A brief history of cheddar cheese

Photo via Getty Images/MSPhotographic

A brief history of cheddar cheese

History + Culture

A brief history of cheddar cheese

You can find a chunk of cheddar cheese in just about any store in America. While much of today’s cheddar is plastic-wrapped and tailor made for the cheese aisle at your local grocery store, that wasn’t always the case. Originally made in a small village in England called Cheddar, the cheese itself was – like many cheeses that have come before and after – a happy accident.

According to the popular (though not necessarily true) narrative, back in the 1100s a milkmaid left a pail of milk took a pail of milk into a cave to keep it cool – a common practice at the time – and forgot about it. When she returned the next day, voilà – the milk had hardened and cheddar was born.

Fast forward a few centuries to the 1800s, when cheddar had made its way over to the United States. While there were handful of cheddar producers already selling cheddar as a commodity, all of the producers were making cheddar the traditional way – just for the farm, or making the curd and selling it to manufacturers. That was until cheesemaker Jesse Williams.

Williams and his family transformed the dairy industry by introducing the first cheese factory. With Williams on the scene, cheddar was now made by gathering milk from neighboring farms and producing the curd and the cheese onsite, in the same factory.

Cheddar cheese went from a farmer’s personal treat to a factory-made good. Throughout the years, the cheesemaking process continued to focus on efficiency over quality, resulting in cheese in that lasted increasingly longer – and looked “better,” too.

Photo via Getty Images/HandmadePicture

As more and more cheese was produced, it began to vary in color as well. Color differences occur naturally depending on time of year or grazing habits of the cows, and the end product is not always the prettiest. So, farmers started to add annatto seed to give a consistent color to cheddar, hence the classic orange hue that appears everywhere from those slices you put on your grilled cheese sandwich to artificial cheddar-flavored products like Kraft mac and cheese and Cheetos. 

After decades of perfectly smooth, plastic-wrapped and often processed cheddar dominating stores, Americans palates are starting to demand higher quality products, and cheesemakers are getting back to cheddar’s roots.

Here are a few American-made cheddars that are favorites across the country.

Grafton Cheddar

Grafton Village, a Vermont-based cheesemaker, is known for its cheddar, aging each wheel for one to four years. Its cheddar is made in the New England-style, meaning it’s strong, sharp, and bitter – exactly what you’d expect from a Vermont cheddar.

Hook’s Cheddar

Coming out of Wisconsin, Hook’s Cheddar cheese is aged between five and 20 years. This cheesemaking duo has made the longest aged cheese in the United States. Hook’s Cheddar boasts more caramel flavors and is a little more delicate than the Vermont styles.

Cabot Clothbound Cheddar

This English-style Clothbound Cheddar is a collaboration between Cabot and The Cellars at Jasper Hill. Although it’s another Vermont-made cheese, the Clothbound is sharp and nutty, but also a little bit sweet. The sweet and savory mix is really what makes it a true winner.

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