He can 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 wasn't cheddary. It was also rubbery, not gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.
In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp can no longer find it.
Jon emailed me a couple of weeks ago, attaching the most fabulous spreadsheet listing results of dozens of Colby cheeses he has ordered from Wisconsin cheesemakers during the past several years, all in a mission to find the original Colby of his childhood. Apparently, in an act of complete desperation, he decided to email the Cheese Underground Lady to see if I could help.
I put on my cheese superhero cape, fired up the bat signal and called the person I knew who could help: the amazing John Jaeggi from the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. And in the process, I learned a lot about Colby.
Brief background: Colby cheese was actually 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 the 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.
According to John Jaeggi, this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings in the middle. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, he says, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.
All this was grand until sometime after the mid 1970s, (I can't find an exact date) the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture decided to amend the state standard of identity for Colby cheese, 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, has led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings are no longer required of Colby, many processors are making a cheese that resembles mild cheddar and labeling it as Colby. John Jaeggi says that 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.
Also, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day, Jaeggi says. 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.
A Wisconsin cheese company still making Colby in those 40-pound blocks is Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point. Back in 1982, cheesemaker Julie Hook actually captured the World Championship Cheese Contest with her Colby, and husband Tony and fellow cheesemaker says they haven't changed the recipe since then.
"We can't keep up with demand," Tony told me this week. "Usually, we sell Colby at 4-6 weeks because that's when I think it's at its peak, but lately we've been selling it even younger because people seem to like it so much."
Tony says he is one of very few cheesemakers still making traditional Colby - washing the curd and not pressing it in a huge vacuum machine, which closes the small mechanical holes that used to make Colby, well, Colby. "We're still making it the old fashioned way. We're not cutting corners and we're not cutting up mild cheddar and calling it Colby. Our Colby is real."
Two other cheese plants still making Colby in the traditional manner, according to Hook (and who, coincidentally both received the highest rankings by Jon Topp in his cheese quest - Jon hasn't yet tried Hook's Colby), are Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis., and Gile Cheese & Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.
Sadly, Topp may never find the Colby he grew up with, Jaeggi says. "Most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers in the 50s, 60s and into the early 70s. Each factory has their own unique flavor profile. What Jon is remembering from the Colby (he grew up on in Iowa) is possibly a flavor profile from some long gone small cheese factory."
Keep the faith, Mr. Jon Topp. And keep us posted if you find the cheese of your childhood.