The Accidental Cheesemaker

Edible Culture Fall 2012 Issue

The Accidental Cheesemaker

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Becca Dilley 0

The bright lights and promises of the big city have lured many a young, starry-eyed farm kid away from the land. But for Andy Hatch, a city boy growing up in Milwaukee, the lights were a bit too bright. After studying anthropology and environmental science at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., he became engrossed with the science of agriculture, working on area farms, even writing a thesis on urban agriculture. Interestingly enough, however, cheesemaking never entered his mind.

Today, with an American Cheese Society Best of Show ribbon for Pleasant Ridge Reserve in one hand, and a New York Times article praising Rush Creek Reserve in the other, Hatch, at only age 32, is one of the most talked-about cheesemakers in America. And frankly, he’s a little embarrassed when someone points that out. Confident in his cheesemaking, yet generally soft-spoken and genuinely humble, Hatch is an accidental cheesemaker. 

Today he might be the general manager at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, but in the summer of 2004, he was working at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy on a corn breeding program, studying the effects of beneficial bacteria and biodynamic preparations on yield and protein production. He was also bored to death, young, and “itchy” to farm. So Hatch jumped at the chance to live in Norway with his boss’ recently-widowed mother-in-law to help her get the family farm in shape to sell. And what happened there changed his life.

Upon arriving, the remoteness of staying with a 70-year-old woman on a dairy goat farm with no car, no computer and no phone in the fiords of western Norway immediately cleared his mind. He spent mornings and evenings hand-milking 14 goats, never having milked an animal before.

“For the first week, the muscles in my forearms were so sore, I couldn’t grip a fork at supper,” he said.

He also learned how to make cheese. With no access to starter cultures, Hatch learned how to create his own by souring the previous day’s milk. With no modern laboratory equipment, he learned how to make cheese via sight, smell and touch. He made hard, aged goat’s milk cheeses, which were sold to tourists at the ferry landing. He stayed three months, long enough to help his boss’ mother-in-law settle affairs to sell the farm—and for the old woman to make him a pair of socks from the hair of the farm dog, a Norwegian reindeer-herding pup. He still has the socks.

From Norway, instead of heading home, Hatch went south to Europe, having caught the cheesemaking bug. He roamed for two years, making mountain cheeses in Austria, sheep cheeses in Tuscany and goat cheeses in Ireland. He stayed a season or two in each location, earning his keep during the day by making cheese and earning a few coins at night by playing mandolin and fiddle in local taverns. For two years, he couldn’t decide which path to take: musician or cheesemaker. And then came a call from home. 

“My mother called with the news that my dad was very ill, so I got on the first plane home and spent the summer with him in the hospital,” Hatch said. That fall, his parents spent time recuperating at the family cottage in Wisconsin’s Door County. Hatch followed, and there he met a Door County artist named Caitlin, who is now his wife. 

He took an agricultural short course at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, milked cows on area dairies, and apprenticed with renowned cheesemakers to earn his Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license. He accepted the cheesemaking job at Uplands in 2007, married Caitlin in 2009, and moved with her into the foursquare farmhouse on the Uplands farm last year. It’s where the Hatches plan to stay and raise a family. Their son, August, will turn one year old in October.

“Cheesemaking is the vehicle that allows me to stay on the farm,” Hatch said. It also satisfies his creative impulses, which is one of the reasons he’s spent the past two years perfecting his newest cheese, Rush Creek Reserve. Inspired by the French Vacherin Mont d’Or, the small rounds of soft cheese are bound in spruce bark, which helps the cheese keep its shape and lends it a sweet, woodsy flavor. The custard-soft paste boasts a deep but delicate richness, reminiscent of beef broth or finely cured meat.

Two years ago, in his first year of making Rush Creek, Hatch focused on getting the raw milk cheese to successfully age to 60 days (a federal requirement) without compromising the taste. After meeting that goal, he worked last year to enhance the flavor and make more cheese. This year, with new equipment—including a new cheese vat and brining tank made especially for Rush Creek— he hopefully won’t be spending every minute in the creamery, as he was prone to do when making Pleasant Ridge Reserve spring through fall, and then Rush Creek Reserve all winter.

With a little one pattering around the Uplands farmhouse, just yards away from the creamery, Hatch has good reason to balance work and family. He’s already dreaming of teaching his children to play the violin and mandolin, his second great love to cheesemaking. His current band, Point Five—a local group of musicians playing traditional, acoustic American music—plays gigs throughout the year and is booked to headline the 4th Annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival in November.

“We’ve got enough instruments in this house that the kids will be able to play whatever they want to,” Caitlin says.

“And if they’re lucky,” Andy adds, “I’ll even sing along.”

Jeanne Carpenter is a former farm girl turned cheese geek, writing and talking about cheese for a living. As the specialty cheese manager at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison, she works with Wisconsin cheesemakers to bring new products to market. Her motto is "Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese."

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