Clemson Blue Cheese Earns Top Honors in National Competition
CLEMSON – Clemson University’s blue cheese made a big impression earlier this month in the cheesiest state of them all, placing fourth in its class at the 2019 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest This year’s team included Master Cheesemaker Anthony Pounders, and assistants Erica Adams and Adrien Bibb. “We’ve entered contests before, but this is the highest we’ve ever placed,” Pounders said. “We’re extremely proud.”
The contest was held in Green Bay, Wis., home of the Green Bay Packers, whose ever-faithful fans stuff Styrofoam cheese wedges on their heads. Clemson Blue Cheese also scored well in 2009, ranking 13th in its class of 44 competitors. This year, judges from 20 states evaluated 2,555 entries for winning characteristics including taste, texture and color. Clemson’s entry, named Amick’s Choice, scored 97.5 points out of a possible 100. Only tenths of points separated the top four finishers in the Blue-Veined Cheese Category. The first-and second-place winners in that class were commercial cheese companies from California and Wisconsin, respectively.
A handful of universities continue to make cheese as part of their agriculture and dairy science programs. Clemson is the only school in the South that makes blue cheese — aged, salted and packaged on campus since 1958. Pounders has worked with the program for 23 years.
Contest rules dictated that the name of an entry could not give away its region or state to avoid swaying judges to choose one brand over another. Amick’s Choice pays respect to Bill Amick, a Clemson University trustee, who served on the board for 30 years, including two terms as chairman. He was the former head of Amick Farms, a poultry grower and processor headquartered in Batesburg-Leesville, S.C., and one of the most passionate supporters of Clemson Blue Cheese. Amick died in 2013.
The history of Clemson Blue Cheese dates back to 1941, when a Clemson dairy professor cured the cheese in the damp air of Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel near Walhalla, S.C. Production was moved in 1958 to Clemson’s Newman Hall, where air-conditioned ripening rooms replicate the temperature and humidity of the unfinished railroad tunnel, originally a vital link from the Charleston port to the fertile Midwest. The project began in 1852 but North-South hostilities in 1859 halted construction. Attempts to reactivate the project after the Civil War failed and the tunnel was abandoned.
Clemson A&M College purchased the tunnel in 1951, and Operation Blue Cheese continued experimentally when the dairy professor and his crew cleared out enough of the tunnel to make way for their cheese equipment. Back then, milk from the college’s dairy herd was used to make the cheese, first produced on campus and then driven 30 miles to Stumphouse Mountain, where moisture levels were perfect for curing blue cheese.
In October 1953, some 2,500 pounds of cheese cured in the depths of Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel amid its makers’ high hopes that it would hit the marketplace the following May. That continued until 1956, except during summer, when curing was suspended because temperatures inside the tunnel were too hot.
In 1956, university officials opened the much-anticipated Agricultural Center in Newman Hall, including air-conditioned rooms designed for year-round cheese curing. Four years later, blue cheese production from start to finish was done there and still is.
Today, Pounders makes cheese the old-school way. A 600-gallon vat turns out 520 pounds of cheese, which is salted and aged 6 months. Once ready, he scrapes and packages the cheese by hand, a painstaking but necessary process. Watson Dorn, a Clemson grad and owner of Hickory Hill Farm in Edgefield, S.C., provides the milk, also made the old-fashioned way when the cream rises to the top of the bottle. It’s the same milk that goes into the university’s second dairy brand, Clemson’s Best™ Gourmet Ice Cream.
To order Clemson Blue Cheese or find retailers, visit www.clemsonbluecheese.com. Hoops, wedges, wheels, dressing and crumbles can be purchased at select BI-LOs, Ingles Markets and specialty food stores across the Southeast. Restaurant chefs also serve Clemson Blue Cheese on many of their signature dishes. For everyday cooks who want to try it in their kitchens, “Tastes of Clemson Blue Cheese,” a collection of 200 recipes by university Chef Christian Thormose, is sold on Amazon, with a second edition available soon.