Saturday, January 21, 2012

Widmer's Brick & Colby: Wisconsin Originals

Brick and Colby: perhaps two of the most underrated cheeses in America. Some folks call them boring. Others simply write them off as commodities. After all, Colby is really just Mild Cheddar, right? And blocks of Cheddar sell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, along with cattle, corn and cotton. So why should these cheeses even be considered interesting, much less blog-worthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three reasons: 1) Joe Widmer,  2) Joe Widmer, and 3) Joe Widmer.

Every once in a while, I teach a class on what I call "Wisconsin Classics." Attendance is usually down because people note what cheeses we'll be eating, proceed to yawn, and then wait to sign up for the next month's class on American Originals. But the truth of the matter is that both Brick and Colby are indeed American Originals, as both were invented in Wisconsin in the 1800s.

Today, there's no one in Wisconsin making better Brick and Colby than Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa. To the skeptics who call Brick and Colby "bland," I challenge you to taste Joe Widmer's Mild Brick and Authentic Colby and not call these cheeses anything but artisan and full-flavored.

Fifty years ago, you might have known more than a dozen Joe Widmer-types, all crafting authentic stirred-curd Colby in little cheese plants across Wisconsin. That's because until the 1970s, by law, Colby was required to have an open texture, meaning the curds could not be tightly pressed. This allowed a more milky, dairy flavor to develop, and depending on the cultures used and cheesemaker who crafted it, a flavor all its own.

That all changed in the 1970s, when lobbying from the state's ginormous Cheddar makers resulted in Wisconsin statutes being changed to allow Colby to have "a closed body," the same as Mild Cheddar. That allowed big cheese plants to make more Mild Cheddar and label it as both Mild Cheddar and Colby, thereby accessing two market shares with the same cheese. Two years ago, I did some research on this very topic and wrote a post called The Colby Conundrum, which resulted in a flurry of anonymous hate mail from what I suspect are some of the state's biggest Cheddar makers, and which explains why today, many people unfortunately still consider Colby to just be Mild Cheddar.

The USDA doesn't even take Colby seriously. It lumps it with Monterey Jack in the “Other American Types” cheese category when reporting annual production. Luckily, the folks at the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service do appreciate it a bit more. Their stats show Colby cheese production exceeded 100 million pounds for a number of years in the 1970s, and even approached 200 million pounds in the mid 1980s.

Joe Widmer is good at putting that number in perspective. During Colby's peak years, Joe says it accounted for almost 20 percent of the state's total production of American–type cheeses, and for more than 10 percent of Wisconsin's total cheese production. That's pretty significant.

Colby production has been on the decline since the mid '80s, both in terms of total production and in terms of its importance in Wisconsin’s cheese production picture. In 2000, Wisconsin produced 86.4 million pounds of Colby, or less then half the level of the mid '80s. And today, at least according to my research, there are only three cheesemakers left making authentic stirred-curd, non-pressed Colby: Joe Widmer at Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa; Tony Hook in Mineral Point; and Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Most others are simply making a stirred-curd Mild Cheddar with a closed texture and labeling it as Colby. You can tell the difference pretty easily - the next time you buy Colby in a store, check to see if it has pin-prick holes in the body. If it does, it's authentic. If not, it's likely Mild Cheddar being labeled as Colby.

Brick cheese, like Colby, is another Wisconsin Original. It was created in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss immigrant who was running his own Wisconsin cheese factory by the time he was 14 years old. Much like Jossi, Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager, and Brick is one of his specialties.

Widmer crafts about 360,000 pounds of Brick cheese a year, using the same open vats in the 12,000 square-foot facility that his grandfather bought in 1922. And he still uses the same well-worn bricks his grandfather used to press the whey from the cheese. In fact, he's credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country to continue to use real bricks as part of the make procedure of his Brick cheese.

After pressing, Joe removes the bricks and places the cheeses in a brine solution to take on salt. He also makes a German-Style Brick, a washed-rind "stinky cheese" soaked in a solution to take on bacterial cultures. This cheese is cured in a "warm room" - about 70 degrees - where the bacteria works its magic and is then “smear ripened” with a top-secret Widmer mixture of brine and whey.

"Most people don't even know what real Brick is," says Joe. This alone drives his mission to craft the real deal and share with cheese lovers everywhere - and he does mean everywhere, including his very own dinner table. "A Wisconsin cheesemaker can spend a lifetime perfecting his craft," Joe says,  "much of it spent resisting the urge to eat all the cheese."

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

I had the pleasure of meeting Mr Widmer at a Madison cheesmaker's dinner this past year. Indeed he makes fine colby's and brick cheeses. I especially found his brick cheese spread wonderful. He is also a very intersting man to talk to.

Christopher said...

Are you familiar with Dupont Cheese's Colby? It sure looks and tastes like the Colby I loved in the 70s, with small holes and its small longhorn shape.

Incidentally, once upon a time about 20 years ago, I was an Electrical Engineer for a manufacturer of automated cheesemaking machinery for Mozzarella producers, but occasionally we'd make hoops (cheese molds) for specialty cheese makers. I remember being fascinated by the names of all the different hoops -- besides Longhorn, there were Little Gem, Favorite, Wilson, and a dozen more I can't remember. Most of the names were charming, like something you'd see in a 1900 Sears catalog...