When I didn’t see Fort Collins-based Bingham Hill’s cheeses at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market this summer, I vaguely wondered why. Perhaps they outgrew the farmers’ market model for selling cheese at retail. Perhaps they had been bought out by a larger corporation, rather like Boulder’s Izze natural sparkling juices have been slurped up by Pepsi Cola. Perhaps they had succumbed to the belated after-effects of a production problem in 2003 that prompted a voluntary recall of a ton of their fabulous Rustic Blue Cheese. Eventually, I heard a rumor that Bingham Hill had closed, but I chose to ignore it. The “Nibbles” column in today’s Rocky Mountain News reminded me to look into this.
Alas, the rumor was true and Bingham Hill Cheese Co. is no more. The mom-and-pop cheesery (mom being Kristi Johnson and pop being Tom Johnson) was established in 1999 and quickly began winning accolades and cheese-competition awards. In fact, every one of the 20 artisan cheeses the Johnsons eventually made won some award or another. Dean & DeLuca put Bingham Hill into its prestigious Christmas catalog. Trader Joe’s became the biggest customer, buying up 50 percent of its production, and the cheesemaker struggled unsuccesfully to meet the Trader’s demand. As recently as 2005, Bingham Hill waltzed off with ten medals at the World Cheese Awards in London, bringing their half-decade medal haul in national and international cheese competitions to an astonishing 35.
Then, Bingham Hill’s problems mounted. Although the Johnsons expected to increase their production, Trader Joe’s stopped buying their products, and the landlord wanted the cheesery out in order to demolish the building and redevelop the site. The price of milk rose, and profitability fell. Wisconsin tried to entice the Johnsons to move Bingham Hill there, but Tom’s roots are in Colorado. Bingham Hill closed earlier this year, and as if to add insult to injury, the Johnsons contended that the Morning Fresh Cheese Co. made off with trade secrets from the closed Bingham Hill Cheese Co. I understand that Kristi returned to law practice, and Tom took a position as business manager of The Coloradoan, Fort Collins’s daily newspaper.
That leaves Fort Collins with two micro-cheeseries. MouCo Cheese Co. was started in 2001 by another couple, Birgit Halbreiter, whose father is a master cheesemaker in Germany, and Robert Poland, formerly fermentation manager for New Belgium beer. Morning Fresh Dairy, which the Johnsons alledged made off with their cheesemaking secrets, was established in 1894 and jumped on the artisanal cheese bandwagon in March 2006, when it introduced eight all-natural cheese.
Belatedly, I mourn the loss of Bingham Hill, both for the quality of their cheeses and for the Johnsons’ pioneering Colorado cheesemaking. And I am happy that we still have locally made artisanal cheese to enjoy.