You know you've struck gold when you walk into a cheese shop that's literally in the middle of nowhere and there's at least 12 people waiting to check out while three cashiers are ringing up cheese and local specialty foods as fast as they possibly can.
Burnett Dairy is a 100-year old cheese plant that over the years has gained world acclaim for its quality commodity cheeses such as Colby, string cheese and mozzarella. Owned by 285 local dairy farmers, the plant produces 75,000 pounds of cheese a day.
In fact, buried in a corner behind the front door and hiding behind a canoe-shaped display stand of venison and elk snack sticks is an impressive awards case, including a dusty 1988 "World Champion Cheesemaker" award for Master Cheesemaker Dale Olson. Keep searching the glass case and you'll find more than a dozen blue ribbons and even a couple Best of Class winners from the World Championship Cheese Contest, U.S. Cheese Championship Contest and Wisconsin State Fair.
But here's where it gets interesting: like a lot of other commodity cheese plants these days, Burnett Dairy has seen the appeal of producing an artisan cheese and has acquired a small cheese vat where master cheesemakers are experimenting with different types of signature cheeses. Last week, proudly displayed in a flyer taped to the front door was a sign announcing this month's artisan cheese: Alpha's Morning Sun.
Samples at the front counter (once I pushed my way through the crowd) revealed a complex and flavorful cheese that the cashier described as a mixture of cheddar, Swiss and provolone. As I stood there stabbing my second sample with a toothpick and trying to figure out how I was going to describe this cheese, an elderly gentleman who had braved the crowd reached for a sample beside me and declared it had "a hint of Parmesan but was a bit heavy." Wow, who knew - I'd met my first cheese connoisseur in Alpha, Wisconsin.
I bought a pound of Alpha's Morning Sun and took it back to the youth camp that I was working, where perhaps one of the best consumer focus groups awaited me: 40 kids, ages 8-16. I took samples around table to table and of the 38 kids who tasted it (1 claimed to be lactose intolerant and 1 insisted she did not like cheese, who embarrassingly enough also happens to be my daughter), 34 absolutely loved it and wanted more. Only four proclaimed not to like it, which I think is pretty amazing for a group of kids who probably don't get much more than mild cheddar or processed cheese at home.
I took what was left back to the staff table where the camp cook's assistant immediately proclaimed he loved Alpha's Morning sun and promptly ate the rest of the samples. So apparently adults like it too. In any case, I'm not sure what kind of distribution this cheese has, but it's extremely popular in its local region.
If you ever happen to come across Burnett Dairy in your travels -- 11631 State Road 70, Grantsburg, Wisconsin, be sure to stop in. You never know what the master cheesemakers will be making next.