Few people think of this hot and humid part of the country as prime dairy land, but creameries throughout the South are building strong reputations and winning national awards for their premium cheeses.

The Southern states may be late to America’s artisanal-cheese party, but they’re certainly revving the engines now. New creameries from Virginia to Alabama are exploiting consumer interest in local foods and introducing Southerners to uses for artisanal cheese beyond Grandma’s grits. While many of these newbies have only enough product for farmers markets and a local retailer or two, others are primed for a bigger stage.

Building a Reputation

Pioneers like Everona Dairy in Virginia and Fromagerie Belle Chevre and Sweet Home Farms in Alabama established viable Southern creameries years ago, but few others followed. “We move at a slower pace down here,” says Dick Roe, a vice president of Atlanta Foods International, the Georgia-based distributor. “It’s the Southern style. Move too fast and you get overheated. But there’s a ton of interest now.”

New producers like Georgia’s Many Fold Farm and Tennessee’s Sequatchie Cove Creamery are winning ribbons at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition, joining more established prize winners like Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia and Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia. Finally, 30 years after the creation of the American Cheese Society, artisanal cheesemaking in the South has reached critical mass.

“We’ve more than doubled our selection of local cheese—probably tripled it,” says Peg Todloski, specialty foods merchandiser for Weaver Street Market, a three-store natural foods co-op in North Carolina. When Todloski became the cheese buyer five years ago, the store stocked fresh goat cheese from two Southern producers.

“I thought we didn’t need any more, and I was wrong,” Todloski says. “We have brought in whatever [Southern] chevres we can get our hands on, and everything sells. People want to try them all.”

Tim Gaddis, an influential cheesemonger at Star Provisions in Atlanta, says 35 to 40 percent of his selections are now from the South—a dramatic shift over the decade he has worked for the retailer. “Atlanta is in the middle of a farm-to-table movement,” Gaddis says. “Everybody is buying local produce, and now they’re asking about local cheese.” In response, he has created a separate Southern-made section in his cheese case.

Geographic Challenges and Blessings

Southern retailers and cheesemakers point to the region’s deep-rooted taste for tradition to explain why artisanal cheese has been slow to catch on there. “We’re the least trendy area of the country,” says Justin Trosclair, cheesemonger with St. James Cheese Company in New Orleans. “We’re always a little bit behind. Plus it’s just really hot down here and not the easiest place to do dairy.”

Sequatchie Cove proprietor Padgett Arnold concurs. “The heat and humidity work against us,” says Arnold, whose husband, Nathan, makes the farm’s cheese. Few dairy breeds can adapt to the climate, she explains. The Arnolds’ initial herd, purchased from Vermont, struggled with the South’s weather extremes. “We finally found success when we brought in Jerseys from Louisiana,” she says. “Those cows can handle it.”

Southern SPOTLIGHT: TEXAS Cheesemakers

These three businesses grew their personal interests in cheesemaking into premium, award-winning lines found in retail stores and foodservice establishments around the country.

Brazos Valley Cheeses. In 1999, Rebeccah Durkin taught herself to make cheese to deal with an abundance of spring milk from the Brown Swiss cows that serviced families on the agrarian community where she lived in Waco, Texas. By 2005 she and her cousin, Marc Kuehl, began Brazos Valley Cheese, selling their 36-gallon batches at the Austin Farmers Market. Today, the company has the capacity to make cheese from 2,000 gallons of milk per week. Brazos’ Eden cheese, a fig leaf–wrapped brie with a line of vegetable ash in the center, won first place at the 2011 American Cheese Society competition, and the Brazos Select (a brie coated with sorghum syrup and wrapped in mesquite wood) won second place in 2010. brazosvalleycheese.com

Lucky Layla Farms. In 2004, Todd Moore, a third-generation dairyman in Plano, Texas, began making premium dairy products with the milk from his award-winning, pasture-fed Guernsey and Jersey cows. Today, the Lucky Layla Farms brand includes handcrafted cheeses, drinkable yogurts, butter and caramel milk. The company’s Queso Fresco/Tex Mex cheese won third place for Latin American Cheese at the 2012 World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest. luckylayla.com

Mozzarella Company. This Dallas specialty cheese company was the inspiration of owner and founder Paula Lambert, who fell in love with cheesemaking during a stint in Italy after college. Lambert started her business in 1982 after returning home and realizing how much she missed the fresh, authentic mozzarella she learned to make from Mauro Brufani, who owned a cheese factory near Perugia. Today, the award-winning Mozzarella Company handcrafts 200,000 pounds of cheese a year, including fresh and aged cheeses made from both cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Many are inspired by Lambert’s travels in Italy, Mexico and Greece. She is also the author of The Cheese Lover’s Cookbook and Cheese, Glorious Cheese. mozzco.com

Goat Cheese Reigns

On the positive side, Southern cows can graze year-round, says Portia McKnight of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill Creamery. “In Vermont you may have incredible grass for two to three months,” says the farmer. “We may never get quite that quality, but we have it for eight to 12 months.”

With food-centric cities like Durham, Asheville and Raleigh, North Carolina is the epicenter of the Southern cheese revolution. “It’s an incredible opportunity for a cheesemaker,” McKnight says. “When we started, in 2000, there were only a handful of dairies in North Carolina. Now there are something like 40.”

Not surprisingly, fresh goat cheese is the entry point for many new Southern cheesemakers. Goats are hardy, relatively inexpensive and don’t require a lot of pasture. But as cheesemakers build their skills and the capital to invest in aging rooms, they are tackling bigger challenges, like washed-rind and natural-rind cheeses. Retailers cite Caromont Farm’s Esmontonian, a Virginia goat tomme aged at least four months, and Prodigal Farm’s Hunkadora, an ashed bloomy-rind goat cheese from North Carolina, as examples of Southern cheesemakers’ growing expertise.

A few intrepid souls have launched sheep dairies in the South, taking a risk on these high-maintenance, disease-prone animals. Rebecca and Ross Williams manage 200 sheep on their 4-year-old Many Fold Farm in Tennessee; their fresh rindless cheese, Brebis, took second place in its category at this year’s American Cheese Society competition. Good Shepherd Cheese is Kentucky’s first sheep dairy and makes a raw Basque-style aged wheel christened Pyrenees. In Alabama, Dayspring Dairy became that state’s first sheep creamery when it debuted a halloumi-style cheese and ricotta this summer. Even Blackberry Farm, the luxury resort
in Tennessee, has added sheep and sheep-cheese production to its
many enterprises.

Lack of Volume Often Keeps Sales Local

To date, only a handful of these Southern creameries—Meadow Creek Dairy and Sweet Grass Dairy among them—have built a following outside of the region. “The problem we have,” says Atlanta Foods’ Roe, “is that a lot of them sell at farmers markets or direct to chefs and they don’t have enough cheese to put in distribution. I talked to Sequatchie Cove for two years [before] they had enough volume to go to market.”

Kathleen Cotter, proprietor of the Bloomy Rind shop in Nashville, launched the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival in that city in 2011. “I started it because a lot of people didn’t realize how much cheese was being made in the South,” says the merchant, “and I thought we needed to come together and celebrate it.” The September gathering now draws 20 cheesemakers from six states and consumers who appreciate the chance to meet the producers.

Gaddis jokes that the growing spotlight on these up-and-coming creameries may have a downside for their Southern fans. “I’m kind of hoping that no one else finds out,” he says, “so we can have the cheese to ourselves.”

Popular Southern Cheeses

Leading Southern retailers say the following creameries and cheeses are among their favorites.

Caromont Farm (VA)

  • Esmontonian: aged goat’s milk tomme

Chapel Hill Creamery (NC)

  • Calvander: Asiago style, cow’s milk
  • Carolina Moon: Camembert style, cow’s milk

Fromagerie Belle Chevre (AL)

  • Montrachet: American Cheese Society first-place award winner, goat’s milk cheese

Goat Lady Dairy (NC)

  • Gray’s Chapel: natural-rinded aged square, goat’s and cow’s milk
  • Sandy Creek: ashed bloomy rind, goat’s milk

Looking Glass Creamery (NC)

  • Ellington: Valençay-style pyramid, goat’s milk

Many Fold Farm (GA)

  • Brebis: fresh unripened, sheep’s milk
  • Condor’s Ruin: Valençay-style pyramid, sheep’s milk

Meadow Creek Dairy (VA)

  • Appalachian: semisoft tomme, cow’s milk
  • Grayson: Taleggio style, cow’s milk

Nature’s Harmony Farm (GA)

  • Fortsonia: alpine style, cow’s milk
  • Georgia Gold: Cheddar style, cow’s milk

Prodigal Farm (NC)

  • Field of Creams: soft-ripened with herbs, goat’s milk
  • Hunkadora: soft-ripened, goat’s milk

Sequatchie Cove Creamery (TN)

  • Dancing Fern: Reblochon style, cow’s milk

Sweet Grass Dairy (GA)

  • Asher Blue: natural-rinded blue, cow’s milk
  • Green Hill: double-cream Camembert style, cow’s milk
  • Thomasville Tomme: aged, cow’s milk