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Cheese makers and lovers are serious about semantics when it comes to how the cheese is made, cared for, and aged.

A lot of the people here who are calling themselves affineurs are working with cheese that’s already been aged. That’s not affinage. It’s cheese care. I’m old school. I resent the abuse of the term affinage.” –Brad Dubé

In the rarefied world of cheese making and mongering, an argument is emerging regarding affinage: the age-old practice of ripening cheese. The New York Times delved into the debate last week, calling affinage, “a topic that inspires both evangelical zeal and scoffing among hard-core fanatics of fromage.”  The piece was a rollicking read, filled with drama and tension – things not often associated with cheese. We just thought it was a fun piece that taught us a little something we didn’t know about cheese.

Then we started hearing from our cheese-mongering friends…

Shortly after the story was published, word started trickling in that it had touched a number of raw nerves in the cheese community, so we decided to dig a little deeper into this new-fangled fromage fight.

We chatted with a few Brooklyn-based cheese pros in search of a better understanding of the debate. Turns out, the affinage acrimony seems to be split largely along ‘new-school’ and ‘old-school’ lines – lines along which there’s been growing tension for some time. The conflict seems to stem from something the Times piece doesn’t exactly explicate — that this is really an argument over semantics, not quality.

The Times story begins with a snapshot of one of the new-school disciples of ‘affinage,’ Brian Ralph of Manhattan’s esteemed Murray’s Cheese.

“No one watching Mr. Ralph at work is likely to question his devotion. A Colorado native who operates with a kind of cowboy taciturnity, he spends much of each day at Murray’s flipping wheels of cheese (so that they don’t become lopsided and develop “elephant feet”), washing their rinds, monitoring their moisture and watching their progress to determine when they are nearing their peak. He will not let anyone enter the caves without a hairnet, lab coat and protective booties that prevent shoes from carrying rogue germs into the sanctuary.”

On the other side of the fence, Steven Jenkins – the bombastic eminence grise of the artisanal cheese market in the U.S.; author of Cheese Primer, a definitive guide to all things cheese; and the man who made Fairway’s cheese case famous — is decidedly not into the new-school use of the term:

“’This affinage thing is a total crock,’ said Mr. Jenkins,‘…All it does is drastically inflate the cost of cheeses that have benefited zero from this faux-alchemical nonsense…It has nothing to do with making cheese taste really good…

If you’re a good cheese monger, you know how to put your cheese away like I’ve done since ’75. How to take the plastic away from it, how to isolate it into a separate box, how to shroud it with very flimsy bakery paper, and then allow time and the temperature in your cold room, and the humidity in there, to do its thing. And if my humidity is 35 percent different from yours, my cheese is going to taste just as good as yours. It may have a different color of mold on it, but it’ll taste just as good. And yours is going to be twice as expensive, and you’re a highway robber. And you’re contributing to the preciousness and folly of Americans trying to emulate something in France that has nothing to do with quality…’”

But in the end, it should all come down to taste, right? The Times ran a blind taste test of ‘affinaged’ and ‘non-affinaged’ versions of the same cheese, which seems revealing. The test featured cheeses from Murray’s, Artisanal (both of whom embrace ‘affinage’), and Fairway (which does not). The tasters identified something off about one of the three right away.

“The Époisses had odd, dark striations across the top. The aroma was off. The flavor made the panelists wince. In fact, nearly everything on plate No. 3 struck them as problematic.”

The strange cheese? From Fairway. The best of the bunch? From the precious caves at Murray’s.

Simple enough, right? Case closed? Not so fast. It turns out that some in the cheese-mongering community felt that the story sensationalized the debate. Others felt it missed the point. The debate over affinage seems to be largely fueled by disagreement over the meaning of ‘affinage’ versus the traditional practice of ‘cheese care,’ and exacerbated by deeper-than-expected fault lines between newcomers to the playing fields of cheese and the grizzled vets.

We spoke with a few Brooklyn-based cheese experts to find out more.

Brad Dubé (left), founder and owner of Greenpoint-based Food Matters Again, a cheese distributor specializing in small-producer cheese, weighs in on affinage and the old-school vs. new-school fault lines in the rapidly expanding cheese business. With salesman Glenn Hills (center), and cheese caretaker Luke Johnson (right), at their Greenpoint office and warehouse.

Brad Dubé is the founder and owner of Food Matters Again, a Greenpoint-based distributor specializing in procuring the finest small-producer cheeses. Brad considers himself part of the old-school camp when it comes to cheese – he’s been in the business since the early 90’s.

So Brad, what’s the deal with affinage? Why has the Times piece made such waves in the community?

It’s very complex. It’s hard because the actual point of the debate is kind of obfuscated in the article. It’s a good read and they set it up so there’s a lot of drama, so it’s probably going to get people talking, which is good. But the reality is that, even with all these new cheesemakers and cheeses, being a good cheese monger hasn’t changed, and what an affineur does hasn’t changed.

In America, we need to make sure people know the difference. And that comes down to education. There’s a gap right now in our country between the new people in the business and the old school.

To really boil it down, there’s cheese care and there’s affinage. The difference is big. The distinction is there and it should be made clearer. The lines between affinage and cheese care are starting to be blurred, and that’s a problem.

Cheese care is really important. It’s what a cheese monger has always done. Cheese doesn’t always travel well. The job of the monger has always been to receive the cheese, assess it, and decide what they’re going to do with it to present it best to the consumer. That means that sometimes you have to do what we – the old school – call ‘cheese care.’

If a cheese comes in and it’s not looking happy, as long as you deal with it right away, you’ll be able to restore it within a few days. Sometimes you’ll need to let the cheese dry out, or you’ll need to give it more humidity, or you need to turn it.

For example, at this time of year, the goat milk that our Vermont cheesemakers are using is loaded with proteins and fats. As a result the cheese is loaded with moisture. We’ll see condensation on the inside of the packaging, which doesn’t happen at any other time of year. We just open up the wrapping to let the cheese lose some of that moisture.

It’s really not complicated. It’s about moisture levels, humidity and temperature. Once a cheese has been made, the caring for it is pretty simple.

The new school has taken to calling cheese care ‘affinage,’ but it’s not affinage. Affinage is very different. Real affineurs buy young cheese – cheese that hasn’t yet been aged, and that isn’t ready for consumption – and they age it themselves, to give it a specific set of characteristics that they’re seeking to impart or highlight. Affineurs work directly with producers to select the right wheels of young cheese. They’re not getting cheese that’s already been aged and is ready for the market and then doing something to it.

One of the famous French affineurs is Jean D’Alos. Someone like that buys young cheeses directly from producers. He selects specific wheels of cheese that are perfect for his aging process. He then does things like age those cheeses in a specific wine until it’s ready for market. His process creates a different cheese than you’d get if it had been aged by the producer. It’s an art.

A lot of the people here who are calling themselves affineurs are working with cheese that’s already been aged. That’s not affinage. It’s cheese care. I’m old school. I resent the abuse of the term affinage. Artisanal used to have meaning. It doesn’t anymore. Now these new cheese mongers have ruined the word affinage. It doesn’t have any real meaning anymore, because it’s been misused so much.

In the old school, we were taught that there was a way things were done. And they’d been done that way for a long time. But now you have so much growth in cheese that you have a lot of green people running counters or in distribution and sales positions – you have the blind leading the blind, and a lot of people in that vacuum of knowledge say whatever they want to say.

“Oh yeah! We’re an affineur! This is our cave aged…whatever!”

I know the New York Times wants to sell papers. The sad thing is that now there might be a whole new school of retailers in the United States who read that article who are now going to say, “Oh, affinage, we should start doing that!”

That’s why we need more education and truth and honesty about stuff.

Think about the edification of wine. For centuries it’s been considered an esteemed, noble thing. For cheese people, we see that cheese doesn’t have the codification and rigorous standards to define expertise in cheese. There’s a need perhaps to establish that – because there are a lot of people in the business right now who don’t know a whole lot about cheese.

Luke Johnson, former cheese buyer and cave manager at Carroll Gardens' Stinky Bklyn, is now the cheese caretaker at Food Matters Again.

Luke Johnson, formerly the cheese buyer and cave manager at Carroll Gardens’ beloved cheese monger Stinky Bklyn, now works full-time as the cheese caretaker at Food Matters Again, spending hours caring for the cheese in a frigid, humidity-controlled walk-in cooler piled to the rafters with some of finest cheeses the planet has to offer.

Luke, tell us about your take on the affinage acrimony.

What a lot of people are calling affinage should be called cheese care. ‘Affinage’ suggests that you’re aging the cheese yourself and impacting its character. Once you get an aged cheese from the producer, you don’t want to be changing that cheese. You shouldn’t be washing it in wine or something to give it a new flavor. You should just be taking care of it.

I admit — back in the day I wanted to do crazy stuff to cheese. I wanted to soak cheeses in my own concoctions, to come up with my own takes on it. But I would talk to cheesemakers. I’d tell them, “Oh, I took your cheese and I did this to it.” And they’d say, “Why would you do that? I make my cheese the way I want to make it. The cheese I give you is exactly the way I want it to taste.”

That kind of put me in my place. It’s kind of like taking someone else’s wines and blending them on your own or something. It’s not your place as the cheese monger to mess with a cheese made by someone else. They send it out into the world because it’s a product they’ve put their heart into, that they really love.

Properly storing and caring for cheese is critical. It’s always been done by cheese mongers.  But Steve Jenkins mentioned that we’re starting to see more people kind of glorify cheese care to add cost to the product, and I think that’s a really valid concern.

From talking to other people who’ve been in the industry for longer than I have…there’s this perspective that there are a lot of young kids coming into the industry, that have just started, who think they know everything but don’t. And there’s a sense that there’s a lack of appreciation and respect for people like Steve Jenkins who laid the groundwork for the artisanal cheese industry – who created a market that allowed people like me to have a career in this business.

Chris Gray and Beth Lewand of Greenpoint's Eastern District -- a small cheese and beer shop on Manhattan Ave. Beth dishes on the affinage controversy, and suggests that affinage is really beside the point for small, independent shops who source perfectly ripened cheese directly from the producers.

Beth Lewand owns Eastern District, a Greenpoint-based cheese and craft beer shop, with her husband Chris. Beth handles the cheese, and points out that at small cheese shops like hers, they buy perfectly aged cheese and go through inventory so quickly that affinage is beside the point.

So Beth, what was your reaction to the Times piece on affinage?

I think the Times reporter was trying to create a controversy where none really exists. Affinage is inarguably a real and important part of cheesemaking. Steven Jenkins even wrote about it in his book — he just called it something less pretentious, like aging or ripening. It’s a key part of what gives each cheese its own unique flavor and character.

Ironically, as Chris was reading portions of this article to me, I was opening up a piece of Grayson that had just been shipped to us, via UPS(!), from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia, and I was noting how perfectly aged it was. Affinage can happen on the farm. It usually does. It doesn’t require a middleman or full-time affineur.

The defects that the critics noted in the blind taste test in the cheese that supposedly hadn’t been ‘affinaged’ were not necessarily examples of poor affinage, but of poor handling after the aging period. Some large markets and distributors will buy more cheese than they need at one time, to save money. Then they let the cheese sit around for too long. Or they cut it up into small portions and smother it in plastic for a few weeks before it’s sold. A perfectly ripened wheel of cheese can quickly become gross under the wrong conditions.

Murray’s cave program is smart — they can still purchase large quantities of cheese and benefit from bulk discounts, while guaranteeing that their stock is handled properly while awaiting its appearance on their retail shelves.

Smaller stores like ours and other independent cheese shops, don’t have the space or manpower for this kind of production. But we do have the passion and the intelligence to care for smaller quantities of properly-aged cheese, and to bring it to you at the peak of ripeness. I bet that if the Times were to do a taste test of cheese from Brooklyn cheese shops, they would find that we come out ahead of Fairway and Artisanal. By miles.

So yes, affinage is a legitimate and necessary part of cheese production. And yes, Murray’s is taking good care of their cheese and using it as a marketing tool. They’re a big, successful business, so that’s what they do. And even though they’re doing a great job at it, I guess I’m rambling on because I want to reassure everyone that the little guys like us still deliver great, impeccably-aged cheeses, at the peak of their ripeness. We don’t need to do affinage or a whole lot of complicated cheese care because we don’t have a whole lot sitting around.

Any other cheese makers, mongers, or fanatics out there want to weigh in on affinage or the old school vs. new school battles in the world of cheese? Tell us in the comments.

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13 Responses to Fromage Fight? NY Times Article Touches A Nerve in the Cheese Community

  1. Pingback: Rijpen is Begrijpen | Bits and Bites

  2. James McCall says:

    Simple really.
    ‘Proper’ affineurs take cheese at 2/3 days old and ‘kiss, cuddle, stroke and love’ them until they are at their best. Washed rind, cave aged etc, etc. using specialist individual ripening rooms with specific humidities and temperatures for each family of cheese. That is an art and a real skill.

    ‘Pretend’ affineurs take already aged cheese store them together in so called maturing rooms, turning them routinely and fooling their customers.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong in being just a cheese-monger. It has it’s own prestige. But leave the affinage to the experts and stop fiddling around with already lovingly made aged cheese and trying to put your own spin on it. Love it and look after it and sell it for what it is.

    Rant over.

    James McCall.
    Affineur and Cheese-monger. (separately)

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  4. rob kaufelt says:

    if i may, i’d like to weigh in here with a little background and comment. the first thing that strikes me about the comments here to the article in the times is how much we are all really on the same page. by that i mean that for most of us raised here in the united states we didn’t grow up within a cheese culture, and we came to it later from a love of the product. that sentiment is clear from the postings i’ve just read.

    nor did we ever expect cheese to become a big deal. when i bought murray’s over twenty years ago, it was just a mom and pop that might well be expected to go the way of so many others in our neighborhood. the fact that any small shops remain is a tribute to both the viability of local neighborhoods even today in this town, and the fact that our customers are willing to support these shops as the giants steadily encroach upon us. for example, there were no whole foods here twenty years ago; now we are surrounded by four very large superstores within a mile’s radius. so we have had to do many things to survive.

    and there were pioneers, among them steve jenkins, who helped me when i bought murray’s. giorgio delucca was a cheesemonger originally. just as there were men (though more women) pioneering the cheesemaking movement, there were retailers doing their thing at the same time: ishan at fromgerie litchen; ari at zingerman’s. some have retired, some remain. all deserve the credit they are due for creating what may be termed a new industry. or perhaps a movement is an even better term as we are not really an industry yet, and may not wish to be. the choice will not be ours, however, as things often take on a life of their own.

    one issue we faced was the fact that the cheese wasn’t as good as it was abroad; we learned that over time. the distributors might often have been selling us ketchup or mayonnaise. often, the quality just wasn’t there, so enough was enough, and we began the slow and laborious process of importing the cheese ourselves, and setting up the ships and planes and licenses and brokerage to get it here.

    in time, even this was not enough to insure quality. so at murray’s, when we moved across the street to our current location, we needed two things: some aging rooms, or caves, to store the cheese, and a classroom to teach about it. that was seven years ago. i had visited many affineurs during the years prior, and saw what they did, and learned from them. we bought from affineurs in france and italy. i introduced mons to this country, and we bought from alleosse, jean d’alos, chaput and others.

    in time, it was clear that it was better to age the cheese ourselves, or do proper affinage; that is, we began to wash cheeses, or somehow make them better than they were when we got them. many were and are american cheeses. the affineurs of france and a few in other countries, were not providing the perception of value we seek in the cheeses we buy, that mysterious combination of flavor, cost, uniqueness, and availability we use to determine in our little buying group which cheeses to carry.

    it was this steve originally referred to in an article jim mellgren wrote, wherein he decries paying more for what we can do best ourselves, or may not need to be done at all. with this i agreed. where we disagreed, as we so often do, is in the fact that now that highly perishable, often small production cheeses are ubiquitous that no special care is needed, when the opposite is true. when once upon a time a few of us brought in a case or two of camembert, or epoisses, they were lovingly tended to, but now, alas, this was no longer the case, and many retailers were shovelling them out as if they were – yes, let’s be frank – cases of ketchup and mayo! (though perhaps this is not a proper analogy, as i think both the heinz and the hellman’s are good products).

    after several years of trial and error, we knew we had some really fine cheeses, and introduced our own line, murray’s cave aged. we have worked closely with many cheesemakers, and our staff has become familiar with many of their efforts to make great cheese, and so we provide feedback to those who wish to learn. when i first judged at the american cheese society, there were only a few dozen entries, while now well over a thousand compete, yet the percentage of great cheeses has not risen by the same factor i’m afraid. all the more reason to treasure the good ones, and in some cases, make them even better.

    let me conclude by inviting the folks blogging here to murray’s for lunch and a discussion and a cave tour, so that we may show you what we do and help us develop a stronger cheese community here in nyc. my email is if we can get a good response, and work a viable date into our busy holiday calendars, we can have a good time in the near future debating this and other related topics. just let me know who you are, what you do, and some dates that work for you.

    rob kaufelt
    murray’s cheese

  5. brad says:

    End of the day, there are thankfully many cheesemongers who do amazing cheese care and present excellent ranges with everything in great condition, and the rest need to learn from them. That is what keeps the whole thing going after all, and the leaders like Murray’s remind others and help to ensure that cheeses like Epoisses are served true to the great tradition – and with the respect they deserve.

    Cheers to everyone who works to bring all of these amazing cheeses to the consumers who appreciate them!

  6. Pingback: NY Times article touches a nerve in the cheese community | Cheese Cave

  7. christopher gillespie says:

    I think that Steven Jenkins comment is probably taken at least a bit out of context. When he said “And if my humidity is 35 percent different from yours, my cheese is going to taste just as good as yours,” he probably wasn’t talking about the care-taking of singular wheels for longer than a week or three. There’s plenty of cheeses that I’ve purchased and cared for over the span of a few weeks before it was completely sold, and that was not affinage.
    On the other hand, when I purchased a 4-5 month old wheel of cheese and kept it for 1-2 years, carefully maintaining it’s surface and checking for imperfections, flipping and washing (as needed) and monitoring the humidity, even Mr. Jenkins would acknowledge that a cheese held at an 80% percent humidity is going to be drastically different from a cheese held at 45% humidity.
    It’s easy to understand when you look at small to medium domestic producers of cheese, and their long-term inability to keep and age cheese for experimentation given their smaller facilities by comparison to European producers. Often the USA is faced with 1st and 2nd generation cheese makers who don’t have the larger facilities that have been vested within family or company over multiple generations as we see across the pond. Unless a cheesemaker is working with someone like Jasper Hill, who has cellars for creating excellence in this dialogue, most cheesemakers are working with limited space and a need to create turnover.
    Aside from Murray’s and a few other small operations across the country, it’s still a very new concept to see a prevalence of affinage in the States by comparison to other countries like Switzerland where Rolf Beeler is doing amazing things with cheeses he’s selected.
    Affinage is out there, but it’s almost impossible for ‘Joe Everyman’ to properly discern the difference between a true variant from the original cheese and potential offerings by an alternative source.
    I believe the ACS is going to help further delineate these lines with their upcoming cheese certifications as their seal of approval will help to identify purveyors who actually know what they’re talking about when it comes to cheese, but that still doesn’t help ‘Joe Everyman’ if he hasn’t done his research to identify those who are faking their credentials.

  8. Real affinage is done by those who are buying fresh cheeses at the farm and mature them professionally within the right biospheres. They bring out the best of a cheese and give it the value it deserves. What cheesemongers do at best, is to take care of the cheese. I have no idea about the quality of cheesemongers in your country, but in mine (Belgium) cheese is in most cases kept in refrigerators, because cheesemongers lack the basic infrastructure to keep cheese alive. Now, it ‘s true affinage can be done at the farmers’ premises but only if the cheesemaking farmer has the time, the money, the means, the knowledge and the experience to walk the whole road. It is no accident that in countries like France, Italy … there is a tradition of affineurs. Real affineurs have a reason to exist, they don’t make the food chain longer. No, they make it more valuable. Just my 2 cts.

  9. Call me bias, but I do think there is a place for affinage in the US, especially of American cheeses. But hey, if you want to call me New School, you won’t be the first one … here my full opinion:

  10. Joe A. says:

    Great piece, really interesting perspectives all around and a useful clarification of what Affinage really is. The Cellars at Jasper Hill needs to be discussed more prominently as well, as they are really going all out to build an American version of the true Affinage facility, based on the French model, up in Vermont.

    That being said, I have to take issue with Beth Lewand lumping Fairway and Artisanal in together. I’ve been in the Artisanal caves and seen how they handle their cheeses, and they are by no means on the same scale as a Fairway. If anything, anyone who’s been to the Artisanal cheese counter knows that they often have a sometimes surprisingly small selection of cheeses, but what they have is almost always at peak. They’re not just a massive cheese operator turning over huge quantities of cheese, as Fairway seems to have become, and Max McCalman is still very much intimately involved with the day to day operations.

  11. Laura says:

    Are there small Brooklyn stores claiming to do affinage? I run the cheese counter at Greene Grape Provisions, and I certainly wouldn’t claim to do anything beyond cheese care. That said, I’ve been lucky to have been trained by some very talented affineurs, which gives me the skills to know what is sellable, what is young enough to put in a humidity controlled space for a few weeks, and what I’d never want associated with my store and my name.

    I think what Murrays is doing is probably real affinage, just as I definitely believe that The Artisanal Center does. I’ve worked at the Bistro, and as of two years ago, I genuinely had never tasted an Eppoises that was as perfect as theirs, so if Murrays is now coming close, more power to them. So many large markets sell this cheese, letting it rot and harden in the grab-n-go case, or putting them out for sale when they’re clearly too young. At $15-20 per 12 oz wheel, I know I can’t do them justice, so I don’t carry them. It saddens me when cheese shops carry way too many products without giving their staff the knowledge on how to care for them. I think it’s also important to mention that there are very few American Affineurs, so beyond the lucky few that come through Jasper Hill’s Cellars, it’s kind of nice that there are people taking some cheeses to the Next Level. Grayson is always perfect straight from the farm, but not all Farmstead cheeses are.

    As for small shops like us, or Eastern District, it’s true.. we buy in small quantities and move them quickly… but we have to trust that our distributors are sending healthy product. Or that the distributors aren’t out of stock themselves. Sometimes our most popular cheeses are simply sold out because we can’t get them.. so we turn customers on to something new. We do not always receive perfectly aged cheese, and I do sometimes have to decide if it’s worth caring for them, or sending them back. A large store like Murrays, and I believe Fairway, should have every right to stockpile their customers favorites, even if it means getting them young and ripening them themselves.

    That all said, small cheese shops, like all 11 that are participating in the American Cheese Month Passport program, are caring for their products beautifully, and I encourage everyone support us all and send a message to the larger stores that neglect their products. We may be a little pricier, but we’ll always sample with you and you’ll always remember your experience.

    • peter.hobbs says:

      Laura – really interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts! The depth of knowledge in the cheese world is pretty staggering…we’re just totally stoked that there are people out there like you who make sure we get awesome cheese!

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