Monday, March 19, 2012

The Masters of Green County Cheese: Mustaches, Biceps & All

One tends to underestimate just how big a giant wheel of Emmentaler is until – if you’re like me – you try and fit one into the back of your car.

Bruce Workman, Master Cheesemaker at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, knows exactly how big – and how heavy – a “Big Wheel Swiss” is, and he’s smart enough to know a loading dock and two strong men are instrumental to transporting it from an aging warehouse into the trunk of a Honda Accord. That’s because he’s the only cheesemaker left in America crafting 180-pound wheels of Old World Emmentaler, and he’s got the biceps to prove it.

One photo shoot and a strained back later, I had a lot more respect for this jumbo cheese, and for the man who spends 14 hours a day making it in an original Swiss copper vat he imported from Europe. "There used to be 200 little cheese plants in Green County, all producing authentic copper-kettle Swiss," Workman says. "Over the years, as cheesemaking became industrialized and companies worked to reduce their labor costs, it was abandoned. I’ve set out to bring it back."

As one of 10 Master Cheesemakers who call Green County home, Workman is considered by many as one of the state’s most innovative cheese geniuses. He’s certified as a Master in nine – yes nine – different cheese varieties, and routinely wins national and international cheese contests with his Gouda, Havarti and Muenster. In a region where the number of dairy cows rival the number of people, Workman is one of the reasons Green County is considered Wisconsin’s epicenter of cheesemaking.

When you’re talking about the cheesemakers of Green County, three words immediately come to mind: innovation, craftsmanship and tradition. Cheesemaking goes back more than 150 years in this region of southwest Wisconsin, where Holstein and Brown Swiss cows eat grass sprouting from the region’s sweet soils and limestone-filtered water. In fact, grass in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin – home to Green County - is considered to be some of the best grass in the Midwest for cheesemaking. In what could easily pass for a Bud Lite commercial with Clydesdale horses frolicking in the background, the cheesemakers in Green County have a saying: “Have patience. In time, grass becomes milk, and milk becomes cheese. And if you’re lucky, it becomes Green County cheese.” This “cheesy” saying happens to be true: cheese made in Green County is routinely judged as some of America’s best.

Indeed, Green County is routinely touted as Wisconsin’s cheesemaking hub.  In fact, 100 years ago -- in the days of metal milk cans, horse-drawn wagons and cheesemakers who could lift twice their own weight -- this 585-square-mile region was home to a cheese plant on nearly every four-corner crossroads. Today, more than a dozen dairy processing plants, many still owned by farmer cooperatives and operated by third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers, continue to make up the backbone of America’s Dairyland, handcrafting award-winning cheese year after year.

Looking for the best of Green County cheeses? These plants offer retail outlets, often staffed by cheerful gray-haired ladies, who take a break from packaging to ring up your order with a pencil and paper.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative
At the only cheese plant in the nation still making Limburger – the stinky cheese that Americans love to hate - Master Cheesemakers Myron Olson and Jamie Fahrney also craft Baby Swiss, German Style Brick and Brick, all in open vats and by hand. Located near the middle of nowhere, use your GPS to find this historic cheese factory. Otherwise, like me, you may end up at the Monroe Municipal Airport wondering where you took a wrong turn. Address: N4858 Cty. N, Monroe. Hours: Monday - Friday, 7 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. – 10 a.m.

Chula Vista Cheese Company
Master Cheesemaker Jim Meives and his team specialize in Hispanic cheeses, crafting more than 40,000 pounds of their signature “Chihuahua” cheese a day – a Hispanic melting cheese that tastes somewhere between mild cheddar and mozzarella. Address: 2923 Mayer Rd, Monroe. Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. - 3:30 p.m.

Decatur Dairy
Third generation cheesemaker Steve Stettler, a Master in Brick, Farmer’s, Havarti, Muenster and Swiss cheeses, makes some of the best specialty cheeses in Green County. His signature mustache and deep drawl characterize him as the cowboy cheesemaker of the Midwest. Address: W1668 Cty. F, Brodhead. Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Emmi Roth Alp and Dell
Known for its cellar-aged Gruyere, Emmi Roth USA also makes Fontina, Havarti, Edam, Gouda, Raclette, Rofumo, and Butter Kase. The modern and spacious retail outlet links to a cheesemaking viewing hallway and timeline of the company’s history in the United States. Address: 627 2nd St, Monroe. Hours: Monday - Saturday 9 a.m. – 5 p.m; Sunday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Maple Leaf Cheese
Master Cheesemakers Jeff Wideman and Paul Reigle make Edam, Gouda, Cheddar, Flavored Jacks, Queso Blanco, Cheddar Blue and Yogurt cheese. Address: W2616 Hwy. 11/81, Juda. Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Silver-Lewis Cheese Cooperative
Just as close to the middle of nowhere as Chalet Cheese, Silver Lewis is worth the hunt. Owners Josh and Carla Erickson specialize in Brick, Muenster and Flavored Jacks, with the retail store located just steps outside the cheesemaking room. If you’re looking for a step back in cheesemaking time, rev up the DeLorean and head back to the future. Address: W3075 Cty. EE, Monticello. Hours: Monday – Friday, 6 a.m. – 1 p.m.; Saturday 7 a.m. – 11:30 am.

Of course, Green County also offers an amazing cheese festival and cheese museum.  Open from April thru October, the National Historic Cheesemaking Center offers a glimpse of cheesemaking in the late 1800's and early 1900's, when Monroe was the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA." Also step inside the century old Imobersteg Cheese Factory which sat undiscovered for almost a century. The wooden one-room factory was moved to and restored on the National Historic Cheesemaking Center's campus.

And, last but certainly not least, be sure and mark the dates of Sept. 14-16 on your calendar for Green County Cheese Days, home to one of the best parades, cheese tents and everything-possible-cheese-related festivals in the country. Only held once every two years, this celebration is worth trekking cross-country for. You'll see all the Green County cheesemakers in their glory! 

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