What's the deal with affinage?

There’s a lot of discussion going on in the cheese blogosphere right now about affinage. For those unfamiliar with the term, affinage is the process of aging cheese to bring out different characteristics of the cheese. One who practices affinage is called an affineur, and you can find them in almost any stage of cheese production and distribution. Some cheesemakers do their own aging (Beecher’s does this). Some affineurs, the simplest form of them, are effectively middlemen who buy young cheese from the cheesemakers and, at best, meticulously care for them as they reach the ideal age to be sold to a cheese shop.  They’re also found in cheese shops themselves, as many stores have decided to buy direct from the cheesemaker and doing their own aging.

The question floating around is whether affinage is a legitimate, value-added part of cheesemaking, or if it is just a way for the industry to jack up prices for the consumer. Those in favor of affinage suggest that aging cheese goes beyond the science of temperature maintenance and mold cultivation. For them, there is an element of art and intuition: the affineur is uniquely capable to aid the cheese in its ripening process. That’s one side of the argument, and opinion ranges all the way to its contrary, which says that all the delicate care espoused by the pro-affinage camp is merely a marketing gimmick. Although I’m not sure how interested people are in my opinion about it, I’ll offer my opinion for the sake of spirited debate.  As with most divisive issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. It’s not magic, but I think affinage is an incredibly useful part of the industry and its proper growth immensely beneficial.

Ultimately, cheese is a living thing. Each type of cheese has its own life, all of various lengths. How it gets treated before it gets to your mouth has a huge effect on the quality when it gets there. That isn’t to say that how it’s stored provides the majority of the flavor. On the contrary, if we were to have the nature versus nurture debate about cheese, I would staunchly advocate that it’s pretty much all in the nature, the milk and the cheese-making. The nurture side can’t make the cheese any better than it would be, but it can certainly ruin it. The best practices for maturing cheese include temperature and humidity control, and rotation. There is also the skill of knowing when the cheese is at its ideal age to be put out on the shelves to be sold. Not everyone ages their cheese the “best way” for the “best time,” but a lot do a really good job. It’s important to clarify that it’s not all or nothing, it’s not “best” versus “bad.” The key is that cheese is not really difficult to care for. They are fairly durable creatures. After all, everyone does some sort of affinage, even those who buy a block of cheese and forget it in their fridge for a year. When it’s done well, you can tell from the quality of the cheeses that those caring for it have an excellent sense of a cheese’s maturation process. They are very in sync with the trajectory of the cheeses under their care, knowing the ideal point for them to be eaten - à point, as they say.

Great affineurs, at whatever point in the supply chain you find them, play a really important role in the marketplace as both partners and consultants for small-scale cheesemakers. They buy the cheese young and directly from the cheesemaker, and pay close attention to providing a stable environment for the cheese to reach its ideal maturity. Digging deeper into what they do, they are essentially a type of distributor. Before the cheese even gets to their cave, the affineurs provide working capital for the cheesemakers, most of whom would be hard pressed to hold their entire inventory until perfectly ripe. They also relieve the cheesemakers of responsibilities that might be outside of their particular core competencies. The true affineurs are their own kind of distribution channel, who specialize in fitting the cheese to the market. They are more able to identify market trends and opportunities than the small-scale cheesemaker who may be logistically limited to regional farmer’s markets. They can provide constructive feedback for the cheesemakers on how well certain cheeses are performing in the marketplace, helping them valuate their product and improve their processes. They are not the cheese world’s version of negociants, who create entirely new wines from those brought to them. Great affineurs do not create new cheeses from the un-ripened specimens that they purchase; they cultivate them to their full potential.

Everyone benefits from great affinage. The cheesemaker gets more fluid working capital, more expansive market insight, and greater distribution. The cheesemonger gets higher quality products that bolster their reputation and their revenue. The customer, in turn, gets a more diverse selection of even better cheeses.

I'd love to hear what people think about this. Let me know in the comments below!
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