The Big Cheese

Utah’s artisan cheeses garner national acclaim and grace the tables at local eateries.

By Virginia Rainey Photography by Mark Maziarz January 1, 2012 Published in the Winter/Spring 2012 issue of Park City Magazine

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Barely Buzzed cheese from Beehive, hand-rubbed with lavender and espresso

Some have apprenticed with a master in Italy; others have studied nearby at Utah State University’s Western Dairy Center. But all members of the growing cadre of local cheesemakers understand that great results depend on superb raw ingredients; time-honored, hands-on methods; and careful aging or ripening—an art unto itself, especially in Utah’s dry climate. Thanks to their talent and passion, these artisans regularly bring home prestigious national awards for their cheeses—many of which you’ll find on menus in and around Park City. Here’s a quick taste of the deliciously varied flavors of Utah’s artisan cheese.

Though the look is industrial at the production facility and tiny retail outlet in South Ogden, the approach and flavors at Beehive Cheese (beehivecheese.com) are anything but. Currently the most lauded of all Utah artisan cheese producers, Beehive was also one of the first. Since its founding in 2005, the small company—which concentrates on various cheddar styles—has created a major buzz all over the United States and points beyond. Among numerous honors, Beehive has enjoyed three first-place awards from the American Cheese Society for its Barely Buzzed (hand-rubbed with espresso and lavender) and a distinguished third place from the World Cheese Awards for the buttery, earthy Full Moon, a seasonal raw-milk offering.

Cheesemakers and brothers-in-law Tim Welsh and Pat Ford start with whole milk from Jersey cows raised 10 miles away at Wadeland Dairy, where the cows feed on lush alfalfa grown near the salty marshes of the Great Salt Lake. Welsh and Ford like to say that their cheeses “carry undertones of Utah’s unique high-desert and four-season ecosystem.” Seahive, one of their recent creations, is rubbed with wildflower honey and Redmond salt mined from the deep caves of an ancient seabed in central Utah. Each creamy bite exudes hints of lavender and a crunch of fine salt—a lovely cheese for nibbling with a glass of lush zinfandel or complex pinot noir. Other popular Beehive cheeses include Promontory, a pure Irish-style cheese that is the starting point for all of Beehive’s inspired variations. More buttery than sharp and tangy, it’s a cheese to melt on your tongue. That’s when a bit of acidity kicks in.

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Clockwise from top left: Cheese curds in the making, Pat Ford with the finished product, and Ford working the curds at Beehive Cheese.

You can find Beehive cheeses at retail locations nationwide, from the famed Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York City to Whole Foods in many major cities, including the Park City location. Although Welsh and Ford produce their cheeses by hand, the company does a high-volume business, including online sales. If you’re interested in a tour or trying your hand at cheesemaking yourself, the folks at Beehive are happy to accommodate.

They’ll have you at the first bite of cheesemaker Fernando Chavez’s cumin-flecked cheddar at Gold Creek Farms, an idyllic ranch on Bench Creek Road in Woodland. At once creamy and tangy, this cheese is a perfect example of Chavez’s ability to juggle creativity and subtlety. The cumin doesn’t hit your taste buds with a wallop; instead, it sneaks up as you’re pondering the creaminess of the cheddar. Gold Creek’s cherrywood-smoked cheddar recently won a second-place award from the American Cheese Society, as did its year-old Parmesan, the only one produced in Utah.

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Right: Fernando Chavez pulls mozzarella at Gold Creek Farms. Left: Finished cheddar at Gold Creek

A longtime professional chef, Chavez is relatively new to cheesemaking, but he’s found his passion and has been going with it for about two years now. Working in small batches, he stirs warmed milk with the cheesemaker’s signature “harp” and listens to opera as he circles the vat again and again, relishing the whole process. Chavez is lucky enough to ply his trade with rich milk from the farm’s furry-eared Brown Swiss cows, which sometimes feed on stillage from Park City’s High West Distillery—a protein-, fat-, and fiber-rich mixture of grain and water left from the whiskey-making process. “The cows stand up and do a little happy dance when they see the High West delivery truck,” winks Chavez.

In addition to a roster that already includes cheddars, Parmesan, feta, and mozzarella, Chavez has all kinds of “experiments” aging in several coolers, each stacked high with potential: look for his dried cherry and sage cheddar this holiday season. Gold Creek Farms cheeses are available at the Market in Park City, numerous restaurants around town, and online.

You can’t miss the big red barn on River Road in Midway. Home to Heber Valley Artisan Cheese (hebervalleycheese.com) and its herd of Holstein-Friesian cows, this is Utah’s newest cheesemaking venue—or at least the business is new. The actual farm has been in cheesemaker Grant Kohler’s family since the late 1800s, when Swiss immigrants first settled in the valley. In 1929, the family started a dairy farm that has supported four generations. In April 2011, Kohler, his wife Caralee, and son Russel launched an ambitious creamery operation and retail outlet right on the farm, just a stone’s throw from where the cows graze on artesian well–watered fields. In addition to a prolific number of cheeses, the Kohlers sell raw milk to an ever-appreciative customer base that has been hard-pressed to find raw milk anywhere in the region.

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Clockwise: Grant Kohler’s farm in Midway, Kohler making Heber Valley Artisan Cheese, Heber Valley’s traditional Finnish Juustoleipä

Because the creamery is so new, much of the Kohlers’ production, including raw-milk cheeses, is patiently aging in prelude to its release, so the jury is still out on the crew’s most ambitious creations. Kohler says his Cascade Raw cheddar is his favorite so far, but there are many more varieties in the works. Right now, the number one seller is a traditional Finnish cheese called Juustoleipä, otherwise known as “bread cheese,” made from curds that are drained and pressed flat, ready to be lightly toasted on both sides. Deliciously creamy and smooth under the crusty exterior, it’s an indulgent if mild little treat, easily enhanced with some of Heber Valley’s rhubarb-based jam.

Available now are some young cheddars, many of them flavored. And there are lots and lots of curds (basically, fresh cheddar solids before they are pressed and aged in random shapes) from Cajun to sun-dried tomato, a mainstay in the cold case. Their slightly rubbery texture and salty taste make for a unique treat from the cheese factory—and kids of all ages love how the curds squeak when chewed. 

On the Menu

Sample what great chefs do with Utah’s artisan cheeses.

Beehive Cheese
Park City chefs love Beehive Cheese, and since there seems to be plenty to go around, you’ll find it on several menus. At The Farm at Canyons (canyonsresort.com), Barely Buzzed arrives with grass-fed oxtail onion soup for a hearty combo with French bread. And an over-the-top mac-and-cheese pairs Beehive cheddar with local Colosimo smoked sausage. The fondue for the warm pretzel at Daly’s at the Montage Deer Valley (montagedeervalley.com) is all about Beehive, and Deer Valley Grocery~Café (deervalley.com) sells Beehive’s wares at the deli counter.

Gold Creek Farms
Newer and a little less available, Gold Creek Farms’ cheeses are nevertheless already the darling of several local menus. Prime Steak and Sushi Bar at Lespri (lespriprime.com) gives its Caesar salad a local spin with Fernando Chavez’s limited-production Parmesan Romano. Lespri’s luscious mac-and-cheese is full of the rich cheddar, and as the season goes on, look for more Gold Creek, whether on a pizza or a prime rib slider. At High West Distillery (highwest.com), the two-year-old cherrywood-smoked cheddar stars on a cheese plate with an exquisite “drunken fruit leather”—a mosaic of dried apricots, figs, dates, pears, and cherries macerated in Silver Rye whiskey and studded with pistachios; after baking, the leather is sliced paper-thin. Apex at Montage (montagedeervalley.com) melts Gold Creek’s cheddar on its Prime Burger and uses the fresh mozzarella on all of its brick-oven pizzas.

Heber Valley Artisan Cheese
Chefs are just discovering this newcomer. At the Blue Boar Inn (theblueboarinn.com), just down the road from the creamery, look for Cajun, jalapeño, and green chile curds in the bar and the Snake Creek cheddar in the mac-and-cheese. Heber Valley’s fresh mozzarella stars in a roasted tomato tart with wild arugula, fresh ricotta, and fennel seeds.

Virginia Rainey is a Salt Lake City–based food and travel writer who loves to profile artisan foods and the people who produce them. She has written for a variety of national publications, including Sunset, Delta Sky, and Executive Traveler, and is the co-author of California the Beautiful Cookbook.

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