Saturday, April 18, 2015

Colby Makes A Comeback with The Robin

In 2009, Jon Topp of Chesterfield, Missouri, sent me an email and attached a spreadsheet listing dozens of Colby cheeses he had ordered from Midwestern cheesemakers during the past several years, in a quest to find the Colby of his youth. Growing up in the 1960s in central Iowa near a small country store that carried the "absolute best Colby cheese," Jon remembered eating Colby in longhorns, wrapped in cloth and wax.

He said he could remember the taste like it was yesterday: mild, deliciously nutty, firm and laced with small holes. Most importantly, like much of the Colby made today, it was NOT mild cheddar. It was dry, not rubbery, gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.

In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp could no longer find it. Since then, I, too have been on a quest to find true, original Colbys (and found them at Hook's Cheese and Widmer's Cheese Cellars). This week, fellow cheese peeps, I found another one.

Introducing Deer Creek The Robin, named for Wisconsin's state bird, this Colby is a partnership between Henning's Cheese in Kiel and Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan. Turns out Chris, too, has been on a quest to find true Colby, so he worked with the Colby masters at Henning's to create a young cheese with a firm, open and curdy body. It is not made in longhorns (good luck finding many cheesemakers who want to hand-punch curd into a longhorn form anymore), but it is made in12-pound tall wheels, bandaged with linen and dipped in wax.

The result could very well be the end of Jon Topp's journey: a true Colby of years gone by, with a fresh, dairy flavor, buttery, yet curdy texture with nutty notes and nice salty finish.

If you're wondering why this is such a big deal (I know what you're thinking - I can buy Colby in any supermarket store in America), let me give you a brief background on this iconic cheese. Colby was invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before.

The Code of Federal Regulations - as specified in Sec. 133.118, describes the requirements for making Colby cheese. The key difference between cheddar and traditional Colby is that during the make process, the curd mass is cut, stirred, and heated with continued stirring, to separate the whey and curd. Then, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water, with continued stirring, which is different from cheddar (no added water/rinse with cheddar). The Colby curd is then completely drained, salted, stirred, further drained, and pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.

Back in 2010, after Jon Tropp initially emailed me, I contacted cheese industry guru John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, and he told me this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, John said, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.

All this was grand until 1998, when the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture changed the state standard of identity for Colby cheese -- here is a link to the original document with the original wording - you'll have to scroll down to 81.50(2) and note the the hand-written notation with the change in statute -- and amended ATCP 81.50(2) by adding this little gem of a sentence:

"Wisconsin certified premium grade AA colby and monterey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body."

This annotation, especially the portion I've highlighted in red, led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings were no longer required of Colby, many processors today simply (and I'm going to get in trouble for saying this, but it is the truth) make a cheese that resembles mild cheddar but label it as Colby.

But it's not just the change in state statutes that doomed Colby in Wisconsin. Jaeggi notes technology improvements have also changed Colby. "I think cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese," Jaeggi says. Another change is the curd wash, he says. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse (no hold) after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60. Old time Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet - at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press. The reason this changed was larger plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.

Lastly, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day. Traditional Colby was made in the longhorn shape and pressed in 13 pound horns. They were then waxed for sale. Other plants made Colby in 40 pound blocks.

Which gets me back to Deer Creek The Robin. This Colby is a true anomaly - it is crafted in a 12-pound wheel, but has the taste, flavor and texture of longhorn Colby cheeses of years gone by. I got a chance to taste the cheese this week when Gentine shipped me a wheel at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison. We cut open the wheel, and then stood in awe, as we smelled the old-time milkiness of true Colby and could literally count the openings in the curd like stars in the sky.

Deer Creek The Robin is just now making its debut in national markets, and I am excited that Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale is one of the first stores to carry it. We have it proudly displayed on our Deer Creek shelf, sandwiched between Deer Creek The Stag and Deer Creek The Fawn, two Grade AA Cheddars Gentine has also created with the help of Henning's Cheese.

So, Mr. Topp - wherever you may be - while you may never find the Colby you grew up with (Jaeggi says most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers, each factory had their own unique flavor profile, and sadly, most, if not all, of those factories are now closed) -- you may want to try Deer Creek The Robin. It may very well be a close second to the the Colby of your childhood.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Your Next Future Wisconsin Cheesemaker: Christopher Eckerman

A University of Wisconsin-Madison student aiming to develop his own brand of sheep milk cheeses is the recipient of the 2015 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals.

A committee of industry leaders selected Christopher Eckerman, Antigo, for the $2,500 annual award. As you know, Wisconsin is the only state to require cheesemakers to be licensed, an 18-month process that involves attendance at five university short courses, 240 hours of apprenticeship under a licensed cheesemaker, and passing a written exam at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

Eckerman is a full-time student at UW-Madison majoring in Food Science. He grew up on a sheep farm of 200 milking ewes in Antigo. He is a member of the Dairy Product Evaluation Team on campus, and hopes to apprentice this summer in the Babcock Dairy Plant under Master Cheesemaker Gary Grossen. His long-term goal is to continue the family farm and craft his own brand of seasonal sheep milk cheeses.

This marks the sixth year Wisconsin Cheese Originals has offered a $2,500 scholarship to a beginning cheesemaker. Past recipients include:

•    2014: Sandra Acosta, dairy goat farmer in Port Washington, Wis. She is continuing to work toward obtaining her cheesemaker’s license.
•    2013: Jennifer Digman, licensed cheesemaker and dairy farmer in Cuba City, Wis.
•    2012: Anna Landmark, licensed cheesemaker and owner of Landmark Creamery. She won a gold medal at the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for Petit Nuage, a fresh sheep’s milk cheese.
•    2011: Rose Boero, licensed cheesemaker and dairy goat farmer in Custer, Wis.
•    2010: Katie Furhmann, licensed cheesemaker at LaClare Farms in Pipe, Wis. At the 2011 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, she took Best in Show for her goat's milk cheese, Evalon, and was named U.S. Champion.

Congrats to Christopher - we can't wait to watch you grow in this industry!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Marieke Penterman: One Rockin' Mama Cheesemaker

There is no doubt that U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Marieke Penterman is absolutely a good cheesemaker. She's got the credentials, awards and aging room full of cheese to prove it. And there's no doubt the girl can dance - anyone who's ever witnessed her moves when winning an award can attest to her prowess on a stage. But above all, and perhaps not as well known, is the fact that Marieke Penterman is an amazing mom and wife. All it takes is a visit to her family's new retail store, cheese plant, dairy barn and milking parlor off Highway 29 in Thorp to confirm that Marieke is indeed a master at balancing work and family.

Walking up to the brand new Holland's Family Cheese agri-tourism facility - where visitors can see every step of cheesemaking from farm to fork - is seeing every dream of a first-generation immigrant family come true. After winning the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, Marieke, her husband, Rolf, and their five children, aged 11 to 5, put their plans of building a visitor-friendly dairy facility in high gear.

Today, from 7 am to 7 pm, visitors start in the Holland's Family dairy barn, where they can watch 435 cows milked three times a day. Two sets of viewing windows - downstairs and upstairs - make for great viewing perspectives of how the Pentermans' herd of Holsteins, Red Holsteins, Brown Swiss and crossbred cows are milked in a modern parlor. School groups can visit with teachers for just $2 per child, and  gather in an upstairs educational room to hear the details of milking cows, followed by cheese tasting. Self-guided tours for the public are free, and guided tours may be booked in advance for a fee.

From the dairy barn, visitors walk just a few yards past a giant fiberglass Holstein cow to enter the retail store and cheese plant, which features large viewing windows of both the cheesemaking room and the aging rooms. A cozy fireplace with comfortable couches invites guests to get a cup of complimentary coffee, buy a wedge of cheese, and enjoy it right on site. An ice cream counter filled with Kelley's Country Creamery is perfect for kids, and shelves of authentic Dutch foods and goodies are available for purchase. Marieke also believes in supporting her fellow Wisconsin cheesemakers, so a huge cooler filled with Wisconsin specialty and artisan cheeses round out the shopping experience.

But it's not until one sees the parts of the facility not open to the public that one begins to learn what a a devoted mother Marieke is to her five kids: twin girls Luna & Joyce, age 11; Dean, 8; Fenne, 7; and Finn, 5. After school, the kids march up to the offices of the cheese plant to do their homework, where each has a self-decorated workstation with their initial on it, and where, three days a week, a high school student helps them with homework.

Marieke says she also helps them with schoolwork when she can, but like most parents - including me - by the time your kids are in middle school, math problems and grammar exercises are beyond us. With her office right across the hallway - marked by a bright orange door (each of the employees got to pick the colors of their doors and office walls), Marieke can both make sales calls while watching her kids out the door.

Unlike the original Penterman farmstead just a few miles away - where the farm house was across the yard from the dairy barn and cheese factory, the Pentermans purposely built their new house away from the farm - close enough to see it, but not close enough to walk there. "I liked being right on the farm before, but now, with a store open 7 am to 7 pm, we are here a lot. And I want my kids to know that when we're home, it means we're home. That's for the family."

The Penterman kids also remember where they came from. Marieke and Rolf speak both Dutch and English to their children (on a visit this weekend, each child was asked in Dutch to introduce themselves, and each did so with incredible cuteness), and Marieke proudly displays pictures of both her and Rolf's family on the upstairs walls above the retail area. This area is available to the public to rent out for parties - "Our first party was a bachelorette party, and we didn't even have it done yet," says Marieke. Especially poignant photos include this one of Marieke's grandmother and father, who as a small boy, is watching his mother milk the family cow:

And then there's this one, taken many years later, which show Marieke as a little girl, holding the lead rope of one of her father's Holsteins.

It's hard to believe that not yet 10 years ago, Marieke started her cheesemaking journey with just one helper in the cheese room. Today, the Holland's Family crew is made up of 20 women and 4 men, a strong and growing team, including Natalie, the sister of one of the original cheesemakers Marieke hired when she first started. That's Natalie pictured at left below, with Marieke in the middle.

When she's not in the cheese room or her office, or attempting to help the kids with homework, Marieke still finds time to be in the barn. She knows many of the cows by name, and even talked a local veterinarian into setting the broken leg of a recently-born calf. The vet, of course, wrote "Gouda Luck", and all the kids signed it.

But it turns out Marieke isn't the only devoted parent with a sense of fun - on a visit to Holland's Family Cheese this weekend, we watched as Marieke's husband, Rolf put air in the giant "Kangaroo Pad" right outside the front door of the retail store. The pad is open to all visitors - no matter their age - to jump on and have a little fun.

On this day, the first kids to break it in for the season were the Penterman brood. Twins Luna and Joyce jumped with abandon, while Dean chased his sisters, Fenne took frequent breaks to eat Laffy Taffy gathered at that morning's Thorp Easter Egg Hunt, and little Finn tried valiantly not to slide off the edge when his brothers and sisters jumped near him.

And to top it all off - Rolf joined in on the fun, jumping from end to end right along with the kids, stepping off at the end, out of breath, to give Marieke a hug and to encourage her to give it a try. She smiled and joked she was happy to watch him and the kids. Because as a champion cheesemaker, mother and wife, she needed to hurry back inside the store to wait on a customer who was eagerly waiting to buy a wedge of cheese with her name on it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

2015 Willy Street Co-op Cheese Challenge: Cast Your Vote!

Never mind that the U.S. Cheese Championships are happening today in Milwaukee, or that UW-Madison's own Big 10 basketball player of the year Frank Kaminsky is on the cover of Sports Illustrated, or that spring has sprung in Wisconsin, the real news today revolves around the "Cheese Taste Testing Challenge" dreamt up by the geniuses at Willy Street Co-op in Madison.

Behold the ultimate Wisconsin specialty cheese bracket:

Inspired by the NCAA basketball tournament, the 2015 Co-op Cheese Challenge sets 32 Wisconsin cheeses against one another to determine the state's big cheese. In even more exciting news, several cheeses will be sampled at both Co-op locations from 9 am to 1 pm on:
  • Today, March 19 through Sunday March 22 - Round 1
  • Thursday, March 26 and Friday, March 27 - Squeaky 16
  • Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 - Edible 8
  • Thursday, April 2 and Friday, April 3  - Fromage Final 4
  • Saturday April 4 and Sunday, April 5 - Cheese Championship
Throughout the Cheese Challenge we cheese geeks can vote via Facebook on which cheeses we like best to see who advances to the next round. You can also vote in-store at both Willy St. locations.

May the best cheese win!