The Cheese Whiz
In an unassuming brown warehouse on the north side of Travelers Rest, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, there’s a Clemson grad from Denmark making cheese. Grassy, washed rind Tomme-style cheese. Pungent, almost floral, blue cheese. His raw milk comes from Southern Oaks Jersey Farm in Abbeville in one-gallon jugs like you buy at the grocery store, and it takes a raft of milk jugs to make a batch of fresh mozzarella. That fact alone makes this venture seem like a spinning-gold-out-of-hay kind of thing.
And then you taste the cheese.
I don’t think there’s a food I love more than cheese. In the party game where you name what you’d have to have to survive on a desert island, there’s coffee and chocolate and cheese, and when you have to decide which you’d rather give up, cheese or sex, I get real quiet. It’s a perfect satisfaction, before dinner or after, and sometimes, with a good glass of wine, it’s dinner all by itself. And like wine, the magic of cheese is that it’s alive. It changes over time, matures and develops, depending on the season it’s made, how it’s stored and how long you wait to cut into it.
Christian Hansen and I are about to cut into a wheel of his Jocassee Tomme that’s been waiting since he started Blue Ridge Creamery in 2016. But really, this is a moment that’s been a whole lot longer in the making.
Christian likes to say cheesemaking is in his blood; his grandfather and great-grandfather were dairymen in Denmark, and both his parents were excellent cooks. His father was one of those guys who ate potted meats and weird, stinky fishes. As a kid in Denmark, he remembers lots of potatoes, beets, cabbage, and open-faced sandwiches. His family moved to Connecticut when he was six, and he landed in Clemson for college, where he met his wife Louisa. “I sound American when I speak Danish now,” he says with a laugh.
The idea for Blue Ridge Creamery began as part of a grand scale dream of CSA-style farmsteading when Christian and Louisa were living in Austin, TX. Three kids later, a move back across the country, a ditched job as a software engineer, and considerable upfit of this warehouse (his aging cave used to be a paint booth when the building was a body shop), he began selling fresh cheeses at farmers markets across the Upstate. “I learned from a combination of books and the internet,” he says. “I think there’s a site for just about every hobby out there.”
With his dry sense of humor and comfortable way of breaking into the science of things, it’s hard to believe Christian ever spent much time as a hobbyist. His first aged cheese was a Stilton-style blue, what would become Blue Ridge Bleu, which is kind of like saying your first novel is Look Homeward, Angel: hefty, award-worthy and complex. “There’re definitely easier cheeses to start with,” he says.
Blue Ridge Creamery now offers Reedy Red, its rind washed with ale from Swamp Rabbit Brewery, as well as Little Pee Dee, a Brie-style cheese with a bloomy rind, and Eastatoee, which is shot through with a layer of ash. He still makes delicate fromage blanc and fresh mozzarella. And his most popular cheese is the Jocassee Tomme, usually aged about three months.
But this one we’re looking at now is special.
You can still read the pattern of the basket it was pressed in on the dusty rind, grey with the good kind of molds that do the work in cheeses. The smell is warm-animal and soil, and the inside is dense and creamy yellow. Christian hands me a piece. It’s intense. It’s nutty. It does that cool thing like Parmesan where it seems to change the landscape inside your mouth, starting as one thing and becoming something else.
But too, I’m tasting something with somebody who spends his days adjusting by taste. He’s skilled, and uses his skills to perfect, whereas I’m just interested in the most immediate sensation of yum. It’s a little bit like being at the doctor’s office, or headed into court. What’s the expert opinion?
“I’m pretty excited about that,” he says. He breaks into a wide grin, and it’s hard not to be excited too.
“It’s one thing to convince your wife that it’s a good idea to quit a well-paying job to start an artisanal cheese company….” And he kind of trails off. It’s one thing, it’s a great thing, and maybe who knows what comes next. This fall, with an investment from local businessman Bruce Rowland, Christian will be able to do away with the jugs and port milk directly into the dairy to be stored in 400-gallon vats, lowering his milk costs by 40%. This will allow him to expand production and distribution. He plans to open a little cheese shop in the front of the creamery in November.
In the meantime, you can find his cheeses at The Tasting Room in Travelers Rest and The Swamp Rabbit Café and Grocery in Greenville. And his cheeses are served at The Anchorage, Ji-roz, Two Chefs, Farmhouse Tacos, Restaurant 17, GB & D and more places every day.
Blue Ridge Creamery
14 Blue Ridge Drive