Ten years ago, the state’s “cheeseboard” featured a delicious yet predictable selection: Swiss. Gouda. Cheddar. Today they mingle with tasty tommes; cider washed rinds and cave-aged cheeses, a host of old world varieties and a constantly evolving lineup of new and creative choices from cow, goat and sheep milk—herds and flocks raised on Ohio’s pastures. The labels announce well-earned ribbons, awards snagged in prestigious competitions and accolades from chefs and consumers, confirming tastes worth pursuing at farmers markets, in grocery stores or direct from the farm.
It’s a good start in a niche industry still finding its way, one filled with passionate and skilled producers like Farm Bureau member Jean Mackenzie of Mackenzie Creamery in Portage County. While her days are consumed with the business of producing goat cheese, her heart’s also into fine-tuning the Ohio Cheese Guild, a newly organized, centralized point for cheese makers, cheese mongers, retailers, chefs, farmers, hobbyists, dairy workers, homesteaders and anyone interested in cheese.
In 2007, Mackenzie began turning out artisan-style chevre, a classic goats’ milk cheese, from her eponymous creamery. She was the second creamery to begin this new chapter in recent Ohio cheese making history. She learned her craft under the tutelage of industry expert Neville McNaughton yet continually reached out to established cheese guilds in Oregon and California for their members’ support and guidance. As more and more local producers became licensed, Mackenzie knew it was time to encourage the same type of fellowship closer to home, one that would allow for an easy exchange of information and help with problems and ultimately work to elevate the quality of cheese and the craft of cheese making in Ohio.
In the late spring 2013, a core group of cheese makers including Ben Baldwin of Kokoborrego Cheese Company in Mount Gilead and Brian Schlatter of Canal Junction Cheese in Defiance and retailers like northeast Ohio’s Heinen’s and Columbus’ Weiland’s Market met around the table.
“The purpose was to organize our industry and ourselves,” said Mackenzie. “We wanted to share information and educate each other but to also think about how to draw in the public, creating a better informed consumer who understood tastings, evaluating and pairing cheeses.”
Still in its infancy and welcoming the growing pains that come with good ideas, the Ohio Cheese Guild’s roster is a solid 56 members, a fraction of which are actual cheese makers. There’s more representation among retailers and distributors committed to connecting consumers with quality, locally produced cheeses in their cases. “When support and encouragement for cheese makers comes from all directions, that’s a clear statement that the demand for good cheese exists,” said Mackenzie.
She notes that some producers regularly enter their products into local, regional or national competitions. “That’s very confirming,” said Mackenzie. “When they win, it tells the consumer that they can buy this cheese with confidence; it’s a great product.” Competitions generate feedback and constructive criticism from the most knowledgeable judges about cheese. “The cheese guild is an extension of that thinking,” she adds, “and the opportunity to constantly get regular advice from others in the industry will be there.”
Mackenzie envisions all of Ohio’s artisan cheese makers banding together in the Ohio Cheese Guild. “Just being able to communicate, share problems and solutions, learn together and support one another would be valuable,” she said.
There’s no swapping of recipes or divulging the trade secrets that distinguish themselves in the industry. “The goal is to produce better cheese across the board for the Ohio consumer,” said Mackenzie. “Anyone can take a gallon of milk and make cheese, but not everyone can make exceptional cheese.” That’s what the Ohio Cheese Guild strives to be all about—exceptional cheese.
Chefs Say ‘Cheese!’
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see chefs’ names among the Cheese Guild’s membership. Doug Katz of Fire Food and Drink in Shaker Heights and Ben Bebbenroth of Spice Kitchen and Bar in Cleveland’s Gordon Square District are members, and Kevin Caskey of Skillet Rustic Urban Food in Columbus’ German Village serves on its board of directors. Each is stringent about keeping the focus on local, seasonable and sustainable ingredients on their menus and in their kitchens and they believe that creating solidarity with artisan producers benefits all.
“We know these cheese makers and serve their products at our restaurants,” said Caskey. “They are flung all around Ohio and that can be isolating. The Ohio Cheese Guild connects us all and in turn we can get their product in front of our patrons—their potential customers. We rely on them for ideas on how to incorporate their cheeses into our menus.”
Marilou Suszko is a food writer from Vermilion. She is the author of Farms and Foods of Ohio: From Garden Gate to Dinner Plate and The Locavore’s Kitchen.