2:10 AM: Cat wakes me up.
2:30 AM: Alarm goes off. The cat is now
sound asleep on top of my head. Extract myself from
cat and get ready to start the day.
2:45 AM: After a quick breakfast, leave the house in my CHZ GEEK car.
2:48 AM: Realize I forgot the sandwich I made for later at home. Turn car around, retrieve sandwich.
2:50 AM: Back on the road again.
2:59 AM: See first deer, slow down.
3:02 AM: See second deer, slow way down.
3:10 AM: Possum begins to cross road in front of car, sees headlights and immediately flops on its side to play dead. I swerve to miss him. I determine possum really need to find a better defense mechanism in the 21st Century.
3:30 AM: Arrive at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello. All the lights are on and a semi is in the driveway, already unloading a tanker of milk. Apparently I am not the first one up this morning.
3:45 AM: Bill and his girlfriend, Stephanie, arrive. We are ready to make cheese!
3:48 AM: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman, the only man in America still making Big Wheel Swiss, informs us he threw his back out about 30 minutes ago while scrubbing the copper Swiss vat and it’s apparent he’s going to continue to make cheese all day today in massive pain. With Bruce, though, it’s hard to tell, as he’s always in a good mood. We pledge to help as much as possible.
4:25 AM: Vat is finally full of milk, time to add the culture.
4:30 AM: Add rennet
4:45 AM: Assemble giant cheese forms, attempt to put cheese cloth over boards. Fail miserably. Bruce helps – it’s very apparent he’s done this before.
5:00 AM: Cut curd
5:10 AM: Turn up the heat to cook the curd for an hour.
5:15 AM: The sun is starting to rise. Whoo-hoo! Sky is a beautiful pink color. Bruce informs us: “You all may get to live in Madison, but I get to see this everyday. Ha ha. I win.”
5:30 AM: Bruce makes the first pot of coffee of the day. THANK GOD. I ask if he has any cream. He smirks at me, tells me to follow him, and then gently drops a stainless steel dipper into the cream tank and hand ladles FRESH CREAM into my coffee. “That’s 42 percent butterfat — cheaper than a latte!” says Bruce. He’s right. This is the best coffee I’ve ever had.
5:35 AM: Time for a quick tour while the curd is cooking. We learn Bruce makes cheese so early in the morning, because between 10 PM – 10 AM is considered “off peak” time by the power plant. He runs his plant on half the cost of electricity by making cheese in the middle of the night. Smart move.
5:55 AM: Bruce gives us the run down of what will happen to the cheese after today. First, it will set in the press for 18 hours. He will then hand stencil it, using the cheese plant’s original Big Wheel Swiss metal stencil. Then the cheese will go into a salt brine for 48 hours. Then it’s off to a cooler for one week. Then to the “warm room” for 60-90 days so it can develop eyes, where it will also be flipped and washed twice per week. Final step: scrub, poly coat, apply the label and maintain in a cold cooler until it’s ready to sell. As Bruce says, “Making it is the easy part – it’s the aging and the maintenance that are the work.”
6:05 AM: The caffeine from the coffee has kicked in. Feeling more awake. This is a good thing.
6:10 AM: Curd has reached the correct temperature. Time to turn off the heat and start the gradual cooling process.
6:40: AM: Bruce measures the temperature, “Rock n roll – We made temp,” he announces. After donning his apron and rolling up his sleeves, the pumping of the curd commences. Turns out that 8,250 pounds of milk is going to only make four wheels of 180-pound Big Wheel Swiss. Yikes. This is a completely different type of cheesemaking than I’ve ever seen.
6:42 AM: Curd starts pumping into vats, creating mini fountains of curd and whey.
6:55 AM: Copper kettle tips up automatically to drain the last of the curd out.
7:15 AM: Forms are all filled. Time to put on the lids, boards and lock everything into place. Wow, this stuff is heavy. Bruce recommends eating “meat and potatoes when you make cheese — it will put meat on your bones.” I wholeheartedly agree. Here’s a look at this step in the process:
7:20 AM: Time to start taking apart equipment and wash the dishes.
7:55 AM: After draining the whey, the press table automatically flips. Way cool! The wheels of cheese will now sit in the presses for 18 hours. That’s when the real work will begin, but we won’t be here. Bruce and another cheesemaker will handle the cheeses by hand – lifting from the press into the brine, and then 48 hours later, Bruce says, “Instead of bobbing for apples, we’ll bob for cheese,” and then he and another guy will hand-lift the cheese out of the brine for its journey to the cooler. A year from now, our cheese will be ready to eat. Thanks, Bruce for a great morning of making cheese!