Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Door County Dreamin' at Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese Shop

In the summer, California may have, well, California, but in Wisconsin, we have Door County. No bugs, no McDonalds, and no high-rise hotels. Just mom-'n-pop restaurants with goats on the roof, cute shops and old-fashioned, 24-room motels snuggled into wooded hillsides. And this month, I got to visit this magical little place for the first time.

So I'm not sure how this happened, but it seems that I've been to 36 of the 50 states and six different countries on three continents, but I've never been to Door County. I've come to the conclusion that's because they never had a cheese shop for me to visit.

Until now.

Entrepreneurs extraordinaire Michael and Janice Thomas opened The Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese Shop in Egg Harbor, Door County (located on the "left-hand thumb" of Wisconsin) on May 25. A cut-to-order store selling ONLY Wisconsin artisan cheeses, the shop is an amazing spotlight for Wisconsin cheesemakers.

In addition to the usual rock star cheeses such as Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, the Thomases have managed to talk several up-and-comers into selling cheese nearly exclusively at their store. An example is Union Star's St. Jeanne, crafted by young Jon Metzig, who named the cheese after his grandmother, and fashioned it after an Irish cheese that he studied two years ago on a 6-week cheesemaking trek across Europe that became the "So You Want to be a Cheesemaker" blog.

The Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese Shop also makes to order and sells a handful of artisan sandwiches on fresh, crusty bread (I'd highly recommend the sandwich pictured here, the "Wisconsin's Best" - Nueske's applewood smoked ham, Emmi Roth Grand Cru Gruyere, mayo, fig and citrus chutney and crisp romaine) and is one of the only retail outlets that I know of selling Kelley Country Creamery ice cream.

With eight employees, including shop manager Kathy McCarthy (the daughter and granddaughter of Wisconsin cheesemakers), Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese Shop is the latest brainchild of an energetic couple who have called Door County home since 2004, when they opened the Savory Spoon Cooking School in their renovated, 1847 farm house that was once the historic Olson Dairy.

The couple ran the cooking school out of their home (pictured at left) the first two years as an experiment to see if people would be willing to pay to learn how to cook. "We figured if it worked, we'd outgrow the space. If not, we'd end up with the coolest kitchen in Door County," says Michael. The school hit a home run, and two years later, moved into Ellison Bay's renovated school house/old post office, where it's been ever since.

Every June through October, Janice opens up the The Savory Spoon Cooking School - a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals - for nightly classes on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. However, on select Tuesdays throughout the summer, the pair host a series of "Artisan Cheese Tastings" where a Wisconsin cheesemaker is a guest of honor. On July 12, Andy Hatch from Uplands Cheese will lead a class, with Sid Cook of Carr Valley following on July 19.

Other cheesemakers, including Katie Hedrich of LaClare Farm; Felix Thalhammer, Capri Cheesery; Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese; Marieke Penterman, Holland's Family Cheese; Diana Murphy, Dreamfar; Bob Wills, Cedar Grove Cheese; Bruce Workman, Edelweiss Creamery; and Affineur Jenifer Brozak will round out the summer schedule -- for a complete listing of all classes, click here.

Both the cooking school and the artisan cheese shop provide a unique exposure opportunity for Wisconsin artisan cheeses, as most attendees and shoppers are visitors from Chicago and the Twin Cities. "People discover amazing Wisconsin artisan cheeses here, and then remember them and seek them out when they get home," Michael says (pictured above). "We have a unique opportunity to spotlight Wisconsin cheese to a growing market."

Thanks to Michael and Janice Thomas, Wisconsin artisan cheeses will continue to reach an ever-growing audience. I can't wait to see what they dream up next.

Photo credits to Uriah Carpenter.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cheddar Brain Trust Gathers at Roelli Cheese

Above: Vat Captain John Jaeggi, far left, of the Center for Dairy Research talks with  Wisconsin cheesemakers, from left to right: Jerry Hook, Hook's Cheese; Andy Hatch, Uplands Cheese; Kerry Henning, Henning's Cheese; and Gary Grossen, Babcock Cheese. More than 20 Wisconsin cheesemakers gathered at Roelli Cheese on June 21 for the first-ever Cheddar Round Table, an educational cheesemaking and networking day.

So if I were still a journalist and had to write the lead for a news article about my day yesterday, it would go something like this:

"A group of Wisconsin cheesemakers boasting a total of more than 350 years of experience gathered at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg yesterday to compare techniques and further their education of starter cultures in the art of cheddar cheese making."

However, Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who attended the first-ever "U.S. Cheddar Round Table" - the awesome brainchild of Cheesemaker Chris Roelli and John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research - no doubt summed it up WAY better in this comment he left on my Wisconsin Cheese Originals Facebook page:

"This was a great event. A bevy of cheese dweebs plying their craft and learning about culture. A well placed tornado would have obliterated our industry. We may need to have designated non-attendees in the future."

Ha! Yes, despite the threat of severe weather that was supposed to include tornadoes, hail and flash-flood-inducing thunderstorms, the sun shone down on Roelli Cheese yesterday, staying sunny and 85 - or if you were in the cheese plant, a balmy 105 plus 100 percent humidity. I mention this, because while cheesemakers are used to working in a sauna for a living (it's why they always look so young), I instead spent the day sweating profusely and listening intently to conversations revolving around alien words such as "Lactococcus lactis" and  "Lactobacillus brevis".

And while I, a less-than-novice cheesemaker could not always keep up with the conversation (I nodded and smiled a lot), I didn't have to be a cheese genius to see that the cheesemakers in attendance were having the time of their life.

While John Jaeggi and Chris Roelli served as "vat captains" for two different vats of cheddar cheese, 20 different cheesemakers from a dozen different companies - ranging from some of the smallest plants to some of the biggest companies in the country - stood alongside, taking turns stirring, cutting, draining, and milling curd. In between, they talked about everything from what starter cultures and rennet they used, to comparing notes on make techniques and aging styles. Mixed in with the crowd were a few distributors, culture house experts, and cheese retailers including Gordon Edgar, of Rainbow Cheese Cooperative in San Francisco and Ken Montelone of Fromagination in Madison.

"This is a way to talk about what we're all doing and continue to elevate our industry," John Jaeggi told the group as they waited for the starter cultures to start their magic. Chris Roelli added that while cheesemakers should not feel obligated to "give away their secrets," the day was an opportune time to share information for the betterment of all. "Today, my house is your house," he said.

After about five hours of morning cheesemaking and networking, the group took a break to head upstairs to the cheese plant living quarters, where Chef Sara Hill prepared an amazing lunch of ribeye steak sandwiches, 4-cheese mac 'n cheese, asparagus and green beans with Dunbarton Blue, and an awesome caprese salad. Then, an afternoon session of workshops started, with industry experts giving educational talks on starter cultures, cheesemaking techniques, and the latest updates on food safety mandates.

Perhaps aided by a cooler full of New Glarus Spotted Cow on ice, cheesemakers openly shared information and ideas all day, with many making mental notes of what worked and what didn't. The afternoon session ended with a full-blown cheese tasting, as almost all of the makers brought along cheese to share. By the end of the day, the group was already planning the next session to be held at a different cheese factory next year. Can't wait!

Above: a group of 25 cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and industry experts gathered at Roelli Cheese June 21 for what  many hope to be the first of a series of annual travelling educational cheesemaking days in Wisconsin.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm Jeanne Carpenter: self-proclaimed cheese geek, grown-up farm girl, accredited journalist and recovering state government propaganda specialist. You may also know that since 2004, in one way or another, I've been involved with the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC), a not-for-profit organization that helps new artisan and specialty cheesemakers get started, helps existing commodity dairy plants transition to more specialty (and profitable) dairy products, and assists Wisconsin dairy farmers build and launch new specialty dairy products on their farms, helping them weather the up-and-down cycles of federal milk prices.

For about the past five years, I've served as the communications director for the DBIC, and it’s been an absolute blast sharing the successes of our clients during that time (and often giving the readers of this blog the inside track to what's new). From dairy plant grand openings, to product launches, to articles on record-breaking specialty cheese production and a stack of ever-growing awards for Wisconsin cheesemakers, there has never been shortage of good news since the DBIC launched an array of technical services to dairy entrepreneurs.

Sharing good news was always the best part of my job with the DBIC. But, I've also come to realize that sharing the not-so-good news is also part of my responsibility to the industry. And unfortunately, this is one of those not-so-good news moments.

Since 2004, the Dairy Business Innovation Center has received funding for its services through federal funding earmarks (yours and my tax dollars at work), designated through the Honorable Herb Kohl. Senator Kohl has been a tireless champion of Wisconsin dairy, and at the DBIC, we have tried our best to fulfill the mission he gave us seven years ago “to reinvigorate America’s Dairyland.” More than 150 clients later, 68 new specialty dairy products, and more than 50 expanded and newly constructed dairy plants, we like to think we’ve made significant process in accomplishing that mission. And while there is still more work to do, our time at the DBIC is coming to a close, as our original funding resources have ended, and attempts to secure alternative funding are failing.

As a result, the DBIC Board of Directors recently voted to stretch out remaining DBIC dollars and keep our virtual doors open, with limited services, until June 2012. For the next year, the DBIC will focus solely on providing technical assistance to new specialty dairy start-ups and those dairy plants who are transitioning from commodity to more profitable specialty and value-added products. We will be reducing or ending our training, education, workshops and all non-technical services. Our first and foremost aim is to help as many entrepreneurs and budding cheesemakers start-up or expand their operations in the next year, with a second goal of providing the technical tools to keep them successful in the future.

While the DBIC may only have one year remaining to continue its mission “to reinvigorate America’s Dairyland,” the legacy of the organization and its founder Dan Carter, an incredible advocate for Wisconsin cheese for the past 50 years, will not be forgotten. I am incredibly proud and honored to have served on the DBIC team from its very beginning, when we had no name and no funding, to the very end, when our name will endure, but our mission will end. I know every consultant who has worked for the DBIC carries in his or her heart the passion to help Wisconsin dairy entrepreneurs, and many of us will personally continue that mission.

In my role at the DBIC, and of course through my own writing work and event planning with Wisconsin Cheese Originals, I look forward to continuing to tell the story of Wisconsin dairy. I truly believe the DBIC has acted as a yellow brick road to the land of successful value-added dairy for many a Wisconsin dairy entrepreneur, and I am heartbroken it is coming to a close. Please know that Dan Carter is continuing to seek alternative sources of funding to keep the DBIC’s doors open and welcomes input and ideas from the industry in moving forward. Dan may be reached at mrdanieljcarter@aol.com or call 920-387-5085.

On Wisconsin.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Nordic Creamery Builds New Butter Plant

These days, award-winning artisan and specialty cheeses take most of the credit for putting Wisconsin on the map as America’s Dairyland. But it’s another growing category—the rise of farmstead creameries—that’s becoming increasingly responsible for developing a new generation of dairy entrepreneurs.

While some dairy farmers choose to build new barns and add more animals to increase the size of their operation, a growing number of dairy farmers are instead building small creameries right on the farm, producing ice cream, butter, bottled milk, or yogurt directly from the milk of their cows, sheep, or goats. Not only does crafting an on-farm dairy product provide another source of revenue, in many cases it provides a different avenue to bring the kids—many of whom don’t want to milk animals 365 days a year—back into the family business.

Since 2000, nearly a dozen Wisconsin farms have built on-farm creameries to produce fresh dairy products, and another one is about to join the ranks.

Al and Sarah Bekkum, owners of Nordic Creamery near Westby, Wisconsin, are putting the finishing touches on their new farmstead butter plant, where they plan to craft European-style traditional and seasonal butters made in small batches from the milk of their own cows. Al is confident the product will sell. He’s been making seasonal butters off-site at Sassy Cow Creamery near Columbus, Wis.,  for the past year, and selling it at farmer’s markets in Chicago.

“From the get-go, people went crazy for it,” Al says. “They want a fresh butter that’s hand-packed, and they buy it like there’s no tomorrow.”

On Tuesday, I road-tripped through long windy roads to the Bekkum homestead to visit Al and see how his new farmstead creamery was coming along. He had just stopped at the post office and picked up a box of 50 newborn fluffy chicks (farm fresh eggs appear to be in his future) and the chicks sat on the picnic table, cheeping and pecking at us through their cardboard box while Al laid out the farm's grand vision. Turns out that Nordic Creamery is actually ahead of schedule.

Al says an official grand opening is set for Friday & Saturday, August 19-20 from Noon to 4, but the farmstead retail store will be open to the public in early July. Inside will be a vast array of Wisconsin products, including butter, ice cream and cheese made by Nordic Creamery. Butter varieties will include a farm-fresh sweet cream Summer Butter from April to October, a Harvest Butter made from November to March, a complete line of flavored cow’s milk butters, and eventually, goat’s milk butters, and possibly even mixed milk butters. Also offered will be Spesiell Kremen, a cultured butter churned at specific times of the year. Madison chefs are already lining up for the cultured butter, as its 85 percent butterfat content melts better for enhancing sauces and delicate desserts.

A 20-year veteran cheesemaker, Bekkum will continue to make his well-known goat's milk and cow's milk cheeses at the larger, more commercial K&K Cheese factory in Cashton, but one day, hopes to make a unique cheese at the farmstead plant using only the milk of his currently non-existent Norwegian Red Cattle.

Yes, Al Bekkum plans ahead. Bringing the rare breed of Norwegian Red Cattle to the United States is just one part in the Bekkums' master plan. In the fall, Al will start milking about 25 dairy cows - a mixture of Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire - and using that milk for his farmstead products. Within four years, he hopes to have every cow bred to a Norwegian Red Bull, and have a herd of Norwegian Reds Cows. This will pave the way for the first-ever Wisconsin Farmstead Norwegian Red insert cheese name here.

Not only are the Bekkums planning future products, they're also planning ahead for their family. Bekkum says building an on-farm creamery is a dream come true. “It allows us to work at home and have more time with the kids. We’re growing a family and a business that one day the kids can run if they want to stay on the farm. That’s what it’s all about,” he says.