Keith Adams is apparently unaware of F. Scott Fitzgerald's maxim that there are no second acts in American lives. A few years ago, the Mankato resident was co-owner of a small chain of bagel shops. Today he's one of the region's up-and-coming cheesemakers.
Although production only began in April, Adams' Camembert-style cheese, which he markets under the name Bent River, is causing something of a sensation among local cheeseheads. "I'm impressed," said Alex Roberts, chef/owner of Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis. "I've never encountered another local cheese like it, and I'm glad we're serving it. It has great character, and I'm interested in watching how it develops."
That makes two of us. This lusciously ripe and creamy cheese is an exceptional effort for a freshman cheesemaker ("Every time I get a compliment I sort of blush," Adams said). Adams is taking a hands-on approach to his new vocation, absorbing knowledge from mentors and learning through all kinds of good old-fashioned trial and error. "Let me put it this way," he said. "I'm currently on production No. 23. I think batch No. 12 was the first one to pass muster. It's a tricky cheese, so it's probably good that I didn't know that when I was starting out, because it would have been too daunting. Ignorance really is bliss."
Adams calls his enterprise the Alemar Cheese Co., an amalgam of his two teenage daughters' names, Alex and Mari. "Camembert-style" sounds glamorous, but Adams' work environment is about as far from the Normandy countryside as a cheesemaker can get. He labors inside a cinder block building in downtown Mankato, a former pizza production facility that's just a few steps from where the Minnesota River takes a pronounced turn, hence the name Bent River.
Milk comes courtesy of cows grazing at the Minar family's Cedar Summit Farm in New Prague, a gold standard among Minnesota farmstead dairies. "You can't make great cheese without great milk," said Adams. "Not that I claim to be a master cheesemaker by any stretch, but I'm bound and determined to get there. That's the equation of life, isn't it? Being happy, and doing something that you love."
Bent River cheese (about $21 per pound, www.alemarcheese.com) is available at Seward Co-op, Wedge Co-op, Eastside Co-op, Surdyk's and Premier Cheese Market in Minneapolis, Mississippi Market and Whole Foods in St. Paul, and Twin Cities-area Kowalski's Markets. It's also featured at the Craftsman, Restaurant Alma and Vincent in Minneapolis.