Cheddar is in. Cheddar is hip. American cheddar cheeses have been winning awards lately - within the past year Cabot Creamery's Clothbound Cheddar won Best in Show at the American Cheese Society Competition in 2006, and a few weeks ago California's Fiscalini Bandaged Wrapped Cheddar became the first non-English Cheddar to win Best Extra Mature Traditional Cheddar in the World at the World Cheese Awards in London. So with this momentum I've wondered why Northwest cheesemakers haven't really jumped on the craft cheddar bandwagon. The answers are complex and unique to each cheesemaker, but one big reason is storage. If you are going to make a good aged cheddar you've got to have a place to put it for a year or two while it ages. Have you been watching the aging Westcombe Cheddar on Cheddarvision? That's the kind of thing I'm talking about. You've got to have a space - and not just a space but a suitable space, temperature and humidity controlled, and big enough to hold enough cheese to meet demand. The utopia of such storage facilities is being built at Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont...a multi-million dollar facility that will eventually house up to 1.5 million pounds of ripening cheese. But the upshot is, even a small aging room with all of the bells and whistles is out of reach for many artisan cheesemakers. So to answer my own question, that's one reason why you don't see a lot of artisan domestic aged cheddar out there.
What I'm leading up to here is that I'm excited about the recently released Beecher's Flagship Reserve made by Beecher's Handmade Cheese in Seattle. You may have had Beecher's Flagship already - it's widely available all around the Northwest - but the aged Reserve version is really worth paying attention to. Flagship is made with 50% Holstein and 50% Jersey milk, and Beecher's adds a combination of swiss and cheddar cultures to create a flavor profile that's got the acidity and bite of a cheddar but also the creamy nuttiness of Swiss Emmenthaler. To make the Reserve, Beecher's wraps Flagship wheels in cheesecloth (a traditional method of aging cheddar - the cloth protects the rind from drying) and then ages them for up to 18 months. Initially, the Reserve gives you a lemony-citrusy tang and that characteristic creamy texture, along with the firm bite of an occasional calcium crystal that you typically find in aged cheeses. The taste mellows in your mouth into a slightly sweet nutty frutiness reminiscent of a good Parmigiano Reggiano. This cheese is really, really good, and is one of my new favorite regional cheeses!
Right now, the only place you can buy Beecher's Flagship Reserve is at Beecher's in Seattle's Pike Place Market, but contact them for more information on availability.