The Dairyland Renaissance

Who makes the best cheese in the world? We do.

I've seen a thousand places just like it. A collection of white outbuildings on a corner in small-town Wisconsin surrounded by cornfields and, more than anything else, sky. I pull up next to a pick-up truck that looks not unlike my own brother’s, breathe in the settling gravel dust as I search out the entrance to the cheese plant, comfortable in all this familiarity.

Chris Roelli comes out from behind the vat, blue jeans and a white T-shirt, day-old scruff shaded by a ball cap pulled low, kind eyes. He looks like every guy I went to high school with, and I smile at his capable handshake.

And then he says, “We’re making Cheshire today, an English farmstead cheese. It’s very dry, picot, but silky smooth. Almost a kind of chalky texture to it, but it cleans up real nice on the palate,” and I realize I don’t know anything about cheese or good old Wisconsin farm boys at all.

Roelli is a fourth-generation cheese maker, a rarity in an industry that suffered greatly throughout the 1980s and ’90s, forcing a lot of folks out of business—and the same thing almost happened to his family. For years Wisconsin cheese makers specialized in big blocks of commodity cheddar, the cheaper and more homogenized the better, because that’s what it took to compete. Three generations of Roellis made a name for themselves producing quality cheddar and selling it alongside other locally produced brands out of their retail shop on Highway 11 in Shullsburg—meanwhile many of us spent more on a Packer game-day cheesehead than we did on a hunk of cheese—and we certainly weren’t paying attention to its origins.

All around the state people were selling to Kraft or other large companies as cheaply as possible, and shuttering one after the other—the Roelli family shut the cheese factory down in 1991. By 2004, Wisconsin was losing hundreds of dairy farmers each month, and between five and ten cheese factories a year.

That same year Jeanne Carpenter was hired by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Senator Herb Kohl issued a $2 million mandate to reinvigorate the dairy industry. Carpenter and her team of four used the money to found a nonprofit called the Dairy Business Innovation Center, a virtual team of consultants working closely with existing and potential cheese makers and dairy farmers throughout the state to secure funding sources and help with grant writing, business plans and general business development. They also subsidize a quasi-foreign exchange program, where cheese makers from other countries visit us (or vice versa) to swap skills. Meanwhile, there was already a burgeoning network of specialty cheese makers organizing and comparing notes through the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute (founded in 1994 in cooperation with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board). In 2006 Carpenter drafted a preemptive press release declaring California had finally surpassed Wisconsin as a leading cheese state, but luckily she never had to publish it.

The efforts of the previous years started to pay off and Wisconsin’s dairy industry rallied. Not only did farmers and plants stop closing, Wisconsin added forty-three new dairy plants over the next six years. Today Wisconsin is still the number one cheese-producing state in the country, and has been for a century. We produce about 2.6 billion pounds of cheese every year (over a million pounds more than California), 477 million pounds of which is specialty cheese—and that’s where the best part of the story lies. For the past four years, retail sales of specialty cheese have seen a 3.9 percent growth every single year, and it spiked up to 9.2 percent growth last year.

Of Wisconsin’s 127 cheese plants, ninety-two of them now manufacture at least one specialty cheese. Wisconsin produces 48 percent of all the specialty cheese in the United States. With the help of the DBIC, the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, Carpenter’s own nonprofit Wisconsin Cheese Originals, the Wisconsin Specialty Cheese Institute, the Center for Dairy Research at the UW, Dairy Management Inc., and more, cheese making in Wisconsin is sexy and profitable again, led by a resurgence of talented, small-scale, small-batch artisans like Chris Roelli.

***

I can just imagine him blushing right now. Roelli, forty, grew up helping his dad and grandpa at the plant and got his cheese maker’s license the summer after high school. He took the UW–Madison short course in cheese making in 1989, then secured a business degree from Madison Business College in May 1991. But that very month his dad announced profit margins were impossibly low, and cheese making ground to a halt. For ten years, all throughout the 1990s, Roelli mourned his shot—then, the climate in Wisconsin began to change.

Chris started pushing the other four partners in the family business (his dad, two uncles, and a cousin) to get back into cheese making. They still had the retail store, still had the name in the cheese business, still had the infrastructure—but this time they’d give specialty cheese a try, which required a major structural overhaul. The DBIC gave the Roelli family a grant and “an awful lot of professional expertise,” retrofitting the old commodity cheese plant, which now produces eleven times less in volume as an artisan facility today. Now the Roellis double production every year, and they have since 2006.

Roelli’s crowning achievement is his Dunbarton Blue, a shelf-cured, cellar-aged cheddar-based blue cheese wheel of magic. It’s currently gracing the menus of upscale restaurants and cheese boutiques in New York City, Minneapolis, Dallas, Houston, and Chicago, which is Roelli’s number-one market. In Madison you can find it at Metcalfe’s Market and Fromagination, and it’s this exclusive for a reason.

“I won’t sell Dunbarton to anyone who’s gonna vacuum seal it in plastic,” Roelli tells me. “It’s got to be cut off the wheel or else I won’t market it.”

These are the things that set makers like him apart, this determination and knowledge, patience and attention to detail. Roelli can walk into the make room, and just by the smell of the cheese cooking in the vat tell you what the humidity levels are outside. He can tell you what the cows ate that day. He can slide a hand into the vat, swipe the milky curds from its side and sense the temperature, turn things up a little or down a little accordingly. These are the things you just can’t duplicate with machines and
computers in large-scale factories.

We’re interrupted just then by a man with a vial, the daily sample from the farm the Roelli family has worked exclusively with since 1956. He excuses himself to test it, hollers over his shoulder as he leaves, “Have you been up to see Willi Lehner yet? How about Bob Wills?” And I see now this is a big part of what these makers do—they keep a close eye on each other.

***

Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain says what’s going on in Wisconsin cheese making right now is a full-on revival, a renaissance, a scene. He describes a new era in the state, one in which cheese makers are experimenting, collaborating, sharing ideas and technical knowledge, and promoting each other at award shows, seminars, conferences—and even making money. It’s an exciting time for Wills, a former instructor and researcher in the UW agricultural economics department, who married into the well-established Cedar Grove Cheese Company.

“The first ten years were depressing,” he recalls. “Everybody was getting bought up, farms and factories were closing down, it was just kind of survival mode.”

But Cedar Grove had always been a progressive plant, founded in 1878 and the last one standing of twenty-two former cheese factories that used to operate within a seven-mile range. They were the first company in the country to go BGH free. Eventually this led to organics, and about sixty percent of Cedar Grove cheeses are. Some essential things remain the same. Cedar Grove’s senior cheese maker, Dan Hetzel, for instance, has been putting his hands in the vats since 1956. But when Wills came on board, he saw firsthand how difficult it was to compete. Wisconsin, ironically, has the highest milk costs in the country, and with humongous plants using cheap ingredients, importing powders from overseas, and using mass production methods, trying to compete on cost was impossible.

“It forces the small plants to be innovative,” says Wills. “You either do it or you’re dead. But it does make it so much more fun.”

Now Cedar Grove works with milk from about thirty-five different farmers and opens up its make room to small-scale cheese makers throughout the state, artisans who have the imagination and the skill but can’t afford the investment of a state-of-the-art facility. It doesn’t feel like competition to Wills. In fact, he feeds off the energy.

“We went through the dark ages,” says Wills, “and now it’s like the New York Beat generation, or the San Francisco music scene. All these cheese makers are playing off each other, challenging each other, and we’re in the middle of something really phenomenal.”

***

In the middle of all that riffing are a handful of rock stars, many of whom visit Wills to make their cheeses, including Chris Roelli. He names a dozen more, including Brenda Jensen of the award-winning Hidden Springs near Westby, who now finds herself collaborating on a sheep’s milk blue with the likes of Tony Hook. Wills also names Willi Lehner, whose Bleu Mont organic cheeses are aged in a real cave Lehner built on his property near Blue Mounds, powered by wind and solar energy, and he names Andy Hatch and Mike Gingrich out in Dodgeville. That one’s probably his favorite to tell.

“Mike Gingrich of Uplands Cheese Company came to me and he said, ‘I’ve got cows that have been specially bred. I’ve got great pastures. I want to make European-style, grass-based cheese and I don’t care what it costs. I want to have the best cheese in the world. Can you help?’” says Wills, laughing. “I said, ‘Yeah, I can do that. That’s my kind of project.’”

Wills and Gingrich went down to the Center for Dairy Research at UW–Madison and started making test batches, eight variants of one type of cheese. Gingrich would take them home and age them in his basement. It was the milk Gingrich had been producing for years—milk nearly unparalleled in quality—that had first gotten him thinking about cheese. Back when Gingrich’s dairy operation was still fledgling, he knew about a guy, Dan Patenaude, who’d been practicing rotational grazing—in which cows are exposed to fresh pasture every day—on a small scale since the 1980s.

Rotational grazing was developed in New Zealand and practiced in parts of Europe, and Patenaude was the first to do it around here. Gingrich was intrigued, but knew it couldn’t be done on his smaller, conventional farm—and Patenaude’s operation was too small to be economical. So in 1994 the two decided to pool their resources, and together they bought three hundred acres in the rolling uplands outside of Dodgeville and roped off twenty separate areas of lush natural vegetation. They introduced about two hundred cows to this heavenly pasture hop, animals that get only the freshest green grass every day. Clearly these cows are happier than any slick marketing
campaign could ever dream of emulating.

“Our cows give less milk than cows kept in confinement eating machine-harvested feeds with by-products,” says Gingrich. “But they’re outside, they get a lot of exercise, they have a longer life. It’s a lower-cost way of doing it, it’s easier on the land, it’s easier on the animals and the farmer, and the milk is just delicious.”

But milk is milk—it doesn’t matter how tasty and varied the flavor profile, you’ll still get the same price per volume when you go to sell it by the hundred weight. That’s when Gingrich started researching cheese, and when most cheese makers and chefs told him grass-fed cows make the best cheese, he wanted to give it a go. He approached the university first in 1999, and then Bob Wills at Cedar Grove, to whom he’d already been selling his unique milk for many Cedar Grove Cheese makes. The two started their experiments in cheese vats in the basement of Babcock Hall—hoping to emulate a Gruyère called Veaufort, a cave-aged variety made in a tiny pocket of the French Alps. Six months later, they knew they had it—and started officially making Pleasant Ridge Reserve using the Cedar Grove facility, and aging the wheels in a rented commercial kitchen space in Spring Green.

By the fall of 2000, James Beard award winner Odessa Piper was serving Pleasant Ridge at the upscale, seasonal mecca L’Etoile. Then came the American Cheese Society’s judging and competition, where Pleasant Ridge took best of show. Five years later it won again, the only cheese in history to take two ACS best of shows. Oh, and it won Best of Show at the U.S. Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association championship in 2003, becoming the only cheese in history to win both national competitions.

“That pretty much put us on the map,” says Gingrich.

I’ll say.

***

Gingrich was doubling production every year, so in 2004 they built a state-of-the-art cheese making facility on the Uplands Dairy farmland. Patenaude is in charge of the cows, and Gingrich is in charge of the cheese. The milk couldn’t be fresher, with essentially no transition time between milking and vat pouring. In 2007, Gingrich hired his first full-time employee, thirty-year-old Andy Hatch, a Milwaukee native who says he always had “the typical suburban kid’s pastoral fantasy.” Hatch knew commodity dairy farming was a tough road but saw cheese as a way to add value and make a dairy enterprise feasible. He studied cheese making in European caves, worked at a few cheese factories around here, and also completed UW–Madison’s cheese making coursework before coming to work for Gingrich making Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Hatch hopes to own his own farm one day, but for now he’s gaining notoriety as one of these celebrity cheese makers, with a widely anticipated soft cheese he’s hoping to release any day now. Though Hatch is an example of an emerging trend of kids giving solid careers in Wisconsin agriculture a serious look, he’s kept his head.

“It’s no slam dunk now,” says Hatch. “It’s still a very capital intensive operation. But if you’re successful, so are the returns.”

There are no short cuts, that much is clear. Ask any cheese maker around, and he’ll tell you the biggest secret to Uplands’ success is the milk itself.

“Uplands has magnificent milk,” says Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy. “It’s the best milk I work with. I feel very fortunate when I can get it.”

The barefoot Lehner is treading lightly—literally—around his sixteen-acre property in the township of Vermont. We walk past the solar panels that produce more energy than he uses, past the garden ringed with volunteer sunflowers where so much of his own food grows, and enter the straw bale greenhouse that once housed his first cheese curing room. Lehner tells me about the repairs needed on the wind generator he’s used for ten years as he pulls a fig from the tree inside, takes a juicy bite, and hands it to me. I stare back at him with starry eyes. I am entirely ready to go back to the land, and look around near the piles of drying garlic bulbs for a sign-up sheet.

“That’s part of having traveled so much in other countries,” says Lehner, picking up on my sudden swoony spell. “You see how incredibly wasteful we are here.”

Lehner, whose parents hail from Switzerland, is a dual nationalist. He grew up working alongside his dad, who managed the Ryser Brothers Cheese plant in Mount Horeb for more than twenty years. After high school he lit off for Switzerland, where he worked alongside his brother making cheese in copper kettles over wood fires, then took his Swiss franc and traveled Europe studying other cheese makers, and third-world countries in his off time.

“I would say that it was a peak experience, though I didn’t know it at the time,” he says. “It’s where the connection between what the cows ate and the final product really made a huge impression on me.”

After a decade Lehner came home and started making butter and cheese, which he sold at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Eventually, Organic Valley bought his cultured cream butter recipe—the one you can buy in the yellow box today—and Lehner switched to cheese. He started experimenting with surface-cured cheeses, which are kept in a cavelike environment around fifty-five degrees, with humidity between eighty and ninety-eight percent depending on the make. This allows molds and bacteria to grow on (not in) the cheese as it dries down as slowly as possible, consuming the outside of the cheese and giving off all kinds of flavor. Where most cheese makers attempt to replicate a cavelike environment as closely as possible, Lehner started building the real thing on his property in 2006.

In short, he excavated a gigantic hole, built what looks like a big beautiful bomb shelter, and covered the whole thing back up again. Two large, wooden, iron-handled doors stand sentry at the entrance, and inside is climate controlled naturally without heating or cooling devices. Lehner doesn’t make cheese here on his property—it would be far too costly and produce too much waste—so he travels around using other people’s factories. He makes at five different plants—three of which are Uplands, Cedar Grove and Roelli. On the flip side, cheese makers for miles around want to see what happens to their cheeses when they let them age in a real cave, and inside Lehner points out several different shelves of cheese he didn’t make, like the latest handmade goaty goodness from Anne Topham of Ridgeway’s Fantôme Farms. I also see living examples of all this cheesy rock-star collaboration, like the aging wheels Lehner made at Cedar Grove factory using Upland’s milk—which hasn’t been released yet.

I smile and shake my head, marvel out loud at the combination of science and artistry, skill and magic, experience and collaboration, and brains and muscle that seems to go into all this cheese making. Lehner just shrugs.

“I know that if I’m working with really good milk, and I take my time with the cheese, and I give it the environment, it does a lot of it itself.”

***

Back home now, a mere seven-mile drive from Willi’s cave, I’ve got a fridge full of cheese. I take my time selecting, finally pull out Chris Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue, and carry it out onto the back deck. The hills look like a bunch of green sisters, each lying softly on her side. The sky looks like a picture on a butter box package, and I guess that’s where they got it. 

I pull back the paper wrap, tear a delicate crumble from the corner and slip it into my mouth to taste. Before long, I’m gnawing straight off the wedge. I think about the latest Michael Pollan book, Food Rules, and how you’re supposed to be able to picture whatever you’re eating in its natural state. I think about the cows grazing that lush pasture of Uplands in Dodgeville, and about Bob at Cedar Grove watching the whey press out of those curds. I picture Willi in his cave, admiring the evolutionary heartiness of mold spores. The knowing feels good, I admit. Makes the cheese taste better, somehow.

A red-tailed hawk circles in just then, floats down to a landing on the toothpick point of a pine I’ve never noticed before. Pointing to get my husband’s attention, I mumble through a mouthful of cheese, tell him I think someone stole into our yard last night and planted a mature new tree out back. He shakes his head, no. It’s been there all along.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer to Madison Magazine.

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