Friday, February 22, 2013

The Evolution of Wisconsin Cheddar

If the state of Wisconsin were to have one signature identifying symbol, it would likely be a chunk of cheddar. Crafted in blocks, barrels and wheels, and then cut, wrapped and stamped, millions of pounds of construction-orange Wisconsin cheddar are sold every year to American consumers.

Most Wisconsin cheddar gets shipped to the coasts for city folk to enjoy, but thousands of pounds are still bought by Midwest locals at roadside cheese shops and cheese factories, with many a Wisconsin farm family still putting the requisite piece of sliced cheddar on apple pie at Sunday dinner.

In a quest to learn more about how the cheddar industry evolved in Wisconsin, I've been doing a little research. Did you know that cheddar was just about the only cheese produced in the entire United States prior to 1850? By 1880, in a foreshadowing of our future dairy dominance, Wisconsin had taken the lead in producing more cheddar than any other state in the nation. And by 1929, back when there were 2,499 cheese factories and creameries, each supplied by a dozen or so farmers, with each farmer milking about a dozen cows, nearly all of those cheese factories made cheddar.*

That's right, baby. Cheddar was king.

While it continued its dominance in driving the state dairy economic engine, by the late 1950s, however, the state of cheddar had changed. Almost every cheese factory now sold their cheddar to big distribution companies such as Kraft, Borden or Armour, marking the beginning of an era when distributors, not cheesemakers, set the price for their product. To quote Wisconsin cheesemaker Sam Cook in 1957, (you may recognize Sam Cook’s name, as he’s the father of Sid Cook who today owns Carr Valley Cheese): “You took what they gave you. We was lucky to sell what we had.”**

The relationship between big distributors and cheesemakers changed the face of cheddar.  Back in the 1930s and 40s, cheesemakers had taken pride in their cheddar being different or “better” than the cheese factory 4 miles down the road. Those were the days when each factory had its own self-propagating cheese culture and resident molds in its walls and aging planks. Those were the days when cheddar had what you might call “character”.

Now, with the coming of the big distribution companies, cheddar instead became a commodity. The new buzzwords became: “consistency" and "long shelf life" and "mild flavor.” These were the traits that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map and made it such a huge success in national markets. As author Ed Janus puts it: "This was the great achievement of the Age of Cheddar."***

Success is all well and good, but it comes at a price. With Kraft, Borden and Armour demanding consistency, many small factories went out of business, being either unable or unwilling to modernize. Many of the old cheesemakers, born of the craftsmen era, didn’t know scientific cheesemaking. The way they determined when the curd was ready to mill wasn’t to check the ph of the whey; it was to put a hot iron to the curd mass, and when it strung out a certain distance, the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.

By the 1980s, Wisconsin had lost many of its smaller cheese factories in the name of progress. Equipment was sold and doors were shut. Some were turned into machine sheds or homes. Most were left to just fall down. And with the loss of the smaller plants, Wisconsin began to lose the character of its cheddar. The cheddar from one factory now tasted much like the cheddar from the factory down the road. In essence, Wisconsin's cheddar industry traded “character” in exchange for “consistency.”

Remaining cheddar plants got bigger and more efficient. The mass market clamored for lower prices. Now cheesemakers had to make more and more cheese just to continue to make a living. Everything became based on volume. Many a cheesemaker who got out of the business in the 1990s will tell you that by the end, they were making only a profit of one penny per pound of cheese sold. That's not enough to live on, much less to send your kids to college or re-invest in your business.

By 2000, however, a handful of cheesemakers were getting off the commodity cheddar wagon and changing to specialty and artisan production. Cheesemakers such as Sid Cook in LaValle and Tony and Julie Hook in Mineral Point started making small batch cheddar and setting it aside to age. This was cheddar that didn’t get sold to Kraft for a penny on the pound. This was cheddar that the cheesemaker could put his own label on, and set his or her own price.

Now the old time cheesemakers will tell you that aging cheddar isn’t anything new. They all did it, even back in the day. It was just called Cheesemaker’s Cheddar. It was the cheese hidden in the cellar that each cheesemaker’s family ate at night with dinner. They’d sell a block or two on occasion to people who today I suppose we'd call "foodies" who would stop by a cheddar factory and say, “What’s the oldest cheddar you’ve got? Will you sell me some?”**** So even back then, aging cheddar was not a new concept. What was a new concept was selling it to the public at a price the cheesemaker set.

The real key, however, to the renaissance of Wisconsin cheddar, was chefs. Cheesemaker Sid Cook says that by the mid 1990s, chefs started seeking him out. They would buy cheese and take it back to their restaurants, cook with it, and diners loved it. So the chefs would order more. Diners would ask where the cheese came from, and then visit the factory to watch cheese being made, usually - if Sid had anything to do with it - buying some on the way out.

"There's a certain element with cheese that almost is addictive," Sid says. "You can tell when people are sampling. They'll take one. And it will be a little while. Then their hand just goes out. It's just automatic. They can't help it. They don't think about it ... That's how you know it's really good. What we really like to do is get their hand past their hip so they get their wallet out."*****

Today, Wisconsin cheesemakers still make plenty of commodity cheddar, and cheddar is still sold on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the current price is $1.62/pound). But most often, those blocks and barrels are serving as cash flow and are the backbone of a cheesemaking operation. Those same cheesemakers today are selling more specialty cheddar under their own brand, and using the proceeds to develop new artisan cheeses such as American Originals. This turnaround in the process – the cheesemaker setting the price – is what is largely responsible for the current artisan cheese renaissance we're currently experiencing in Wisconsin.

Interested in trying a good aged Wisconsin cheddar? Here are some of my favorites:
  • Four-Year Cheddar by Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle, Wis.
  • Six-Year Cheddar by Widmer's Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wis.
  • Ten-Year Cheddar by Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point, Wis.
Interested in a good specialty cheddar? Then try:
  • Peppercorn Cheddar, Henning's Cheese, Kiel
  • English Hollow Cheddar, Maple Leaf Cheese, Monroe
  • Heritage Weis Old-World Style White Cheddar, Red Barn Family Farms, Appleton
And if you're looking for some amazing bandaged cheddar made by Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers, I'd recommend:
  • Bandaged Cheddar, Bleu Mont Dairy, Blue Mounds
  • Kinsley, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg
  • Eagle Cave Reserve, Meister Cheese, Muscoda

*Facts and figures courtesy of Harva Hachten and Terese Allen's book: The Flavor of Wisconsin: An Informal History of Food and Eating in the Badger State, 2009.
**Sam Cook quote courtesy of interview in the book Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.
***Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 100.
****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 103.
*****Creating Dairyland: How caring for cows saved our soil, created our landscape, brought prosperity to our state, and still shapes our way of life in Wisconsin by Ed Janus, 2011.  Page 104.

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