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Artisanal Cheddar

Plain, rubbery American cheddars never measured up to the British stuff. But by merging Old and New World techniques, some domestic creameries are waging a revolution.

What We Learned

Your average block of American cheddar doesn’t resemble the complex-tasting farmhouse-style wheels that have been produced in England for centuries, but that hasn’t stopped shoppers from snatching it up. In 2010, cheddar accounted for more than 30 percent of the cheese produced in this country, with supermarket shelves stocking more than 3 billion pounds of the shrink-wrapped, smooth-textured blocks—all of which helps explain why it’s the variety you’re most likely to see melted on a burger or oozing from a grilled cheese. Whether cheddar boasts distinct, nuanced flavors has never mattered much; most people seem to think cheddar is supposed to be a plain-Jane cheese.

But American cheddar is poised to climb out of this rut. Many well-stocked supermarkets, gourmet cheese shops, and online sources now offer “artisanal” domestic cheddars that claim to rival the English stuff and fetch prices just as high—which in many cases means more than double the cost of supermarket cheddar. And it’s not just grassroots dairy farms that are shaking things up: A couple of the biggest names in domestic cheddar production have debuted higher-end lines intended not as burger toppings but as candidates for fine cheese plates.

We were intrigued but skeptical: Other than gourmet-sounding names like “reserve” and “vintage,” what exactly might distinguish these fancy cheeses from the supermarket stuff—and would they really be worth the significant uptick in cost? There was only one way to find out: We held a tasting, sampling nine artisanal cheddars from both small and large producers straight from the package. (Fine cheeses like these aren’t intended for cooking.) We also set up benchmarks on either end of the spectrum, adding our supermarket favorite, Cabot Private Stock, to the mix, and later pitting the domestic winners against Keen’s Cheddar, long considered one of the gold standards of English farmhouse cheddars.

The first thing we noticed was that all of the cheddars tasted remarkably different. In fact, the spectrum of flavors was so broad—everything from mellow and buttery to pungent and sulfurous—that we were surprised that all of these cheeses could be labeled cheddar. Texture also varied hugely. Some cheddars were so dry that they crumbled in our hands, while others were as moist and creamy as Monterey Jack. One thing was clear, though: Our top cheddars were worth every penny. Several didn’t just edge out our supermarket favorite, Cabot Private Stock (which still placed respectably in the contest): They wowed us with “intensely nutty,” “buttery” tang and creamy-textured crumbliness. So just what was going on in the cheese-maki...