Betting on Alpha

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If you’re a guest on Thanksgiving and haven’t yet settled on a gift for your host, put cheese on your short list. An American Cheddar might be the obvious choice, but I’m going to nominate Alpha Tolman, an aged Vermont cheese that any host should be happy to get. It has several features that fit the occasion: an approachable flavor that even children will like; durability (for those all-weekend houseguests); and a nutty character that will enhance the turkey sandwiches.
It took me a while to warm up to Alpha Tolman, a cow’s milk cheese that Jasper Hill Creamery debuted about three years ago. Modeled on French and Swiss alpine wheels, such as Raclette and Appenzeller, the cheese initially seemed a little too soft, too salty and not aromatic enough. But the crew has tweaked the recipe—altering the brine wash and the affinage—and I like the results much better. Cheesemaker Mateo Kehler believes that the wheels that the creamery is about to release are its finest yet.


Named for an early 20th century dairy farmer who was a local philanthropist, Alpha Tolman is a cooked and pressed wheel made from raw Holstein milk. Until last week, the milk came from a Jasper Hill neighbor, but the Kehler brothers just acquired that farm. They plan to build a state-of-the-art creamery on the property and make Alpha Tolman a farmstead product—produced where the cows are—and a significant part of their output.
Currently, the 22-pound wheels receive eight to twelve months of aging in Jasper Hill’s underground cellars and regular washings with salt water. At first, the creamery inoculated the brine with yeasts and bacteria, but tests showed that these microbes weren’t surviving the aging process. “What was actually growing were the indigenous adapted strains,” says Kehler. So the creamery’s focus now is on encouraging existing microflora rather than introducing purchased strains.
Raising the cooking temperature slightly made the interior firmer and the rind dryer. A warmer aging environment for the first few months also enhanced the rind. The wheels I’ve sampled recently have had a beautiful rind, dry and crusty with multicolored molds. The interior is semifirm, the color of rich butter, with an aroma that suggests brown butter, toasted walnuts, bacon and sauteed leeks. A shaved slice bends without breaking—the “horseshoe test” that indicates a cheese of relatively low acidity. You will probably notice some crunchy protein crystals, and although Alpha Tolman isn’t as silky as an aged Comté or Appenzeller, it offers aromas to love.
Look for Alpha Tolman at Cowgirl Creamery, Mission Cheese and Other Avenues  in San Francisco; Pasta Shop in Berkeley; Freestone Artisan Cheese in Freestone: and several Bay Area Whole Foods. A white wine with some richness, such as Chardonnay, would complement it; or serve it with a beer on the malty side, like Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale.