Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman and learn about the science of copper cheese vats from expert Neville McNaughton on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
In a world full of stainless steel, just a handful of the world’s most iconic cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, Emmental, Raclette and Gruyere in Switzerland, as well as French Comte, are all crafted in cheese vats made from copper. What difference does copper make in these cheeses? To find out, we tracked down one of the only American cheesemakers making cheese in a copper vat: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello, Wisconsin.
We caught Bruce last week when he was operating on only about three hours of sleep over the course of two days. That’s because the computer that helps run much of his equipment had broken down the day before, and he was still trying to catch up. But he was happy to sit down, take a break and talk cheese.
Bruce has been making cheese for 46 years and has 11 Master Cheesemaker titles under his belt. At Edelweiss Creamery, the cheesemaking starts every weekday at 1 am and finishes up by 4 pm. That’s because Bruce is old school – when he started making cheese years ago, he didn’t have enough capacity to cool milk for more than a few hours, so he got used to a schedule of making cheese at night. Today, it’s all about efficiency – by making cheese during “off peak” hours for electricity, he saves a “boatload of money.”
When Bruce talks about being old school, the factory that he owns and operates – Edelweiss Creamery – is old school. It’s a historic cheese plant, one of more than 200 originally built in Green County, Wisconsin, more than 100 years ago. It started as a Limburger plant, but was converted to making Big Wheel Swiss by 1951. A total of 13 copper kettles, each making one wheel, were once housed inside Edelweiss Creamery. Those kettles are long gone, but a large, modern copper kettle – imported from Switzerland and capable of making four Big Wheel Swiss wheels – now sits in their place, along with several open vats where Bruce makes more than 20 varieties of cheese.
“Big Wheel Swiss” is what the Swiss call Emmental. Wheels weigh 200 pounds and contain eyes – or holes – the size of 50-cent pieces. Bruce ages his wheels and then ships them to retail stores across the country. Not only is he one of a handful of folks making cheese this way in America, but he is one of only two American cheesemakers making Big Wheel Swiss in a copper kettle.
I asked Bruce why he uses a copper vat. He again chalks it up to old world cheesemaking. A copper vessel heats evenly and makes a difference in the flavor when making old world Swiss cheese. But of all the cheeses Bruce makes, the copper kettle is reserved for only his Big Wheel Swiss. Everything else is made in stainless steel.
I asked Neville McNaughton about the science of copper vats and why they’re reserved for making alpine cheeses. Neville owns a company called SDI, which makes specialized equipment for cheesemakers. He’s also a consultant for cheesemakers in the United States, and since 2000, has developed recipes and equipment design for some of the most famous artisan cheesemakers in America. And if you listen to the podcast, you might be able to tell from his accent that he’s a native to New Zealand.
Neville says historically, copper was an easy metal to work with, and it heated uniformly. Compared to steel, it didn’t rust. “I don’t know that anyone sat down (hundreds of years ago) and created a designer cheese that had to be made in a copper vat, but there are certainly things that are unique about the cheeses that are made in copper vats.”
Many of the cheeses historically made in copper are cooked at higher temperatures – Parmigiano Reggiano, Emmental, Gruyere, Comte. One of the things that all of these cheeses have in common, is that at the point the whey is removed, the pH is still very high – at 6.5, compared to 6.2 for a cheddar. That means many of the minerals are retained in the milk. A copper vat will also contribute micro levels of copper to a cheese. “The copper is working on the fat in the cheese and creating a note at low levels that is very pleasant.”
I asked Neville if one can make cheddar, for instance, in a copper vat and his answer was clever. “Well you certainly can, but the answer is: should you?” He knows of one cheesemaker making cheddar in a copper vat, but it doesn’t taste as good as cheddar made in stainless steel.
A few years ago, I spent a day making cheese with Bruce Workman. You can read about that adventure by clicking here.
Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.