By Nancy Feeney

Editor’s note: this article is reprinted from Dairyman
magazine, the member publication of Swiss Valley Farms, a
dairy cooperative based in Davenport, Iowa. Nancy Feeney is
editor and member relations manager for Swiss Valley Farms.

hen Swiss Valley Farms purchased The Caves of Faribault in August [2010], all of the co-op’s dairy producer members acquired a piece of American cheesemaking history. Jeff Jirik, the former owner of Faribault Dairy, and now vice president of the co-op’s Blue Cheese Division, proudly recounts a rich history embedded deep within the caves’ sandstone walls.

The history of the caves begins in 1854, when Gottfried Fleckenstein, a German immigrant on a brief boat trip stopover in Faribault, Minn., discovered natural St. Peter sandstone caves along the Straight River. Carved out of the sandstone by the receding glaciers thousands of years ago, the caves extended back into the bluffs.

Fleckenstein knew they would be the perfect place for brewing and storing beer. He never got back on the boat! He opened a German brewery inside the caves and became a prosperous Faribault resident.

In 1936, the caves were taken over by Felix Frederickson and soon became the site of the first blue cheese plant in America. Frederickson enlarged the main cave and began making cave-aged blue cheese.

St. Peter sandstone, found only in Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and northern Missouri, is ideally suited for aging cheeses because of its slightly acidic nature, architectural integrity, the perfect humidity and temperature conditions (53 degrees year around), and the unique properties that allow water to move both vertically and horizontally, never dripping.

In 1938, entirely new caves were hand hewn from the sandstone rock to accommodate expansion for cheese curing.

Down through the decades, the caves changed hands a few more times, until Faribault Dairy took ownership of the caves in 2001. It continued the legend by manufacturing and curing America’s original blue cheese. “We named our blue cheese AmaBlu,” Jirik says.

“‘Ama,’ which is Latin for ‘I love,’ and ‘blu,’ which stands for the cheese variation we make.”

Today, the caves are part of Swiss Valley’s history. There are 13 caves used to cure more than 1 million pounds of award-winning American Blue and Gorgonzola cheeses, among other varieties.

Just across from the caves sits the cheese plant, where cheesemakers faithfully follow Frederickson’s original recipe, crafting the cheeses by hand using no artificial ingredients, then hand-salting them before they make their way into the caves.

It is the time spent in the caves that determines the cheeses’ flavor profile. AmaBlu blue cheese is aged 75 days to create a tangy, yet not-too-sharp flavor. Its cohort, AmaGorg Gorgonzola cheese, is aged 90 days and displays more sharpness, in addition to being sweeter and drier than the blue cheese. AmaBlu St. Pete’s Select Blue Cheese is a premium variety of blue cheese, aged more than 100 days in the caves it was named after. It exhibits a creamy, complex flavor worthy of its signature status.

Faribault Dairy remains the only U.S. cheesemaker to still cure and age its blue cheese exclusively in rock caves. Jirik never tires of describing what it is like to walk into a cave where the blue cheeses are curing.

“The cave-aged, ‘naked cheeses’ evoke the aroma of a freshly tilled garden in spring,” he says. “The sweet fragrance of butterfat breaking down into floral notes permeates the air.”

With such pride and enthusiasm for his cave-aged blue cheeses, it is no surprise Deli Business magazine called Jirik the most innovative cheesemaker in America. This year, he won a best of class award for his Gorgonzola at the World Championship Cheese Contest.

Not to be forgotten is another cave located just up the street from the plant. Although it’s not made of sandstone, it plays just as valuable a role as the real caves themselves. The Cheese Cave, created in 2009 by Jirik with business associates Jeff LaBeau and Bob Foley, is the retail outlet for the cheeses from The Caves of Faribault, and a mecca for cheese lovers and culinary connoisseurs.

The quaint store located in the downtown Faribault shopping district carries specialty cheeses, dry goods and spreads and is always bustling with tastings, cooking demonstrations and other gourmet events. A small vat of fresh cheese curds is made there twice a week. It also markets over the Internet.

To view a Food Network interview with Jirik about the Caves of Faribault, visit: http://www.foodnetwork.com/ videos/select-blue-cheese/27470.html.

March/April Table of Contents