The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin
Publication Year: 2009
Certification as a Master Cheesemaker typically takes almost fifteen years. An applicant must hold a cheesemaking license for at least ten years, create one or two chosen varieties of cheese for at least five years, take more than two years of university courses, consent to constant testing of their cheese and evaluation of their plant, and pass grueling oral and written exams to be awarded the prestigious title.
James Norton and Becca Dilley interviewed these dairy artisans, listened to their stories, tasted their cheeses, and explored the plants where they work. They offer here profiles of forty-three active Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin, as well as a glossary of cheesemaking terms, suggestions of operations that welcome visitors for tours, tasting notes and suggested food pairings, and tasty nuggets (shall we say curds?) of information on everything to do with cheese.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
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This book was born from more than a mere love of Wisconsin cheese. It also sprang from a deep-seated conviction that Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers would be incredibly fun guys to get to know. The very phrase “Wisconsin cheesemaker” is one of those rare, perfect, euphonious...
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The authors would like to thank—first and foremost—the master cheesemakers of Wisconsin. Across the board, they were happy to meet with us, generous with their time, and gracious to a fault. Getting to meet them was a reward unto itself. Heather Porter Engwall and Patrick Geoghegan of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board were absolutely instrumental in making this book happen. Cathy...
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We do not intend for this book to be any sort of definitive work on the art and craft of cheesemaking. The authors were humbled by the knowledge of the cheesemakers, who were humbled by the knowledge of the staff at the Center for Dairy Research, who were humbled by the complicated...
The Masters of Green County
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If you order the limburger sandwich at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, Wisconsin, it soon becomes evident that the tavern isn’t fooling around. This isn’t a young limburger, still mild and crumbly, nor is it a middle-aged fellow, thickly scented but still acceptable...
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At five in the morning, most Americans are asleep. They are snoozing soundly, tucked into a layer cake of warm sheets and blankets in a climate-controlled bedroom. Work—probably at an office—is still safely three to four hours in the future. At five in the morning on any given weekday...
The Buholzer Brothers:
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Down in green county, once home almost exclusively to small makers of mostly Swiss- and German-style cheeses, the specialty cheese revolution has wrought strange changes. Once-small factories have mushroomed as others have been converted to...
Jeff Wideman and Paul Reigle
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It’s hard to generalize about cheesemakers, but one rule of thumb generally seems to hold true: the smaller the plant, the more hats the cheesemaker wears. Paul Reigle, one of two master cheesemakers at Maple Leaf Cheese, sums up his early, frantic days...
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Geared for academia by a university professor father, Jim Meives surprised everyone—including himself—by extending a college hiatus into a full-blown career. “I told my father I was gonna be a cheesemaker and he hit the roof. ‘You’re gonna do what?!’ But I just loved it,” Meives recalls. “As it turned out, I excelled at cheesemaking...
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There’s a tendency when talking to outsiders—journalists, authors, other laypeople—to put a pretty face on the Wisconsin dairy industry. It’s good marketing, and someone’s got to sing its praises. Master cheesemaker Steve Stettler...
Myron Olson and Jamie Fahrney
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Unlike some of the bigger guns in a cheesemaker’s arsenal— stainless steel rakes and shovels, wire screens and machetelike curd knives—a cheese trier feels like a precision instrument. Made from surgical steel and clocking in at about nine...
The Masters of Southwestern Wisconsin
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Madison is the capital of the state, and in some ways it’s the capital of the state’s dairy industry as well. The University of Wisconsin’s dairy short course and the Center for Dairy Research are incubators for new talent and wellsprings of old knowledge. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board operates...
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Ask the average cheesemaker how business is going, and most will say something fairly positive, or even downright optimistic. Tom Torkelson takes it to another level. “We’re making so many products I can’t get enough vat time to get our cheeses made,” he says. “I need to clone...
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Sid cook, the owner and head cheesemaker at Carr Valley Cheese Company, is among the Wisconsin makers leading the way in new American cheeses. His personal passion for messing with mixed milks, flavors, and aging techniques has led to an explosion of new ideas in cheesemaking, and helped his company’s bottom line; Carr Valley cheeses are known all over the country. But his...
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The first thing a visitor to the Cedar Grove Cheese plant in Plain is likely to remember is how beautiful the countryside is. Legend is that Iceland and Greenland were misleadingly named in order to confuse invaders. It’s possible that Plain was named according to a similar scheme; Cedar Grove’s plant is nestled...
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There are cheesemakers who would feel lost—as though they’d had a limb lopped off—without their plants. For master cheesemaker and dairy consultant Doug Peterson, however, the experience has been tremendously liberating. As head of Dairymasters, LLC, Peterson travels the country—and world—tackling...
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Jake Niffenegger seems like an old hand at making brie and camembert, and indeed he is—he’s been working for Lactalis USA in Belmont since 1984. But when he first arrived at the European-style factory, he was in for some culture shock. “It was pretty wild,” he recalls. “I was pretty young when I started at Lactalis, and I’d been making cheddar and colby. I was used to making cheese in thirty-thousand-pound vats. ...
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Thomas Jenny was living a life that, for a Wisconsin cheesemaker, was fairly typical. He was making swiss cheese, learning about the industry from his father and uncle, living near Platteville (he worked in the area for thirty-three years), and doing his best to survive the periodic buyouts and plant closings that dogged...
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“I was born and raised on a dairy farm,” says master cheesemaker Richard Glick. “This is the farm.” He gestures off toward the green hill that rises dramatically above La Farge, a town of fewer than a thousand people not far from La Crosse. Family is one of the keys to cheesemaking, from Glick’s perspective—his uncle, Gerald Glick, owned and operated a small plant called Warner Creek Cheese...
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Anyone who doubts the sincerity of the University of Wisconsin’s connection to the farmers and dairymen of the state should stop by and visit with Gary Grossen. As the cheesemaker at Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, part of the university’s Department of Food Science, he supervises the production...
The Masters of Southeastern Wisconsin
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If you go to Southeastern Wisconsin, you’re probably primed to eat, drink, and be merry. Milwaukee’s brewing heritage lives on through midsized artisan brewers, such as Sprecher and Lakefront; Sheboygan is still the spiritual home of the bratwurst; and when in Racine you must—absolutely must—pick up some of the city’s famous Danish kringle. So it follows that cheesemaking would...
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With the addition of the right music—something with a manic tempo—the action that takes place in Widmer’s Cheese Cellars would resemble an elaborately choreographed dance number. Workers make a series of repeated motions: cheesemaker Joe Widmer’s tossing of metal plates onto brick cheese forms like a Vegas veteran...
Kurt Heitmann and Ken DeMaa
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Like many—or, really, most—of those who have risen to the top of the Wisconsin cheese industry, Kurt Heitmann worked his way up with a soapy rag and ample amounts of elbow grease. He got his cheesemaker’s license in 1976. “When I first came [to Alto—now owned by Saputo Cheese USA Inc.], I started in the plant doing cleanup. ...
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Jeff Mattes is a classic Wisconsin cheesemaker—a long family history in the business led him to pursue it as his profession. “When my parents brought me home from the hospital, my first home was the second floor of our family-owned cheese factory, which my grandfather and father owned at the time up in Collins, Wisconsin,” he says. “And it was said at the time, if you didn’t like the factory...
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Log more than three decades in any given profession, and you’d better take some pride in it—that’s a good chunk of your life. Ken Nett of Cedar Valley Cheese isn’t short on pride in his work, and he views the master cheesemaker program...
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If there ever comes a time in life—a birthday, a graduation, the launching of a major cruise ship—when you need to purchase a six-ton wheel of cheddar cheese, the good people at Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese should be first on your list. Those in the know understand that master cheesemaker Kerry Henning is up to some remarkable things involving flavored and fruit-laced cheeses, but it’s hard...
The Masters of Northeastern Wisconsin
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Northeastern Wisconsin is home to the heart-wrenchingly lovely shoreline of Door County, the seemingly endless suburban sprawl of the Fox Valley, and—of course—Lambeau Field and the Green Bay Packers. It’s also one of Wisconsin’s cheesemaking hot spots. Nine master...
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English is not master cheesemaker Gianni Toffolon’s first language—he came to America from Italy in 1979 to help establish a U.S.-based Italian cheese business. Despite this, there may be no one else in the state of Wisconsin who can so clearly and passionately articulate the way that a committed cheesemaker feels...
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Not far from Appleton—southwest of Green Bay and northeast of Lake Winnebago—lies a little slice of Europe. In 2006 the Denmark-based dairy giant Arla Foods USA purchased White Clover Dairy, a sprawling, century-old plant known for its premium edam and gouda cheeses. And while European management may run the strategic picture, it’s a local boy who oversees the...
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To tell the story of Larry Steckbauer, you have to tell the story of the plant in which he works. It’s a Sartori Foods plant now, but it got its start as a Kraft cheese plant, the second owned by founder James L. Kraft. Steckbauer points out the window of his plant’s conference room, into what is currently...
Jim Demeter and Daniel Stearns
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Ask Jim Demeter if he’s ever considered a career other than cheesemaking, and, more likely than not, you’ll get a hearty chuckle in response. “For me it never really was an option,” he says. “I am a fourth generation cheesemaker—I just really grew up with...
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If the modern, automated cheesemaking has a face, it may be that of Gregg Palubicki, who presides over Saputo Cheese USA’s sophisticated Black Creek facility. More automated than even the sprawling Waupun facility (formerly Alto’s flagship plant), Black Creek is a forest of stainless steel and silicon. “There’s goods and bads about mechanization,” Palubicki says. “I think it’s harder to make a good piece of cheese if you’re totally mechanized and running off the clock. Bigger plants...
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Quite a few of the state’s master cheesemakers have deep roots in the industry. But not only are Terry Lensmire’s roots deep—three generations deep, to be precise—they’re also broad. “My grandfather actually worked for three or four cheese plants in his life,” he says. “He also had several brothers...
Carie Wagner and Tom Blauert
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Every piece of cheese has a story behind it. Each wheel, wedge, block, or bag of shreds is the end product of labor, microfauna, marketing plans, purchasing agreements, distribution networks, R & D, and good old-fashioned milk. As much as—or more than—any other master cheesemaker, Carie Wagner has seen every facet of the big picture. ...
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If you visit the conference room in Roger Krohn’s cheese plant, you’re immediately struck by the old photos that line the walls. It’s not merely that they’re old; they’re generationally old, telling a continuous story that stretches back into the nineteenth century, when the plant was born. Aerial shots of the plant show its recent evolution and expansion; a hand-tinted closeup shows an early-model milk truck, with spoked tires and a buggylike hood, pulled up to the plant’s small porch. A middle-aged working...
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Living above your cheese plant is supposed to be a historical condition, a quirk of the past when Wisconsin cheesemaking was still growing out of its origins as something that farm wives did to earn a little extra money or preserve milk for the winter months. The intimacy of hearing the clanking, rumbling...
The Masters of Northwestern Wisconsin
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Distances in Northwestern Wisconsin feel longer than in other parts of the state, the beginning of a process that meets its logical conclusion in the increasingly empty Plains and western states of North Dakota and Montana. The population starts to dwindle and spread out as you head north and west, moving toward the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers and away from the population...
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Master-level cheesemaking happens on many levels. At one extreme are the operations that process 2.5 million pounds of milk a day and ship out cheese in fleets of tractor-trailers. At the other extreme is the guy who carefully empties a nylon bag of delicate...
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“How’d I get into cheesemaking? I needed a job,” quips Richard “Whitie” Wold, head of the cheese department at Associated Milk Producers, Inc.’s massive Jim Falls plant. His white hair at an early age inspired the nickname; it’s emblazoned on his cheesemaker...
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It’s pretty well understood that cheesemaking in Wisconsin is—or at least was—largely a family business. Fathers taught sons, referring back to what they’d learned from their own fathers and grandfathers. And while many Wisconsin plants have a generational story to them, few can—with a couple moments’ notice and a bit of persuasive wrangling—assemble grandfather, father, and sons for a snapshot. ...
Bruce Willis and Steven Tollers
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Those who walk into the Burnett Dairy Cooperative shop for the first time are likely to wonder what the special event is. Even on a weekday, the aisles are crowded; customers line up in front of the cheese coolers and mill around in front of the homespun-packaged muffin mixes and dehydrated soups that line the...
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Some Wisconsin cheese plants don’t deal with retail operations. Customers can be a hassle—they introduce a whole new layer of work to the business. Other plants have retail stores, but they’re deliberately small, just a counter and a list of prices. Then there are stores—fewer than you might hope—that throw their doors open to the community. Stop by the Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Company...
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When the average person hears the term “master cheesemaker,” a common first inclination is to imagine a guy leaning over a stainless steel or copper vat making a hand-crafted batch of cheese. In one sense, that might describe Land O’Lakes senior scientist Vern Kind to a T. He’s got a small test operation set up in one of the firm’s Arden Hills...
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Drive deep enough into Amish country near Granton and Neillsville, on Highway 10, and you’ll stumble across Lynn Dairy. Or, more accurately, you’ll first stumble across a depot where men are lugging heavy metal cans of milk out of trucks and then pulling them back out again through a side entrance high enough to make truck loading a little easier. Lynn Dairy is one of the few dairies in...
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The authors were able to interview and photograph forty-three of the forty-four master cheesemakers active as of winter 2007–8. That leaves one active master and six other program graduates who deserve recognition. ...
Glossary of Cheesemaking Terms
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Wisconsin Cheese on the Web
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Publication Year: 2009