Above: Vat Captain John Jaeggi, far left, of the Center for Dairy Research talks with  Wisconsin cheesemakers, from left to right: Jerry Hook, Hook’s Cheese; Andy Hatch, Uplands Cheese; Kerry Henning, Henning’s Cheese; and Gary Grossen, Babcock Cheese. More than 20 Wisconsin cheesemakers gathered at Roelli Cheese on June 21 for the first-ever Cheddar Round Table, an educational cheesemaking and networking day.

So if I were still a journalist and had to write the lead for a news article about my day yesterday, it would go something like this:

“A group of Wisconsin cheesemakers boasting a total of more than 350 years of experience gathered at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg yesterday to compare techniques and further their education of starter cultures in the art of cheddar cheese making.”

However, Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who attended the first-ever “U.S. Cheddar Round Table” – the awesome brainchild of Cheesemaker Chris Roelli and John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research – no doubt summed it up WAY better in this comment he left on my Wisconsin Cheese Originals Facebook page:

“This was a great event. A bevy of cheese dweebs plying their craft and learning about culture. A well placed tornado would have obliterated our industry. We may need to have designated non-attendees in the future.”

Ha! Yes, despite the threat of severe weather that was supposed to include tornadoes, hail and flash-flood-inducing thunderstorms, the sun shone down on Roelli Cheese yesterday, staying sunny and 85 – or if you were in the cheese plant, a balmy 105 plus 100 percent humidity. I mention this, because while cheesemakers are used to working in a sauna for a living (it’s why they always look so young), I instead spent the day sweating profusely and listening intently to conversations revolving around alien words such as “Lactococcus lactis” and  “Lactobacillus brevis”.

And while I, a less-than-novice cheesemaker could not always keep up with the conversation (I nodded and smiled a lot), I didn’t have to be a cheese genius to see that the cheesemakers in attendance were having the time of their life.

While John Jaeggi and Chris Roelli served as “vat captains” for two different vats of cheddar cheese, 20 different cheesemakers from a dozen different companies – ranging from some of the smallest plants to some of the biggest companies in the country – stood alongside, taking turns stirring, cutting, draining, and milling curd. In between, they talked about everything from what starter cultures and rennet they used, to comparing notes on make techniques and aging styles. Mixed in with the crowd were a few distributors, culture house experts, and cheese retailers including Gordon Edgar, of Rainbow Cheese Cooperative in San Francisco and Ken Montelone of Fromagination in Madison.

“This is a way to talk about what we’re all doing and continue to elevate our industry,” John Jaeggi told the group as they waited for the starter cultures to start their magic. Chris Roelli added that while cheesemakers should not feel obligated to “give away their secrets,” the day was an opportune time to share information for the betterment of all. “Today, my house is your house,” he said.

After about five hours of morning cheesemaking and networking, the group took a break to head upstairs to the cheese plant living quarters, where Chef Sara Hill prepared an amazing lunch of ribeye steak sandwiches, 4-cheese mac ‘n cheese, asparagus and green beans with Dunbarton Blue, and an awesome caprese salad. Then, an afternoon session of workshops started, with industry experts giving educational talks on starter cultures, cheesemaking techniques, and the latest updates on food safety mandates.

Perhaps aided by a cooler full of New Glarus Spotted Cow on ice, cheesemakers openly shared information and ideas all day, with many making mental notes of what worked and what didn’t. The afternoon session ended with a full-blown cheese tasting, as almost all of the makers brought along cheese to share. By the end of the day, the group was already planning the next session to be held at a different cheese factory next year. Can’t wait!

Above: a group of 25 cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and industry experts gathered at Roelli Cheese June 21 for what  many hope to be the first of a series of annual travelling educational cheesemaking days in Wisconsin.

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