How much are you willing to spend on a piece of cheese for dinner tonight? Retailers think a lot about that. They know their shoppers focus more on the price per piece than the cost per pound. They suspect you won’t flinch at five dollars for a chunk of Cheddar, however small. But eight dollars for twice as much? That’s when they lose you.
Detecting these psychological price points—where consumers flip from “yes please” to “no way”—is one aspect of successful retailing. And savvy cheesemakers look at price points for opportunities. If they can create a delicious cheese that slides just under your trip wire, they’ll have a winner.
Hartwell (pictured above), a new farmstead cow’s milk cheese from Vermont’s acclaimed Jasper Hill Farm, emerged to fill a niche for a Camembert-type cheese that could retail for under $10. To meet that price target, the cheese had to be small. Hartwell is a petite four ounces—perfect for two (just in case you haven’t finalized your Valentine’s Day menu).
To give the cheese a “taste of place,” Jasper Hill washes Hartwell with lees from a local cider producer. The thick lees (spent yeast and fruit sediment) get brushed on the cheese surface a couple of times, starting on day three. Then the young disks move into a maturing room where the soft white Camembert bloom develops. According to Zoe Brickley, a Jasper Hill employee, the lees don’t seem to affect the bloom, neither inhibiting nor encouraging it. But she does believe they impart a notable fruitiness.
See what you think. I didn’t discern any cider notes, but I still fell for this little guy. Less than an inch tall, it has a thin edible rind and a totally supple, slumpy interior that smells of porcini mushrooms and garlic. I don’t usually eat bread with cheese, but Hartwell needs a baguette. The cheese is not shy on salt, and bread helps buffer that.
Whole Foods has an exclusive on Hartwell, but Jasper Hill has just released its brother from another mother. Little Hosmer—named, like Hartwell, for a nearby lake—is Hartwell without the cider, and right out of the gate it took a Super Gold at last fall’s World Cheese Awards in London. Little Hosmer will not be exclusive, so keep an eye out for it. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Bi-Rite Markets (San Francisco), SHED (Healdsburg) and Petaluma Market (Petaluma) have all ordered it.
The creamery releases Hartwell and Little Hosmer at three to four weeks to allow for travel time. Nine weeks is probably their peak moment, says Brickley. The best-by date on the package is about 100 days past the birth date, so the cheese could be pretty potent by then.
At just under $10, Hartwell seems to me like an affordable treat. At $40 a pound, not so much. Go figure.