These days a new cheese has to have a reason for being or it will never find a place at the retail counter. How is it different? What needs does it serve? Why should merchants make room for it?
Cowgirl Creamery—the California company behind Mt. Tam, Red Hawk and other successes—rarely releases a new cheese, so any debut from them is news. Earlier this month, the company unveiled Hop Along, a cow’s-milk wheel, after a limited release to retailers in the Good Food Merchants Collaborative. This new association of independent specialty-food retailers (top shops like Market Hall Foods in Oakland and Berkeley, Bi-Rite Markets in San Francisco, Di Bruno Bros in Philadelphia and Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor) is intended to be a counterweight to supermarkets (and, presumably, Amazon). The group’s mission is to provide mutual support and, in turn, to support artisan food producers—the craftspeople who make cheese, jams, chocolate, olive oil and other products rresponsibly.
A few months ago, Cowgirl released Hop Along exclusively to merchants in the Collaborative “to get quality feedback,” says Maureen Cunnie, a longtime Cowgirl cheesemaker. In return, Cowgirl donated 50 cents to the Collaborative for every pound sold. This unusual relationship was a test run of sorts. “We were trouble-shooting ways that producers can release new products to market because it’s really hard,” says Cunnie. The little guys have to take shelf space away from the big players, companies that can afford the slotting fees (bribes, essentially) that supermarkets often demand.
The Cowgirl team had a clear concept in mind for Hop Along. “We wanted a cheese that was good for cooking and for snacking, nothing super fancy,” says Cunnie. That description fits Cowgirl Creamery’s Wagon Wheel, but Wagon Wheel is big—15 pounds—and small retailers can struggle to sell it all before it declines. “We wanted a five-pound wheel that’s easier for retailers to handle,” Cunnie. The small wheel matures faster, too—45 days instead of 75—which helps keep the price down.
Hop Along is made with local organic milk and washed with an organic French cider. “Finding organic cider was its own challenge,” says Cunnie. “There are not a lot on the market.” The target was a high-moisture, semisoft cheese similar to European Trappist cheeses like St. Nectaire, Chimay and Munster.
In aroma, Hop Along is milder than all of those, with a yeasty scent and faint hints of butter and beef broth. Sue Conley, a Cowgirl co-founder, notes a fermented-apple smell. I don’t pick up any apple notes myself, but Cowgirl has only made four batches to date (120 wheels each) and some recipe-tweaking is probably happening. The texture is fudgy and dense, the rind thin and dry. Cunnie says Hop Along is a great melter, and she suggests mixing it with a more robust cheese—like Vella Dry Jack—in a grilled-cheese sandwich.
“I think of Hop Along as something you eat when you get out of work and you’re having a beer, like a Hefeweizen,” says Cunnie. Now that’s an image that works for me.
Look for Cowgirl Creamery Hop Along at these retailers.
Cheese Class: Better with Bubbles
Saturday, December 1
25 North Street
1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
We’re popping the cork on several fine sparkling wines from Roederer Estate, including a rosé and top-of-the-line L’Ermitage. We’ll sample these awesome bubblies with cheeses that rise to the occasion. Get some classy pairing ideas for your holiday cheese boards. A Roederer representative will be present to guide us through the wines.