ALMA — Wine and cheese complement one another like… well, wine and cheese. From heady blends to soft and mild cheeses, the pairing options can be overwhelming and sometimes involve trial and error until you find a combo that tastes perfect together.
With National Wine and Cheese Day approaching on July 25, The Mercury tapped Alma Creamery, known across the state for its famous cheese curds, to provide insight into its operations, as well as looked at a few wine options that would pair well with the area cheese maker’s offerings.
Alma Creamery, a family-owned cheese producer, has been in operation since 1946, except for a roughly four-year period in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. The Hansen family, which still owns the company today, purchased the business in 1986. The family sold Alma Creamery to investors in 1998 to focus on other food business endeavors, but the creamery shuttered its operations until the Hansens bought it back and reopened it in 2004. President Shon Hansen has been at the helm since 2006.
“We’re a small cheese company within the state of Kansas, and we’re one of the few who still make truly handmade cheddar and jack cheeses,” Hansen said. “We try to make it better every time. We like to keep a local, family quality to it.”
Hansen said the company prides itself in keeping its resources local and working by hand. In its shop connected to the production rooms, customers can find products such as pepper nut cookies, sausages, honey and more that are sourced from Kansas businesses.
“We’re a Land of Kansas company with the Kansas Department of Agriculture, and so we try to have as many local products as we can,” Hansen said.
On Wednesday, about six workers, including Hansen, made about 3,100 pounds of basic white and yellow cheddar cheese. Hansen said during this time of year, the company makes cheese about every other week. Employees will continue to make about 10,000 pounds of cheese a month for the next four to five months as they prepare for the holiday season.
With the product being handmade, the process takes time and effort.
It starts by pouring milk into two large vats, which can each hold up to 24,000 pounds, and adding cultures, rennet (an enzyme that initiates curdling) and coloring if necessary.
The mixture is then heated, and after about an hour, separated into curds and whey. Then workers drain the whey from the curds. The curds solidify during this process and are cut into loaves, then turned and stacked multiple times to drain more whey out.
The curds pass through a cheddar mill which cuts them into bits. Then the cheese is salted and mixed to coat evenly.
Some of the cheese will stay in that form, while others are put into a press overnight to form cheese blocks, half-moons and longhorns.
After the cheeses are packaged, some are stored in a cooler to age and develop a robust flavor. Aging time can be anywhere from 21 days to eight years, which is the creamery’s oldest cheese. Hansen said a cheese aged for more than six months is considered sharp and after about a year to 18 months, it is considered extra sharp.
Some folks though, Hansen said, like their cheese curds fresh off the production line, and the company has a pages-long list of people to call when they’ve finished a batch.
Though not a wine pairing connoisseur himself, Hansen recommended a general frame for wine and cheese pairings.
“A lot of people like the sharper cheeses with wine,” he said. “A lot of times they like the sweeter wines with a sharper cheese and then wines that have more of a bite to it with a more mild cheese.”
WINE AND CHEESE COMBOS TO TRY
White or yellow cheddar with Chardonnay
Chardonnay has a crisp and fruity taste, which helps enhance the creaminess and sweetness of a basic cheddar cheese.
Extra sharp cheddar with Cabernet Sauvignon
A full-bodied, dry Cabernet Sauvignon has a biting feel and hints of dark fruits. Sipped with a nutty, salty and slightly sweet extra sharp cheddar, it can help bring out the cheese’s bold flavors.
Pepper Jack with Moscato
Moscato is a lighter wine with aromatic flavors that won’t overwhelm the pepper jack cheese as spicy cheeses go well with sweeter wines.