creek is still, however, looking for a distributor throughout Wisconsin and in the Chicago area. As usual -- we never appreciate what's in our backyard.

Initially, Durand said he was worried that the differences in taste from season to season would be too subtle. But in more than 40 demonstrations directly to consumers, he says it's been wonderful to find that consumers can easily discern the differences in the taste of Otter Creek cheddar from season to season.

"I love talking to the cheese managers at our client stores about our story so they can relate that to the customers. Our farm and commitment to the soils and quality throughout the process --from feeding the soil to caring for our herd through working with a master cheesemaker to make the raw milk cheddars -- has worked very well. We have a very strong following and the consumers respond extremely well to the authenticity of the product and story," Durand said.

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