Quick: name the only carbon-negative, family-owned World Dairy Expo farm of the year that’s won 100 awards in 10 years for its farmstead cheeses.
I’ll give you a hint: the cheesemaker has a dry sense of humor, is quick to give all the credit to his wife, and whom, with his brothers, isn’t quite sure where the milking parlor’s light switches are located, because no one has ever switched them to “off.”
If you guessed the Crave Brothers of Waterloo, Wisconsin, then ding ding ding – you’re a winner! Producing two semi-loads of milk, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Crave’s 1,200 registered Holsteins produce super-fresh, super-rich milk that’s crafted each day into Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.
From just-right stringy Farmer’s Rope to perfectly-sweet Mascarpone to big-nose Les Freres, the Crave Brothers – specifically cheesemaker/brother George and his wife Debbie – are widely considered to be the folks who paved the way for commercial farmstead cheese factories in the state.
Since 2002, they’ve added on to their original farmstead cheese factory at least three times (frankly, I’ve lost count), been featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, hosted 100,000 people over three days at Farm Technology Days, and played host to some of the nation’s best known chefs, retailers and food writers. More importantly, they routinely do it all in style, grace, and occasionally – if George has anything to say about it – a little humor.
At a recent presentation on farmstead dairies in Wisconsin, George gave a stellar talk describing the commitment the Crave Brothers have in crafting “designer” cheeses with consistent, high-quality milk. George is quick to point out that his family operation is not seasonal or grass-fed, and his cheeses do not change with the phases of the moon. Instead, the Craves craft consistent, ultra-high-quality cooking and table cheeses that consistently please customers and judges at cheese competitions. In fact, George will say the question he most gets asked is: “What do you add to your cheese to make it taste so fresh?” George’s one-word answer? “Milk.”
Indeed, the first key to Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheeses is truly the farm’s milk. My favorite representation of that stellar milk, (combined with the second key – the art and science of good cheesemaking) is the farm’s Petit Frere. The cheese is named for George’s “little” brother, Mark, whom at nine years younger, today stands slightly over George at 6 feet, 4 inches (not that George is bitter about it or anything).
Crafted carefully in 8-ounce mini wheels and sold in wooden boxes, Petit Frere is an offshoot of the company’s original Les Freres, made in a larger, 2-1/2 pound wheels.
Perfect for taking to a dinner party because of its small size and attractive packaging, Petit Frere is a labor intensive cheese that carries a big taste and robust odor. Before opening, some might assume it’s a mini Brie, but in only seconds, its odor quickly gives it away. This is a big-nose, or stinky, washed-rind cheese.
After the make process, George says the cheese is flipped three times over two hours, and then taken to a “warm room” to mature for 20 hours. The next day, it goes into a saltwater brine (nature’s original preserver and flavor enhancer), and after two hours is moved into the company’s aging rooms, where it is dipped in a mixture of brevibacterium linens for the next two weeks. Ideal at 60 to 80 days old, it is similar to an Alsatian Munster, but I would consider it an American Original.
While I like it on the younger side, many like it older, even up to 120 days. At this point, when the cheese enters a room, you know it’s there. Or, as George would describe it: “At four months old, this cheese is natural birth control. You let this baby sit out all day and you’re going to be sleeping on the couch.”
George particularly enjoys taking Petit Frere to fancy international food shows, and witnessing persnickety French buyers taste Petit Frere, wrinkle their brows, take a step back, look up again at the Crave Brothers banner, and finally ask George where the cheese is really made, as they can’t believe an American cheesemaker could make such a thing.
“When I tell a French cheese buyer that Petit Frere is an American cheese, and then go on to say it’s made in a little community in Wisconsin called Waterloo, their eyes usually get real big,” George says. “Because as you know, the French aren’t real fond of Waterloo.”
When he’s not making cheese, and not making jokes about making cheese, George works with brothers Charles, Tom and Mark on the farm, making sure all aspects of the 2,000 acre operation are running smoothly. In 2008, the family installed an anaerobic digester to break down cow manure in a process that ultimately produces methane gas. The gas is then burned similar to natural gas, thus generating clean, renewable energy for the farm and nearby community.
The digester also brings added benefits. First, it reduces odor. One of the first things a visitor to the farm notices is a complete lack of that familiar “dairy air” – a pleasant surprise. Second, the digester is capable of producing products the Craves can use on the farm (liquid byproducts are used as fertilizer on farm fields and solid byproducts are used as animal bedding). Third, excess dry material has the capability to be sold as organic potting soil.
“People ask me: what do you make more of, milk or cheese?” George says. “The real answer is our number one product is manure. But because farmers are the ultimate recylclers, we recycle that manure into products we and others can use.” In fact, enough electricity is produced on the Crave farm to not only power the entire farm and cheese factory, but also another 300 homes.
Building a biodigester on the farm is just one step the Craves are taking to be a carbon-negative company. Another goal? Breeding their award-winning, champion Registered Holsteins to be a bit smaller, similar to Jerseys, thus lowering the farm’s overall carbon footprint.
“At the end of the day, we take corn and grain, we put them into a cow, and we get milk from her in return,” George says. “Our goal is to do that as efficiently as we can. And we’re working on that every day.”