Sleeper Cheese

Moses Sleeper
Moses Sleeper2

A friend in the wine business asked me a cheese question recently that stumped me. “What is the one thing that all the great cheesemakers have in common?” he wanted to know.

I’m gathering opinions on this for a future Planet Cheese (send me your thoughts), but in the meantime, one commonality occurs to me. All the great cheesemakers I know are detail maniacs. They tweak relentlessly. Good enough is never good enough.

Moses Sleeper, the luscious Brie-style cheese from Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm, helps make my case. Rather than produce the cheese in one large vat, the creamery uses nine small ones. Imagine how much more work this entails. Instead of culturing, renneting and cutting the curd one time, the crew does each step nine times, a few minutes apart. “It’s like juggling nine cheeses,” admits cheese maker Mateo Kehler.

Why on earth…? Because the results are more consistent that way, says Kehler. Made in one vat, the last cheeses molded are more acidic than the first ones because the pH is dropping rapidly over the time it takes to transfer all the curds to their forms. If you can stagger the steps, so that each small vat is a few minutes behind the last one, you get a more uniform outcome. “It allows you to give the same or very similar treatment to every curd,” says Kehler.

Named for a Revolutionary War hero with roots in the area, Moses Sleeper is a 20-ounce bloomy-rind wheel made with pasteurized cow’s milk from a neighbor. The cheese is ripened in a humid aging room for about three weeks, then wrapped and chilled to slow the growth of the rind. Kehler wants a thin cloak of white mold, not a thick and crusty coat.

Refrigeration puts the brakes on the rind but not on flavor development. Although the cheese is shipped at four to five weeks, it doesn’t peak until it is 60 to 80 days old, says Kehler. And that’s assuming it is handled well in transit. I have seen (and purchased) overripe Moses Sleeper. Ask to taste before you buy so you get a wheel with no hint of ammonia.

In prime condition, Moses Sleeper is one of America’s best cheeses of this type. A whole wheel should have some give, like a ripe peach, a sign of softening inside. The rind may show a little bit of tan mottling and some slight rippling, but too much would indicate a cheese heading south. The best specimens I have tried have a bone-colored interior that is supple all the way through, a subtle mushroom aroma and a rind tender enough to eat.

Kehler, a craft beer enthusiast, says he likes saisons and ciders with Moses Sleeper. I’m on board with that. For a saison, try Boulevard Brewing’s Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, Ommegang’s Hennepin or North Coast Brewing’s Le Merle. As for cider, all the Devoto Orchards ciders from Sebastopol impress me.

Look for Moses Sleeper at Bi-Rite Market, Cowgirl Creamery, Haight Street Market and Mission Cheese in San Francisco; Driver’s Market in Sausalito; Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa; Dean & DeLuca and Sunshine Foods in St. Helena; Big John’s in Healdsburg; Freestone Artisan Cheese in Freestone; and Farmshop in Santa Monica.