Monday, May 31, 2010

Prodigal Son Returns Home

Jon Metzig grew up - literally - on top of his family's Union Star cheese factory near Fremont, Wis. He started helping out in the family business at age 7, earned his cheesemaker's license at age 18, and after graduating from UW-River Falls with a degree in Ag Business and Food Science, did what a lot of young people do: he left home.

After a stint as a cheesemaker at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, and after a two-month trip to work with cheesemakers in Ireland, England and Switzerland, Jon Metzig has at last returned home. Today, he's once again working with his father - Master Cheesemaker Dave Metzig - but this time, he's making a cheese he'll call his own.

St. Jeanne is named after his grandmother - this family has great taste with naming cheeses, don't you think? :) - and is a semi-soft, washed rind beauty, similar to a Port Salut or Irish Gubbeen cheese - that's actually Gubbeen pictured above - I was so excited about tasting the cheese when I saw Jon in April that I forgot to take a picture, but it looks very similar). Jon ages it for six weeks and is selling it now as a fairly young, mild stinky cheese. However, he's thinking about starting to wash and cure some batches with beer, resulting in a heartier, stinkier cheese. He's trying to figure out if there's a market for such a cheese (I vote yes).

Jon comes from a long line of cheesemakers, and his family history is a bit colorful. As his father says on the family's website, it all began with the age-old question of “low fat.”

In the early 1900s, almost all Wisconsin dairy farmers sold their milk to local cheese factories. The introduction of the “Babcock Test” - a method for determining the butterfat content of milk – led to scaled pricing of milk based on fat content. Simply put, cheese factories were only willing to pay top dollar for milk with a high fat content. Thirteen farmers including Jon's Great-Great Grand Uncle, Henry Metzig, were upset that their milk was considered “low fat,” and responded by starting their own cheese factory as a co-op in Zittau, Wisconsin.

In 1911, Henry bought out the others and formed Union Star. To close that deal, however, Henry had to make a major commitment – agree to work on Sunday. Since the co-op had always been closed on Sunday, the local farmers’ wives had been left to deal with that day’s milk production themselves. This was no small task, because Sundays were focused on preparing the family dinner and going to church. In the end, Henry agreed that it was better for one cheesemaker to go to Hell than all the farmers' wives.

I guess you can say that the Metzig family's continued success is due, in part, to the cheesemaking’s own version of women’s liberation. Henry’s daughter, Edna, was one of the first women to become a licensed cheesemaker and work in a factory setting. It was no surprise that soon after marrying local cheesemaker Eugene Lehman, they were running the Union Star factory. What did surprise the neighbors, however, was when they opened a small retail storefront. You see, cheesemakers back then were not known for dealing well with customers.

Jon's parents, Dave and Jan, bought Union Star from Great-Great Aunt Edna in 1980. Dave had a degree in accounting and, just like his Great Grand Uncle, wanted to run his own business. The family tradition of independent cheesemaking carried the day and the Metzig's have been there ever since.

It's good to know the next generation of Metzig cheesemakers is coming up strong. Good luck with your new cheese, Jon, and just remember: the stinkier, the better.

2 comments:

Cheesewench said...

Hey Jeanne-congrats on your blog write up in Culture magazine!

Bill Anderson said...

Jon seems like a cool guy. My cousin showed me a newspaper article about him a few weeks before I met him at the workshop. Glad that he's getting interested in artisan cheese. We need more new generation cheesemakers like Jon who are willing to push boundaries and experiment.