Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Growing Cheesemakers

My family has the darnedest time figuring out what exactly it is I do for a living.

I grew up in a small town, moved away after college, and don't get home very often. So on the rare occasions I go back for weddings or funerals, I often stand to the side and amusingly watch my father, a retired farmer, get asked by former neighbors and old friends what his two daughters grew up to be.

My sister has it easy. "Well the oldest one's a lawyer," Dad will say with a big grin. And then he'll go on to talk about how she owns her own law firm in Milwaukee and how she helps people who've been discriminated against at their jobs. He might even describe her latest case, or talk about a big company she just sued. My sister is a very good attorney.

"Oh, isn't that nice," the little grayed hair ladies will say, bobbing their heads and clucking approvingly. And then, inevitably, the question will come: "And what about your youngest - what does she do?"

And that's when the eyebrows furrow, the eyes squint, and the look of confusion starts.

A slow inhale. A slower exhale.

"Well .... she used to be a newspaper reporter. She was a real good reporter," he'll say. "She won lots of awards." Pause. Longer Pause. "But now she works with cheese. I think she writes about cheese. I know she does some real nice events in Madison." And then he'll frantically search around the room to find me smiling at him, wave me over, and have me explain what exactly it is that I do.

But therein lies the problem. Hell, even I have a hard time explaining what it is I do for a living.

I'm a writer. I'm a storyteller. I'm also an event organizer. I like to write about cheese. I like to talk about cheese. I like to organize events around cheese. And, of course, I eat a lot of cheese.

Mostly, though, I like to make stuff happen and then stand in a corner and watch it unfold.

That's what happened today when I wrote a little press release about a young woman who's just starting out in the cheese world. I don't think she even has any idea of what's in store for her. But I can see it. Her name is Anna Landmark. Today, she's a policy research director for a Wisconsin non-profit organization, who with her husband, owns and runs a small-scale sustainable farm in Albany, Wis.

Five years from now, she'll be an award-winning cheesemaker crafting original sheep's milk cheeses and clearing a broader path for Wisconsin artisan cheese. She's the kind of gal who's going to put her own mark on the dairy industry, and she's going to do it in style.

You see, Anna was selected from a wide field of applicants for a $2,500 scholarship from Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization I started in 2009 to help consumers connect with Wisconsin cheesemakers. She is mid-way through the courses required for the cheesemakers license and is working to secure an apprenticeship this fall.

As you know, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation that requires its cheesemakers to be licensed, an 18-month process that involves attendance at five university courses, 240 hours of apprenticeship under a licensed cheesemaker, and a written exam at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture.

While big and even medium-sized cheese companies can afford to put beginning cheesemakers through the licensing process, smaller, artisan companies, and especially those just starting out, can find the process daunting and sometimes, insurmountable. That's why I started the scholarship in 2010 - to create a platform for beginning cheesemakers whom I am confident will go on to do great things if they can just get past the hurdle of getting their license. Past scholarship recipients include Katie Hedrich, a goat cheesemaker in Chilton, Wis., who went on to be the first and youngest woman goat’s milk cheesemaker to be named a U.S. Champion; and Rose Boero, a goat and cow’s milk cheesemaker in Custer, Wis., who will complete her cheesemaker’s license this spring.

While all of this year's scholarship applicants were more than well-qualified, Anna's application stood out because it told a story. And perhaps because I myself am a storyteller, her story spoke to me.

Anna's story begins at her grandparents' dairy farm in Mount Horeb, Wis., where a big block of Swiss cheese was brought out every morning for breakfast and then left on the table under a glass dome until after supper. Her story continues through the terrible milk prices of the 1980s, when she watched her grandfather become discouraged, eventually retire, and then discourage his grandchildren from ever getting into farming. Her story blossoms with the discovery that she loves to cook, and how that love led to making cheese in her kitchen (her first batch of mozzarella was so terrible she didn't attempt to make cheese again for two years). And it ends with the story of buying a small property outside Albany in 2009 with her husband, where a new story is now starting: one of buying a gentle, stubborn, noisy Milking Shorthorn named Freckles who produced so much milk that Anna started making cheese just to use it all up. Then came along two Alpine dairy goats, and she made goat's milk cheeses. Then heritage breed sheep, and finally sheep's milk cheeses, where she found her true passion: to become a sheep's milk cheesemaker.

After she uses the scholarship money to earn her cheesemaker’s license, Anna plans to craft fresh sheep's milk cheeses, and differentiate them from her cheesemaking idol Brenda Jensen's cheeses, by draining the curd for a longer period of time and perhaps rolling the cheese in herbs and distributing it in various shapes. She's also going to make aged sheep’s milk cheeses, including thistle-rennet cheeses, which will require her to develop her own rennet from thistle flowers. This type of cheese is currently only available via import from Portugal and Spain.

“Wisconsin has such a robust cheese industry and I live in the heart of it,” Landmark said in her scholarship application. “However, the majority of sheep milk cheeses consumed in the United States is still imported. I would like to grow this emerging industry and help provide a stable market for sheep dairies in my region.”

I have no doubt she'll accomplish all that and much more. Anna will be a cheesemaker, and she'll be a good one. She says her grandfather is now enjoying watching her entry/return into the dairy and cheese world, but is still skeptical anyone on a small scale can really make a living doing it.

Good cheesemakers can make a living doing it. And Anna will be good cheesemaker. I'm looking forward to watching her grow and discover all the things of which she's capable, all of the things I see in her when she talks about making cheese.

So perhaps that's one way I can explain to folks what it is that I do: I help grow cheesemakers. But then again, that's not going to be an easy career for my father to explain to the neighbors either. So I guess I'll stick with being a writer who has a sister who is a good attorney. That's good enough for me.

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! 

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Behind the Curtain at the World Championship Cheese Contest

The World Championship Cheese Contest came and went in Madison this week. With it, hundreds of industry volunteers, cheesemakers and international judges unloaded, unboxed, unwrapped, inspected, labeled, opened, sniffed, tasted, spat out, rewrapped, reboxed, and reloaded 2,504 cheeses one by one, wheel by wheel, wedge by wedge, all in a quest to find the best.

Mission accomplished. While the Dutch and Swiss again took top honors (the World Champion was Vermeer, a lowfat Dutch Gouda made by FrieslandCampina - yes, that's right, the frickin' Dutch beat us with a lowfat Gouda), Wisconsin cheesemakers did well overall, earning gold medals in 30 of the 82 classes.

Held over the course of three days at the Monona Terrace, the World Championship Cheese Contest is one of the best cheese events held in Wisconsin. That's because it's expertly executed by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which has been running the contest since 1957.

Once held in obscurity in a butter cooler in Green Bay, the contest now takes center stage at a sprawling convention center in the state capital. Today, the WCMA, led by executive director John Umhoefer, calls on more than 200 volunteers to help run the three-day contest. Many - perhaps even most of the volunteers - are Wisconsin cheesemakers who happily carve three days out of their own cheesemaking schedule to schlep around cheese made by others from around the world.

From Monday morning through Wednesday mid-day, two distinct bodies of cheese people fill the voluminous Exhibition Hall at Monona Terrace. One group wears white caps and white jackets, and stands in front of the red velvet curtains. These are the judges. From Argentina to Australia, 20 international cheese experts wind their way to Madison to spend three days inspecting, sniffing, tasting and spitting out everything from Gruyere to Gorgonzola (they spit out each cheese so as to not have hundreds of samples mulling around in their tummies - I'm not sure all the Pepto Bismol in the world could cure that kind of stomach ache).

The second group wears blue hats and white coats, and mostly works behind the red velvet curtains. This is the "B Team", as they are affectionately called, and these are the folks - all Wisconsin cheesemakers and industry volunteers - who unbox and unpack each and every piece of cheese for the judges to inspect, and then repack and rebox to put back on pallets to be zipped back to the cooler by another set of volunteers who have moving pallets down to a science.

While both of these teams are busy working, a separate team in a separate room, mostly filled with computers, printers and cans of caffeine, tally the judges' scores. This team - led by the amazing Jane Cisler at WCMA - is the invisible hub of the contest, always working, often running, to get scores entered as soon as possible and up and live on the contest website. Without Jane and her team of volunteers, the contest simply would not happen. They are truly the wizards behind the curtain.

By Wednesday afternoon, judges have whittled down the 2,504 cheeses to just 82. These are the Gold Medal cheeses - the top cheeses in each of the classes. This year, the contest mixed things up a bit, and had the judges pare the top 82 down to a "Sweet 16", which were then judged in front of a sold-out live audience at an evening gala in the Monona Terrace ballroom. More than 400 super foodies showed up to mingle with cheese industry folk and taste 50 cheeses from around the world, all the while watching the final round of gold-medal judging.

At about 8:20 p.m., the crowd was rewarded for its patience with the naming of the Second Runner-Up (an Appenzeller from Switzerland), the First Runner-Up (a washed-rind Winzer Kase from Switzerland) and finally, the World Champion - the aforementioned lowfat Gouda.

As hundreds cheered for the Dutch judge as he hefted his native country's wheel of cheese above his shoulders (the actual cheesemaker won't accept his medal until an April banquet in Milwaukee), the wizards both in front of and behind the curtains - the volunteers, the B Teamers, and the rest of the judging crew - all took a moment to stand and smile, satisfied with another year of finding the big cheese. Well done, crew. See you in 2014.