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Making Jack at Mt. Sterling Cheese

For the folks out there who continue to doubt whether an artisan cheese can really come out of a medium-size plant, I have four words for you: Mt. Sterling Cheese Cooperative.

Located in the heart of 1,000 acres of apple orchards in western Wisconsin on the edge of the thriving metropolis of Mt. Sterling (population 215), this tiny cheese factory has been crafting quality cheeses since 1913. In 1976, a handful of goat farmers banded together to form a co-op, and in 1983, they purchased the creamery. Today, about 20 dairy goat farmers ship their milk to Plant Manager Al O’Brien and Cheesemaker Bjorn Unseth, who together craft a variety of amazingly-good, award-winning goat cheeses, all by hand.
With the lure of asking me to try a new artisan, cave aged cheese (more about that later in the week – it deserves a blog posting all its own), Al invited me today to help him make a couple vats of cheese – one Jack Style Goat cheese, and the other Goat Cheddar.
I got there just in time to witness the Jack Style curds being stirred in preparation of scooping them into 40-pound cheese molds. (Monterey Jack is made a bit differently in that the curds are washed with cold water to cool them down and reduce the acid content). Monterey Jack is a fairly young cheese – usually only aged about a month or so and is very buttery.
At Mt. Sterling, they handle all the curd by hand – there’s nary a curd pump in site. Helper Brett was very good at scooping cheese, weighing each bucket to make sure the forms would be filled to uniform weights, and then dumping the curds into each 40-pound block form. Here’s a video of that process:

Today, the cheesemakers at Mt. Sterling made 26 blocks of jack style cheese, 15 plain and 9 blocks of flavor, including a couple blocks each of garlic, jalapeno, tomato basil, basamic vinegar & olive, and dill. The flavors are stirred directly into the curd and then scooped into forms. I got to taste them all, and I liked the dill and the balsamic vinegar & olive the best.
Monterey Jack is a fast cheese to make, as the 40-pound blocks only have to press for about an hour. Then it’s time to take them out of the presses, one by one, and on to the cryovac machine, where they are sealed, boxed and then wheeled into the cooler until sold. Here’s a video of that process:
Mt. Sterling makes about 300,000 pounds of cheese annually and is ramping up production: “Our sales are strong and our inventory is short, so we’ve got to keep making more cheese,” Al says. In addition to their plain and flavored jacks, they also make one of the best raw milk sharp goat cheddars in the country (it received a third place ribbon at this year’s U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in the Hard Goat’s Milk Cheese Category).
One of the more interesting aspects to me about Mt. Sterling is that both Al and Bjorn are fairly new to the Wisconsin cheesemaking scene. Al, age 52, got his cheesemaker’s license in 2005, after retiring as a dairy farmer (he milked about 40 cows just eight miles from the plant), and Bjorn earned his cheesemaker’s license just last May. Neither are from cheesemaker families – they both walked into the field pretty much by accident.
Bjorn, age 28, (he was named by his Norwegian aunt) was working construction just a couple of years ago, when his brother recommended him for a job at the Mt. Sterling plant. After just an hour, Al hired him on the spot, recognizing a good worker when he saw one. Bjorn has since earned his cheesemaker’s license and is busy recommending other young adults in the area to consider pursuing cheesemaking as a career.
“The more I get into cheesemaking, the more I like it. It’s interesting to learn new things, and we’ve been winning awards these past couple of years. It makes you proud. I’d like to see more high school kids considering entering agriculture and cheesemaking as a career – there’s a lot of opportunity here,” Bjorn says.
For what Al & Bjorn lack in years of experience, their talent seems to make up for it. The pair are continually earning more and more awards — in fact, a new cave-aged artisan cheddar they’re now making earned a gold medal at the 2009 Los Angeles International Dairy Competition in the ripened goat’s milk cheese competition, beating out three cheeses crafted by the venerable Redwood Hill Farm in California. I tasted this cheese today, and let’s just say it’s pretty freakin’ amazing. But you’ll have to wait for the full review until later this week … stay tuned.
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