MONROE, Maine -- Maine now has more artisan cheese makers than any state except New York, according to a cheese expert who tracks artisan cheese making nationwide.
When Jeff Roberts wrote his book, "The Atlas of American Artisan Cheese," in 2006, he identified 25 cheese makers in Maine who produce cheese by hand using traditional techniques. There are now about 75 of them, he said, making Maine the fastest-growing artisan cheese-producing state.
"To me, that’s a truly remarkable expansion in a relatively short period of time," said Roberts, who lives in Montpelier, Vt., and is a consultant to the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese at the University of Vermont. "And most of us outside of Maine have never heard of Maine artisan cheese because it really doesn’t leave the state."
People will be able to visit some of those cheese makers on Sunday during the Maine Cheese Guild’s annual Open Creamery Day. They can talk with the cheese makers in their creameries, meet their animals and learn the stories behind the 150 artisanal cheeses that are made in Maine.
In all, a dozen or more cheese makers are participating, with offerings ranging from chevre, cheddar, gouda and fromage blanc to marinated, goat and organic varieties. Artisan cheeses are known for complex tastes and varieties.
Although the number of cheese makers has shot up, the volume of cheese made in Maine is still small, said Eric Rector, owner of the Monroe Cheese Studio in Monroe and president of the Maine Cheese Guild.
Most of the cheese makers sell their products locally at places like farmers markets, he said. Still, the state’s largest producer, Pineland Farms, distributes nationally.
In all, Maine cheese makers produce an estimated 1 million or so pounds a year, Rector said.
"Many plants outside of Maine make 1 million pounds a month," he said.
Roberts said as of this year, there were 85 artisan cheese makers in New York, about 75 in Maine and more than 70 in Pennsylvania. Nationally, the number has grown from about 400 in 2006 to about 825.