Cave to Co-op: HARBISON from Jasper Hill Farm

This month’s special cheese is HARBISON from Jasper Hill Farm, Greensboro, Vermont.


Andy and Mateo Kehler started Jasper Hill Farm in 2003—the genesis of their effort to find meaningful work in a place they love. Their connection to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont evolved from generations of their family visiting and living in Greensboro—a sleepy village on the edge of sparkling, secluded Caspian Lake.

The verdant agricultural landscape of the area is at the core of its economic and cultural identity, typified by the small-scale family dairy farm. Unfortunately, the pressing needs to preserve agricultural soils and Vermont’s working landscape is likewise punctuated by the dairy farms’ struggle to compete with a national, commodity scale market. Jasper Hill Farm was imagined as a ‘value-added’ strategy for earning a dependable and fair return on high-quality milk—a model for small-scale profitability.

The Kehlers quickly found that their achievement in finding meaningful work revealed a score of new challenges particular to the farmstead cheesemaker. The most burdensome tasks at Jasper Hill turned up after the vat—cave work, sales administration and travel, packaging and shipping logistics—all crucial, though intensely time-consuming. Cellars at Jasper Hill is a piece of infrastructure they designed to help farms reach and succeed in a national marketplace: a bridge between small-scale production and large scale markets.

The building itself is a network of seven under ground vaults—a total of 22,000 square feet nestled beneath the pastures where Jasper Hill’s forty Ayrshire cows graze. Each cave rests at distinct temperature and humidity levels, calibrated for different cheese styles. Developing wheels undergo a customized testing, tasting and affinage schedule before getting wrapped-up at their target age profile.

By offering a collection of professionally aged and marketed cheeses, Cellars at Jasper Hill allows its producers to focus on the most important aspects of their trade—quality milk production and cheesemaking technique. This focus on precision and specialization is the foundation of the Cellars aim to be the standard bearer for quality and innovation in the artisan cheese industry.

Harbison is a bark-wrapped bloomy-rind cheese with woodsy, sweet, herbal, and bright flavors. The Kehlers named the cheese after Anne Harbison, seen by many to be the grandmother of Greensboro, VT. She’s active in the community, runs a bed and breakfast, and volunteers at the public library, and has known the Kehler brothers since they were children. The bark, cut from Jasper Hill Farm’s woodlands holds the delicate cheese together, provides flavor to the creamy paste, and allows for an ideal presentation as the centerpiece of a cheese plate.

Below is a December 2011 article about Harbison from the San Francisco Chronicle by renowned cheese expert Janet Fletcher:

Harbison Born of Experiment at Jasper Hill Farms

Janet Fletcher for the San Francisco Chronicle, Published December 4, 2011

Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farms has birthed so many sought-after cheeses that it hardly seems possible that the staff would have the creative energy to dream up another.

Enter Harbison, the newest member of the Jasper Hill family, a cow’s milk cheese that debuted this summer and already looks like a success.

Even if you don’t recognize the name Jasper Hill, you may have had some of this pioneering farm’s cheeses, such as Bayley Hazen Blue, Constant Bliss and Winnimere. Jasper Hill also has a big hand in the award-winning Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, because it ages the wheels – made by a neighbor, the huge Cabot Creamery—in its underground caves.

Like many American artisan cheeses, Harbison, a bloomy-rind disk wrapped with a strip of spruce bark, evolved from an experiment. Jasper Hill fans will recognize it as the love child of Moses Sleeper, the creamery’s Camembert-style cheese, and Winnimere, its bark-wrapped washed-rind wheel.

The experimental cheese became runny when ripe; girdling it with the spruce band helped contain the interior and imparted a woodsy scent. “We knew we were on to something tasty,” says Mateo Kehler, Jasper Hill’s cheese maker.

Jasper Hill harvests the paper-thin strips of bark in the spring from white spruce and dries them. As needed, the bark strips are boiled to sterilize and soften them, so they will bend around the day-old wheels.

Over the four-week maturation at the creamery, the wheels develop a powdery-white cloak of mold. By the time they reach Bay Area cheese counters, the 10-ounce wheels should be supple inside, spreadable like frosting. At peak ripeness, which occurs at about 60 days, the cheese will be so soft that you can slice off the top and scoop out the interior with a spoon. You can watch a demonstration of this serving method, as well as an overview of the cheese-making process for Harbison, in a video produced by Jasper Hill.

When I sampled Harbison, the wheel was not yet oozy. I peeled away the bark and cut into the paste, revealing an appetizing ivory interior, moist and glistening, with a few small openings. The texture was semisoft and silky, with none of that sticky quality that mars some bloomy-rind cheeses. The aroma reminded me of mushrooms and piney woods, damp cave and clotted cream, mingled with an unexpected fruity note.

If you want to experience Harbison at optimum ripeness and it isn’t there yet, Kehler suggests putting the cheese in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks. Keep it in a lidded plastic container and monitor it often, turning the wheel over every couple of days. When it gives readily to pressure, bring it fully to room temperature before serving. “The texture should be ooey-gooey,” Kehler says.

A beer enthusiast, Jasper Hill’s cheese maker recommends Harbison with Saison-style ale. Saison Dupont from Belgium is a classic in that style.