The Arizona Cheese “Desert”

Cheese desert? More like a cheese oasis. The cheese scene here in Arizona is alive and well, and apparently it has been for many years. It is a little more hospitable for goats than cows but there are many ranches in this state with hundreds and thousands of cattle. The state would be suitable for sheep too; there are just not that many. This, however, might be due to the high copper content in the AZ terroir.

When I accepted an invitation to participate in the First Press fund raiser for the local public radio stations I wanted to reach out to some of the cheese community while here, beginning with my good friend Christine Hyatt, past president of the American Cheese Society, and well-connected to cheese peeps everywhere. She has been living in Phoenix for several years and has helped unite the cheese folks, drumming up a little excitement, stimulating the customer base, and helping raise standards among cheese makers and vendors.

Christine invited several members of the surrounding cheese community to her house on my first evening in town and I got to know them a little better. Christine pulled out all the stops! One of Phoenix’s few CCP’s, Adam Burstein, was there – his passion for cheese was immediately evident. Lara Mulchay is one of the pioneers of the Phoenix artisan cheese scene and she will be opening her latest cheese venture, Craft+Culture at the downtown Marriott. I know where I’ll be staying the next time I’m in town!

Wendell Crow, of Crow’s Dairy was at Christine’s too and he practically insisted we swing by his Nubian goat dairy west of town in Buckeye. So glad we did; the scenery was beautiful and the hospitality was amazing. It’s been kidding season in Buckeye so there were plenty of cute little doelings prancing around. They’ll be providing milk for Crow’s lovely cheeses in just a year!

We got to visit what is apparently Phoenix’s only independently owned cheese shop (hard to believe) the Wedge and Bottle. Owners Troy and Krista Daily have an operation that appears to be on a roll. Highly recommended; don’t take my word for it, just look at the reviews! I also dropped down to Tucson to do a little cheese talk at Tana Fryer’s Blu A Wine & Cheese Shop. My first visit to that lovely city and Tana and her team were super professionals.

The Arizona cheese appetite is growing; business is good, so no serious shortage of customers except perhaps in the hotter parts of summer. It seemed like the biggest challenge the producers face is limited fresh pasturage. No surprise there; after all, it is the desert. Same as in other arid regions around the globe, irrigation has turned broad swaths of the desert state into lush farmland. The water table is not far below the surface throughout most of the state, and there appears to be thick topsoil to nourish crops.

Arizona is one of the few states in the union that permits the sale of raw milk. Considering the independent mind-set defining Arizonans perhaps this may not be a surprise. Should anyone be thinking of moving their dairy operations to sunny Arizona the demand for unpasteurized milk exceeds supply. The availability of raw milk is all well and good, so long as every dairy is maintaining strict sanitary practices.

Whenever one of the infrequent problems occurs with dairy products it affects the entire industry, both raw and pasteurized products. Should problems occur in a raw milk it could have dramatic repercussions on access to raw milk cheeses as well – the ones aged sixty days or more. We hope that the booming Arizona dairy industry will take heed and ensure that all operators follow the highest standards. It would appear that the state’s industry is outpacing the resources of its inspectors. I hear that some raw milk producers are operating under the radar with caution thrown to the wind.

One little disappointment: the top line restaurant where I dined on my last night in Scottsdale had no cheese course. Nevertheless, the Arizona cheese industry is looking great already and it appears it is going to have a sunny future.