If you've been reading Wine Spectator for the past few decades, you know we're living in a golden age for wine, in terms of quality, diversity and availability. Around these parts, that’s kind of overshadowed the fact that we're also living in a golden age for cheese.
And it's not just among the cream of the crop, where American artisans are competing with and sometimes surpassing the Old World's standard-bearers. More of those fine cheeses, both domestic and imported, are more broadly available to U.S. consumers than ever before.
It's also a golden age for grocery store cheese. (Just check out my colleague Dave Gibbons' new profile of supermarket star Fromager d'Affinois if you need proof.)
Earlier this year, the United States Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wis., handed out its first medals since 2019 (the 2021 competition was canceled due to COVID). Overall champion honors went to an artisan gouda-style cheese named Europa from Litchfield, Conn.’s Arethusa Farm and Restaurant. But the dairy elite—names like Jasper Hill, Cowgirl, Von Trapp, Jacobs and Brichford, Doe Run and Cypress Grove—were also joined atop the podiums by cheeses from Cracker Barrel and Land O’Lakes.
That’s not to say that gold medalists Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve cheddar and BelGioioso burrata are “as good” as gold medalists Jasper Hill Harbison and Whitney, or even silver medalist Old Chatham Stockinghall. The latter group represents the past three Best of Show winners at the more prestigious American Cheese Society (ACS) competition, and they’re each stunningly complex and compelling creations that can carry a cheese course entirely on their own. But Cracker Barrel makes a better grilled cheese than any of those artisan elites.
BelGioioso’s plastic-wrapped renditions of traditional Italian cheeses aren’t the “same”—in terms of nuance and flavor complexity—as a ball of fresh mozzarella hand-pulled a few hours ago at your local specialty Italian deli. But some of BelGioioso’s packaging does feature a breathable film that allows beneficial bacteria to survive, keeping the cheese tasting fresher and more flavorful than in the past. Even Big Cheese is serious about cheese now.
In fact, there are plenty of gourmands who’ll argue that processed American cheese and mozzarella are preferable for cheeseburgers and pizza, respectively, due to their engineered meltability.
Some of these categories, of course, have always been dominated by the supermarket set and, to my knowledge, Jasper Hill isn’t yet moving in on the Pasteurized Process Cheese Slices class (winner: Land O’Lakes yellow American).
I’ll conservatively estimate that I spend more money and attention on cheese than most—“cheese board” is a time of day in our home—and most of that attention is paid to cheeses of the $30 to $40 per pound variety. But I fell in love with cheese in the ’80s, eating slices of block cheddar on Ritz crackers with my mom and lining hoagies with white American cheese, which my dad asked the deli clerk to slice extra thin. “We didn’t have any Jasper Hills in my day!” I’ve been known to shout at passing clouds before treating myself to a bowl of potato chips topped with a few of those extra-thin deli slices.
But the supermarket cheeses of yesteryear have grown up too. Those dairy aisle plastic-wrapped blocks from Cabot, Tillamook, Sartori and others are … good! The ubiquitous Président double-cream won its gold medal in the brie/camembert category over Sweet Grass, Doe Run and two entries from … yep, Jasper Hill. Président also took third in the same category at the 2022 ACS competition, where BelGioioso’s burrata was named best in its class as well.
Nowadays my evening cheese hour usually starts with flatbread crackers and one of my favorite nutty alpine-style cheeses like Challerhocker, Scharfe Maxx or Alpha Tolman. But this week I picked up a block of sharp and creamy Cracker Barrel Aged Reserve and a couple sleeves of rich, flaky Original Ritz crackers, and I dare say that’s a gold medal pairing if ever there was one. It’s even better than I remembered—probably because it actually is.