Sunday, August 23, 2015

Build a Dairy, Name a Goat: Bifrost Farms Looks to Rise in Wisconsin

Everyone knows that in Wisconsin, it's not easy starting up a small-scale, farmstead cheese operation. Every cheesemaker selling cheese commercially must be licensed, his or her facility must be licensed, and an array of permits and bureacratic hoops written for the big boys must be navigated. And if you're a small goat or sheep dairy operation, good luck finding a banker to loan you money.

That's why Meg and Joel Wittenmyer, land stewards for a diverse 20 acres in northwestern Wisconsin that they call Bifrost Farms, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on barnraiser.us. Their goal? To raise $4,000 before the ground freezes to install critical infrastructure needs at their farmstead goat dairy so they can work on the interior of a new micro-creamery this winter.

“It’s scary enough starting a new career at 57," says Meg, a Wisconsin Licensed Cheesemaker, goat milker, hay thrower, animal wrangler and bottle washer (literally). "But one that requires not only physical stamina, but puts you in the position of being responsible for the lives of so many wonderful animals…well, it’s kind of daunting. But, I've faced challenges all my life and never met one I couldn't overcome."

The Wyttenmyers' first step is renovating a building on their farm for a new micro-creamery, with a goal to open in May 2016.  This fall, they are trying to get critical infrastructure work done before the snow flies, so early next year, when they apply (and hopefully receive) a USDA micro-loan, they are ready for the rest of the work.

Meg has been experimenting with making goat's milk cheeses for years, and after spending the past two years earning her Wisconsin Cheese Makers License, she's already found her first waiting commerical customer. After tasting samples of Meg's delicious Chevre and Farmhouse Feta, Menomonie Market Cooperative is eager to carry Bifrost Farms cheese as well as Cajeta (a thickened syrup usually made of sweetened caramelized milk, originally from Mexico) and, one day, Gelato. "We can't get this done fast enough," Meg says.

In addition to making goat's milk cheeses, Meg is also dedicated to opening her facility to aspiring cheesemakers looking to gain their 240 needed apprenticeship hours with a licensed cheesemaker. Small-scale operations that meet the state's requirements for internships are few and far between, especially on the western side of the state. 

Those hoping to have their own micro-creamery one day must do as Meg did. Part of her hours were attained at the UW-River Falls Dairy Plant over three semesters, (where incidentally, not only did she not get paid, but had to pay student tuition to be able to work in the plant for liability reasons). The balance of her internship time included a short stint of 30 hours with a small goat dairy two hours away, while the rest occurred at a medium-sized creamery, which was still 100 times larger than her plans for Bifrost Farms, and an hour’s drive from her home.

Once Bifrost Farms is operational, Meg plans to hang out her shingle for interns who not only want to make cheese, but need to understand what it's like to operate at a micro-level, where often times one or two people are doing all the work. This is not a new problem for small cheesemakers, but hopefully, with one more micro-creamery in the mix, it won't be so hard, she says.

If you're interested in helping Meg & Joel with their dream of building an on-farm goat's milk creamery, I'd urge you to visit their barnraiser.us site, and learn more about their operation. Even a gift of $5 or $10 adds up, plus they'll recognize you on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Larger donations come with more rewards, such as farm tours and baskets of cheese, once the dairy is licensed. My favorite reward? Donate $55 and you'll get to name a goat next Spring at Bifrost Farms. Because who doesn't want to name a goat? C'mon people!

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Thousands Descend Upon Festival of Cheese in Providence

With more than 1,400 cheeses to try at last night's Festival of Cheese - the annual culmination of the American Cheese Society conference and competition - cheese lovers from around the world descended upon dozens of tables filled with cheeses sorted by category: flavored, fresh, farmstead, smoked, washed-rind, blues, international style, American originals, Italian-style, soft-ripened, cheddar and more, all in a quest to taste every cheese possible.

Some succeeded. Many failed. The rest of us are still in a cheese coma.

For me, one of the best parts of the annual Festival of Cheese is volunteering to prep the event. As usual, my husband and I were in charge of the cheddar table. Our mission: sort, cut, prep and tray 119 cheddar cheeses of every shape, color, variety and size, onto only seven tables. With one of the best volunteer crews ever assembled, we did it in just over six hours.

Here's a look at the process:

8 AM: Uriah and I pose for a selfie to remember how energetic we looked before shepherding hundreds of cheeses from cooler truck to speed rack to cutting tables to plating:


9 AM: three of my awesome volunteers starting to cut and plate cheddar. I always encourage my team to get creative in cutting and traying the cheeses, because after all, how often are we encouraged to play with our food?


10 AM: beginning to sort where the cheeses will land:



NOON: Here's a portion of our table, about halfway through the process. Time for lunch:



2:30 PM: We are almost done - just have to fluff up the tables with crackers, flowers and fruit. Time to take a team photo:



4 PM: And, it's showtime. Here's a glimpse of just a portion of our magnificent cheddar tables, with my hand-carved "cheddar mountains". Gosh, playing with cheese is fun:


Of course, the main perk of attending the Festival of Cheese is getting to try all the winning cheeses, including the Best of Show winners. Here they are, in all their glory:


It's also fun people-watching - here's a shot of U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Cecylia Szewczyk taking a photo of one of her many award-winning cheeses before the crowds arrive. The girl just keeps racking up the cheese awards:


Every year, I try to find the most unusual cheese at the event, and this year was no exception. This creative cheesemaker decided to insert a lemon into the middle of his cheese. Not surprisingly, the cheese was lemony in flavor:


If you missed this year's Festival of Cheese, fear not! The event will be repeated again next year, this time in Des Moines, Iowa. I look forward to seeing you there in 2016!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Two Wisconsin Cheeses Win Top Spots at American Cheese Society

Clara and Larry Hedrich of LaClare Farms in Wisconsin with
David Rogers, of Standard Market in Illinois.
One cheese: two makers. The European model of separating cheese making from cheese aging, while celebrating both the cheesemaker and the affineur, got a boost in America tonight, as a farmstead cheese from Wisconsin aged in cellars in Illinois was named the second best cheese in the nation.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka, a mixed milk cheese crafted with goat and cow's milk by Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann and her team on LaClare Farm, and aged by David Rogers and his team at Standard Market in Westmont, Illinois, was named Runner-Up Best in Show at the 2015 American Cheese Society competition, widely regarded as the Oscars of the artisan cheese industry. The Cave Aged Chandoka tied Roth's Private Reserve from Emmi Roth in Monroe for runner-up honors, while Best in Show went to Celtic Blue Reserve from Ontario, Canada.

"I just got off the phone with Katie, and all she could say was: 'Holy crap'. We both agreed that might be an understatement," David said shortly after the win was announced. While Katie was not in Providence to accept the award (she stayed home to make cheese), her parents, LaClare Farms founders, Larry and Clara Hedrich, climbed on stage with big smiles to accept top honors with David.

Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka
While only four wheels - yes, just four wheels - of the winning batch of Cave Aged Chandoka exist in the cellars at Standard Market, another 20 wheels will be available in four months, with another 20 wheels available soon after, and so on. The cheese is currently in very limited retail - you can find it at Standard Market, Eataly and Mariano's in Chicago - but like any big win, the cheese will likely be in much broader distribution once more is properly aged.

The award is particularly vindicating for Standard Market, which put significant time and expense into building in-store aging cellars to create a unique American artisan cheese aging program, a bold move not common or even understood in the United States.

"We started cave-aging the Chandoka about three years ago," David says, and over time and trial, settled on releasing the cheese at about six months. Twenty-two pound wheels of LaClare Farms Chandoka are shipped right out of the vat to Standard Market, where David and his team apply lard and linen. Regular Chandoka, sold by LaClare Farms, is not bandage wrapped and is sold younger. The difference between the two cheeses is night and day. Where regular Chandoka is mellow, creamy and smooth, Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka is bold, earthy and crumbly. It's hard to even tell they were ever once the same cheese.

Rounding out the Best in Show honors was Harbison from the Cellars at Jasper Hill, a company well-known for aging cheese for other cheesemakers in its underground caves in Vermont. The Cellars won Best in Show in 2013 with Winnimere, and again in 2006, with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar aged at The Cellars at Jasper Hill.

Hidden Springs Creamery Cheesemaker
Brenda Jensen with her 9 ribbons.
The 2015 ACS Judging & Competition saw 1,779 entries of cheeses and cultured dairy products from 267 companies from 31 states and three Canadian provinces. Wisconsin cheesemakers took the most awards of any state - with 99 total ribbons. California was second with 47, while Vermont captured 44 awards.

Hidden Springs Creamery, a farmstead sheep dairy near Westby, won the most awards for Wisconsin, with nine ribbons, tied with Lactalis in Belmont. Klondike Cheese was close behind, with eight awards, while Sartori Cheese, Hook's Cheese and Crave Brothers all earned five ribbons apiece.

Holland's Family Cheese swept the International Style with Flavor Added - All Milks category, with a first place for Marieke Gouda Foenegreek, second place for Marieke Gouda Cumin, and third place for Marieke Gouda Jalapeno. Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman did a happy dance on stage upon learning she had won all three ribbons in the class.

All Wisconsin companies earning awards at tonight's competition for their cheeses were:
  • Arena Cheese, Arena: Colby
  • Arthur Schuman Inc, Montfort: Cello Rich and Creamy Mascarpone, Montforte Gorgonzola Cheese Wheel, Montforte Blue Cheese Wheel, Cello Riserva Copper Kettle Parmesan Cheese, Cello Riserva Artisan Parmesan Cheese
  • BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay: Gorgonzola with Sheep's Milk, American Grana, Sharp Provolone Mandarino, Black Truffle Burrata
  • Burnett Dairy Cooperative, Grantsburg: Smoked String Cheese
  • Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain: Ovella, Weird Sisters, Traditional Feta, Donatello
  • Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee: Pizza Cheese Curds
  • Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Waterloo: White Cheddar Cheese Curds, Oaxaca, Farmer’s Rope String Cheese, Fresh Mozzarella- Bocconcini, Jalapeno Cheddar Cheese Curds
  • Edelweiss Creamery, Monticello: Brick
  • Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, Ellsworth: Brick, Hot Pepper Jack
  • Emmi Roth USA, Monroe: Roth’s Private Reserve, GranQueso Reserve, GranQueso, Grand Cru Surchoix
  • Graf Creamery, Bonduel: Brethren Roll Salted Butter
  • Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby: Manchego Reserve, Farmstead Feta, Driftless-Honey Lavender, Driftless-cranberry cinnamon, Driftless- basil /olive oil, Driftless Natural, Meadow Melody Reserve, Meadow Melody, Timber Coulee Reserve
  • Holland's Family Cheese, Thorp: Marieke Gouda Foenegreek, Marieke Gouda Cumin, Marieke Gouda Jalapeno, Marieke Gouda Aged (9-12 month)
  • Hook's Cheese Company, Mineral Point: Triple Play, Sheep Milk Cheddar, Three Year Cheddar, Barneveld Blue, EWE CALF to be KIDding Blue
  • Key Ingredient Market: Garlic Cheddar Spread
  • Klondike Cheese, Monroe: Brick, Muenster, Odyssey Peppercorn Feta, Odyssey Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Mediterranean Feta, Odyssey Reduced Fat Tomato & Basil Feta, Odyssey Sour Cream, Odyssey Greek Yogurt
  • LaClare Farms Specialties, Pipe: Standard Market Cave Aged Chandoka
  • Lactalis American Group, Belmont: 3 Kg. Brie, 1 Kg. Brie, 8oz. Brie, 1 Kg. Camembert, 8oz. Camembert, 3 Kg. Triple Cream Brie, 8oz. Feta, Président 8 oz Parmesan-Peppercorn, Rondelé Garlic & Herbs
  • Landmark Creamery, Albany: Petit Nuage
  • Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe: Low-fat Cheddar
  • Montchevre-Betin, Inc, Belmont: Fromage Blanc, Chèvre in Blue, Oh-La-La! Fresh Spreadable Goat Cheese
  • Mt. Sterling Cheese Co-op, Mt Sterling: Raw Milk Mild Cheddar, Whey Cream Butter
  • Organic Valley, LaFarge: Organic Blue Cheese, Organic Pepper Jack, Organic Pasture Butter, Organic Salted Butter, Organic European Style Cultured Butter
  • Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton: Port Wine Cold Pack Cheese Food, Pepper Jack Cold Pack Cheese Spread, Chunky Bleu Cold Pack Cheese Food
  • Rosewood Dairy, Inc, Algoma: Pesto Farmers Cheese
  • Saputo Specialty Cheese, Richfield: Black Creek Colby, Great Midwest Habanero Jack
  • Sartori Company, Plymouth: Limited Edition Pastorale Blend, Reserve Dolcina Gorgonzola, Reserve Espresso BellaVitano, Reserve Kentucky Bourbon BellaVitano, Limited Edition, Cognac BellaVitano
  • Saxon Cheese, Cleveland: Asiago Fresca
  • The Artisan Cheese Exchange, Sheboygan: Deer Creek The Fawn, Deer Creek The Stag, Deer Creek The Doe
  • Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Extra-Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve
  • V&V Supremo Foods: Queso Chihuahua, Queso Chihuahua with Jalapeno Peppers
  • Widmer's Cheese Cellars, Theresa: Washed Rind Brick Cheese, Cheddar with Jalapenos
Congratulations to every company from both the United States and Canada on their wins!

All photos by Uriah Carpenter. 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

New Wisconsin Cheeses Debut at 2015 ACS

Cheese Camp for cheeseheads is in full swing this week at the annual American Cheese Society conference in Providence, Rhode Island, where more than 1,000 cheese folk have gathered to celebrate a theme of Craft, Creativity and Community.

And, like usual, it takes me traveling halfway across the country to discover a half dozen new Wisconsin cheeses I never knew existed, many of which made their official debut to the world at tonight's Meet the Cheesemaker event.

1. First up: a yet-to-be-named cheese from Landmark Creamery made in a Reblochon style - an oooey, gooey, stinky French cheese we Americans can't get in the United States because it's made from raw milk and aged less than 60 days. At six weeks old, the newbie pasteurized cow's milk cheese from cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her sales partner, Anna Thomas Bates, is washed in mead from Bos Meadery in Madison, Wis.

"We washed batches in brine, mead and nut brown beer, and liked the mead wash the best. It adds a touch of sweetness that was missing in the others, particularly near the rind," Landmark says. She's right - her new cheese is stinky, sticky and meaty in true washed-rind form, with just enough tangy bite near the finish to make it particular interesting without being overly funky. Look for this new cheese on the retail market in a few months.

2. Buried in the midst of a mountain of Grand Cru at the Roth Cheese table tonight was a construction-orange wheel of aged cheese with no name tag and zero marketing materials. Turns out the cheese is based on an aged Mimolette and will be named Prairie Sunset. Aged six months, the cheese is riddled with eyes and boasts a crumbly texture with a creamy mouthfeel. No word yet on what date the cheese will be released to retail - stay tuned!

3. From our friends in Brooten, Minnesota (who I've officially adopted as close-enough-to-Wisconsinites), Alise and Lucas Sjostrom of Redhead Creamery debuted their new Little Lucy  tonight. Made in a small, tall 4-ounce top hat, and aged six weeks, this adorable little brie is - say it with me - amazing. It's the perfect size to consume in one sitting with a baguette and glass of champagne.

"There are three types of people in Minnesota," Lucas explains, in what would have been a Fargo-movie-worthy "up nort" drawl if it hadn't been cultured up a bit from the couple's spending a few years living in Vermont and Wisconsin. "You've got cheese curd people. You've got aged cheddar people. And you've got brie people. So those are the three cheeses we make."

Little Lucy is, of course, named for the Sjostrom's daughter, aged 2-1/2. Early indications lean toward her being a redhead like her mama. The little brie joins Lucky Linda in the Redhead Creamery line-up. Named for Alise's mom, Lucky Linda is an aged cheddar crafted in two ways: first, as a clothbound cheddar, and, second with a natural rind. Alise says so far, the clothbound is more popular, so she will likely be making more wheels in that style as time goes on. All cheeses are produced and aged on the family farm in Brooten.

4.  Because there are only a handful of cheese plants in Minnesota, and because all seven of them are just so darn nice, I'm including a second "close enough to Wisconsin" company in this line-up: The Lone Grazer Creamery, a brand new urban cheese factory in northeast Minneapolis. Cheesemaker Rueben Nilsson, former cheesemaker at Caves of Faribault; and Sales Director Seamus Folliard, a former English teacher who discovered his calling in sales, first at 2 Gingers Whiskey, and now in cheese, debuted two cheeses tonight: Hansom Cab and Grazier's Edge.

Hansom Cab is 4-inch disc of stinky goodness, washed in the aforementioned Irish 2 Gingers Whiskey and smoky Lapsang Souchong tea. The result is a milky, meaty cheese with grassy notes of asparagus. Grazier's Edge, meanwhile, is an 11-inch, taller wheel, washed with St. Paul's own 11 Wells Rye Whiskey. It is milder, more buttery, with an open texture and melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Milk for both cheeses comes from two nearby dairies, both of which pasture their cows: Sunrise Meadow in Cokato, Minn., which milks 25 Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorns, and Stengard Dairy, near Wadena, Minn., which milks Swedish Reds and Milking Shorthorns. The result is a unique milk profile with distinct grassy notes that Nilsson expertly turns into two fabulous cheeses.

5. Meanwhile, back in Wisconsin, the folks at LaClare Farms tonight debuted their new goat's milk yogurt in plain, vanilla, strawberry and blueberry. The yogurt has just started production, with no date set yet for a retail launch, other than "soon," says farm matriarch Clara Hedrich. Prototype cups sport attractive arty labels, and the yogurt will be available in 6-ounce and 24-ounce sizes. The yogurt has a richer consistency than many goat yogurts, with a crisp, clean flavor.

6. Klondike Cheese in Monroe is seeing success with their new Adelphos Greek Yogurt Dips, which I tried for the first time tonight. The savory dips are made with the company's Odyssey Greek Yogurt and are available in four flavors: Cucumber Garlic, Southwest, Red & Green Bell Pepper and French Onion. My favorite was the French Onion, which cheesemaker and yogurt maker Adam Buholzer helpfully explained has 25 percent less sodium, 50 percent less fat, 50 percent less cholesterol and three times the protein as a conventional French Onion dip. That's good - this way I won't feel so guilty when I consume the entire 12-oz. container in one sitting.

Last but not least, a hearty shout-out to two new products from Wisconsin cheesemakers: Marieke Gouda Truffle, which debuted in April, and Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese Curds, because in Wisconsin, we never have enough squeaky curd. Thanks to all of these fine folks for doing cheeseheads proud.

All photos by Uriah Carpenter.