Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different

In his book, Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese, California author Gordon Edgar argues Wisconsinites take cheese for granted. With hundreds of cheese factories, thousands of dairy farms, and daily proximity to fresh cheese curds, we are spoiled with an abundance of good cheese.

There’s no doubt he’s right. All one needs to do is listen to someone from Arizona complain about living in a “cheese desert” to make us natives better appreciate living in America’s Dairyland. Of Wisconsin’s 600 types, styles and varieties, no cheese better defines Wisconsin better than Cheddar. After all, of the 129 cheese factories in the state, almost half make Cheddar. That’s 561 million pounds of just one type of cheese every single year.

Not only do Wisconsin cheesemakers produce a boatload of cheddar, they make it in a variety of ways. Some mass-produce florescent orange 640-pound blocks and sell it to storage houses, where it is cured in mammoth wooden boxes from floor to ceiling, and then cut and shrink-wrapped into 8-oz bars and labeled for grocery store shelves as mild and medium Cheddar.

Others, such as Land O’ Lakes in Kiel, Wis., make award-winning Cheddar in 40-pound blocks, sell it to brokers and distributors, who contract the aging of the cheese, and at the right time, sell it to grocery stores under a variety of private companies as sharp cheddar.

And yet others, such as the folks at Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, Wis., craft 40-pound blocks of both orange and white Cheddar, age it in below-ground cold rooms for up to 20 years, and proudly sell it under their own name. Other artisans, like Willi Lehner, at Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, Wis., craft Cheddar in 12-pound wheels, and then bandage and lard each wheel before aging it a year in an underground cave.

Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner. Photo by Becca Dilley.

In short, Cheddar in Wisconsin comes in every size, shape and age imaginable. But the difference in the taste of that Cheddar can be significant, and is attributable not only to the forms used or aging techniques, but to the region in which it was made. Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you how Cheddar used to taste different from one factory to the next, in just a 10-mile radius. Today, thanks to modern science and curious minds, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region.

The soils in the Driftless region are ancient – dominated by red clays and thousands of years of prairie grass roots that have decomposed into a thick rich mass, with soil type names such as Fayette and Dubuque. Dr. Jerry Tyler, Emeritus Professor of Soil Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says that in the 1800s, the first European settlers likely had between 20 and 30 years of “free” nitrogen built into the soil, resulting in decades of above-average wheat farming before fertilizer was even available. “It would have taken a pretty awful farmer to fail in those days,” says Tyler.

Compare this to the glaciated, eastern part of the state, which is dominated by flat plains, rolling hills, and a nearly 1,000-mile-long cliff that begins in east-central Wisconsin and ends at Niagara Falls. While the soils in the Driftless Region are millions of years old, the state’s eastern soils are only 12,000 years old and filled with till, left behind by debris-rich glacier ice. These soils carry names such as Miami, Dodge and Casco, and the soil’s chemistry is vastly different from the red clays to the west. Different soil chemistry results in different grasses grown in each region. And different grass produces different milk. Because, after all, in time, grass becomes milk. The only thing standing in between is the cow.

Photo courtesy of Bert Paris, PastueLand Cooperative

Bert Paris is a dairy farmer near Belleville, Wis., in the Driftless Region of the state. His cows are pasture grazed, and he spends much time cultivating his pastures so cows have the best grasses to eat, as his milk is made into yogurt, cheese and butter for PastureLand. He is convinced that the quality of grass is directly tied to the quality of milk, and that the quality of grass comes from the quality of the soil, groundwater and climate.

“I plant primarily orchard and brome grass with some red and white clover,” Paris says. “We plant these because they are persistent and manageable in our area. My pastures are old enough that we have native forages and grasses mixed in to create a salad bar of sorts. Cows enjoy this mixture more so than a monoculture of one or two grasses.”

Compare Paris’ pasture to the pastures at Saxon Homestead Farm, on the eastern part of the state near Cleveland, Wis. Brothers Robert and Karl Klessig pasture their herd, and their milk is made into cheese for Saxon Creamery. Like Paris, they plant orchard and brome grass, but also mix in perennial rye grass, timothy, reed canary, meadow fescue, and others.

Cows on pasture at Saxon Homestead Farm. Photo by Becca Dilley.

“Our pastures consist of a very diverse mix of both cool season grasses – both wild and improved, as well as legumes,” Robert says. “Lake Michigan plays a role in our environment. The summertime cool, east winds and morning dew have an impact on the vegetation and cattle.”

The different climates, soils and grasses from each region produce slightly different milk, farmers say, which in turn, cheesemakers argue, creates slightly different cheese. For example, Cheesemaker Tony Hook, who has made cheese in western Wisconsin since 1970, has had the same farmer patrons for 40 years. That means the same farmers – all of whom pasture their cows — have sent him milk for four decades. Grass-fed milk is literally all Tony has ever known.

“I’m a big believer that our sweet soils and limestone water make a difference in the pastures and the quality of the milk we get,” Hook says. In fact, Hook says his favorite months of the year to make cheese are in May and June, when cows are put on fresh grass for the first time, and then again in November, when cows are in the barn, but eating the best hay made from dried grass and legumes of the season.

Compare Hook’s experiences with Chris Gentine, owner of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan, Wis., who hand selects 40-pound blocks made at Land O’ Lakes in Kiel for his Double AA Grade Cheddar program sold under his Deer Creek label.

“I’ve always liked cheddars made in the Kiel region,” Gentine says. “The micro climate of Lake Michigan, combined with the pastures between Port Washington and Kewaunee are something special. The soil is more rocky versus the black earth of southwest Wisconsin. I’m convinced that if you made Deer Creek Cheddar in Green County, it would be a different piece of cheese.”

More science is needed to identify specific flavor components of Cheddar made in eastern and western Wisconsin. For now, consumers have the distinct pleasure of trying to discern that difference for themselves.

If you’re interested in tasting the difference between a variety of cheddars made in Wisconsin, please join me for the first class in a new Spring series I’ll be teaching at Metcalfe’s West Café in Madison. My special guest will be Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, owner of Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, and Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain. Bob’s been telling me for years there’s a difference in cheddar across the state. Here’s the class description:

April 19: Why Cheddar Here Tastes Different
Ask any old timer with Cheddar still stuck in his teeth, and he’ll tell you Cheddar used to taste different from one local factory to the next. Today, thanks to modern science, distinct flavor differences are being recorded between Cheddar made in western Wisconsin’s Driftless Region and in eastern Wisconsin’s glaciated region. Discover four different Wisconsin Cheddars, from aged block Cheddar, to Bandaged Cheddar to Cheddar made in 22-pound “daisy” wheels, to Cheddar Blue.

We’ll meet in the cafe at Metcalfe’s West Towne at 7455 Mineral Point Road. Arrive at 6:45 pm to order your complimentary drink and get settled by 7 p.m. Class is limited to 20 attendees and costs $22. Purchase in advance at: www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com

Check it: 10 Wisconsin Cheeses to Try in 2013

With just 3-1/2 days between us and the descent of the New Year’s Eve Blingy Ball, we bloggers have started writing end-of-the-year top 10 lists and “best of” posts. Between now and Dec. 31, you’re likely to be subjected to such stories as the 10 best cupcake shops in Chicago, the 10 best photos of my cat, and why artichokes were named THE food of 2012.

Not me. I’d rather look forward and see what our innovative Wisconsin cheesemakers are cooking up. That means I’ve set my sights on THE 10 “must-try” Wisconsin cheeses of 2013. Buckle up. Here we go.

Blurry photo courtesy of Jeanne’s iphone,
prior to consuming entire tub at one sitting.

1. Martha’s Pimento Cheese
My, how good humble pie tastes. After mocking Bon Appétit on this very blog almost exactly one year ago for naming pimento cheese as one of the top food trends of 2011, here I am, naming Martha’s Pimento Cheese as my No. 1 cheese to try for 2013. Dammit. I hate it when I’m wrong. But this cheese is so good, and this cheesemaker is so sweet, that I am nearly giddy to point out the error of my ways.

In fact (the following sentence is more effective if you read it using your best southern accent), we can thank the great city of Tyler, Texas for sending us Ms. Martha Davis Kipcak and her recipe for good ol’ Martha’s Pimento Cheese (stop Southern accent here). Showcasing the evolution of decades, even generations of pimento cheese-eating and pimento cheese-making, Martha combines aged Wisconsin Cheddar, diced peppers, mayonnaise (and in her Jalapeno version, jalapeno peppers sourced locally from Hmong farmers at Fondy Farm and youth gardeners of Alice’s Garden in Milwaukee) to make the best cheese-based concoction I’ve ever tried.

Currently sold only in Milwaukee at Larry’s Market, Glorioso’s, Beans & Barley and Clock Shadow Creamery (where Martha, a Regional Governor for Slow Food USA, makes it in small batches), this is my new favorite cheese for 2013. I am on a mission to get every Madison specialty food store to carry it so I can personally spread it on every cracker at every party I host in the New Year. Yes, Fromagination, Metcalfe’s, Barriques and others – that means I’m coming for you. Save yourself from my lobbying by filling out the Retail Request Form at www.mightyfinefood.us and let me know when you’re carrying Martha’s Pimento Cheese. I’ll be there with my checkbook.

2. The Fawn
A new cheese distributed by Chris Gentine & Company at the Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan is turning heads. The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Henning at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, first got my attention when it took a second in its category at this year’s American Cheese Society competition. Then, last month, it captured a silver medal at the World Cheese Awards in London. While this naturally mellow Cheddar cheese will likely hit the West Coast first, (Chris says they received an order recently from a distributor in California for multiple daisies), it should only be a matter of time before it’s available locally. An excellent example of what I call “sweet Wisconsin Cheddar”, this one is a winner.

3. Petit Frère with Truffles

In another “please kick me now” move, I declined an offer this summer from the fine folks at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese to try their new specialty cheese, Petit Frère with Truffles. Being the corn-fed, meat-and-potatoes-farm-girl that I am, truffles, in general, are not high on my flavor list. (Yes, I know I am aware this is not normal.)

So when the cheese won First Place in the Flavored Cheese Category at the 2012 American Cheese Society in August, I of course changed my mind and wanted to try it right away. The problem then – like many award-winning cheeses – is that the supply was limited. While it’s still hard to find this cheese, it is slowly coming on the market here in Wisconsin, and is worth seeking out. A luxurious, rind-washed semi-soft beauty, it is made in small batches and cave-aged on the Crave farm in Waterloo.

4. La Pinta
Here’s a quick history test for you: what three ships did Christopher Columbus sail with when “discovering” the New World? That’s right, it was the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. Meaning “painted” or “spot” or “marked” in Spanish, La Pinta is the new name of a new cheese from Cesar’s Cheese, made at Sassy Cow Creamery in – you guessed it – Columbus, Wis. Cesar and his wife Heydi, chose the name to reflect the spots on the Holstein cows that produce the milk for this Mexican Manchego-style cheese. (In Spain, Manchego is made from sheep’s milk, but in Mexico – Cesar & Heydi’s home country – it is made using cow’s milk). Look for Cesar’s beautiful wheels of La Pinta – marked in style with the traditional zig-zaggy rind – to hit the market in 2013. A preview I tasted this fall knocked me out. And I’m thinking it’s only going to get better.

5. Little Mountain
Those of who you were lucky enough to score tickets to this year’s Meet the Cheesemaker Gala at the Monona Terrace may have stopped by fourth generation cheesemaker Chris Roelli’s table and tasted his newest creation, Little Mountain. An Alpine-style cheese, Little Mountain from Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg is, hands down, one of the best new Wisconsin cheeses that will hit the market in 2013. Firm and nutty, it boasts the pineapple notes of Pleasant Ridge Reserve and the lasting sweet finish of cave-aged Swiss Gruyere. Look for this new American Original in the coming year.

6. Edun

This fall, Red Barn Family Farms introduced Edun, a New Zealand-style raw milk cheddar. The cheese joins an award-winning family of cheddars from owners Ted & Paula Homan. You may recall another Red Barn cheddar – Heritage Weiss – swept its category with Gold, Silver and Bronze medals at the 2011 U.S. Cheese Championship.

Edun, while still in the cheddar category, has a richer, more buttery taste and is made with raw milk, raw cream and vegetable rennet. It’s crafted in small batches at Willow Creek Creamery in Wisconsin, and is made in blocks using milk from seven family farms, each audited at least annually for treating cows humanely. Known as the “Red Barn Rules,” the system was developed by owner and veterinarian Dr. Terry Homan to make sure farmers know each cow by name, not just by number. Read about each of the Red Barn Family dairy farmers here.

7. PastureLand Greek Style Yogurt
Okay, so it’s not a cheese, but this new pasture-grazed, non-homogenized Greek Style Yogurt is worthy of making any “best of”list for 2013. Look for it come spring, when the dairy farmers of the new Wisconsin-based PastureLand cooperative will start making it again from the milk of pastured cows. Made with whole milk, the yogurt naturally separates into an inch of golden cream on the top of each 24-ounce tub, with luscious and thick yogurt underneath. The top inch is thick enough to hold a spoon – as illustrated to the right.

When you hear the name PastureLand, you may think of the former Minnesota-based dairy farm cooperative, that sadly, went out of business. In good news, earlier this year, the five families of the former Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative in southwest Wisconsin bought the PastureLand brand and are continuing the cooperative’s commitment to producing small-batch products with milk from pastured cows. In fact, the yogurt’s naturally golden color stems from carotene found in grass that cows eat. Look for the Greek Style Yogurt and one or two new cheeses – rumor is one may be named “Peace of Pasture” – to come from PastureLand in 2013.

8. Mystery Sheep Cheese
Willi Lehner, Wisconsin’s well-known Swiss-American cheesemaker and owner of Bleu Mont Dairy, is famous for bringing his experience of authentic Alpine cheesemaking to a collection of Wisconsin original cheeses. Always made in small batches, each cheese reflects the mountain tradition of using raw milk from pastured animals. Following a trip to Switzerland earlier this year, Willi is now experimenting and producing various sheep’s milk cheeses, natural and washed-rind. I tried one at the Meet the Cheesemaker Gala in November and it blew me away. When I asked what the name of it was, Willi didn’t know. He hadn’t yet come up with a name, and if history proves correct, he’ll just keep making new cheeses anyway, so naming them is really not that important. Willi’s cheeses are available in specialty cheese shops in the Midwest and at the Dane County Farmer’s Market in Madison.

9. Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar
When Karen Kelley, co-owner of the hugely successful Kelley Country Creamery, a farmstead ice cream factory near Fond du Lac, emailed me a few weeks ago to tell me the family was making their own Cheddar, I breathed a heavy sigh. Why does every farmstead dairy in this state feel the need to make a boring old Cheddar, I asked myself. And then I tasted it. And now I admit I was wrong. Currently available in both mild and medium – both aged just a matter of weeks or months – Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar is a classic Wisconsin cheddar with a sweet, clean finish and is most worthy to be on this list. Crafted by the current U.S. Champion Cheesemaker, Katie Hedrich, of LaClare Farms, Timothy Farmhouse Cheddar will be available in sharp versions in 2013, as the Kelley family is holding back some wheels for aging. Can’t wait!

10. Duda Gouda
Ten years ago, there were people who had written off super-cheesemaking-couple Tony and Julie Hook as aging cheesemakers who were more interested in retiring than in making new cheeses. Well, I guess the Hooks showed them. Launching more than a dozen new cheeses in the past decade,  Hooks Cheese in Mineral Point has done it again with its Duda Gouda, an aged sheep’s milk Gouda named after Julie’s family nickname. Sweeter and more crumbly than a cow’s milk Gouda, Duda Gouda is different than any other Gouda on the market. It’s worth seeking out.

And there you have it – my top 10 list of Wisconsin cheeses to search for in 2013. Know of other new cheeses coming in the New Year? Leave a comment or drop me a line at jeanne@wordartisanllc.com. Happy new year!

Deer Creek Cheddar

When a pair of never-heard-of-before “Deer Creek” cheeses nearly swept the highly-coveted Aged Cheddar category at the American Cheese Society awards this month, the audience grew a bit quiet as Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange climbed the stage to collect his ribbons.

“I felt like I could hear crickets chirping in the background as I walked up there,” said Gentine, who in the past decade has developed one of the nation’s most successful marketing and export companies for American cheesemakers looking to expand abroad.

“First off, I am not a cheesemaker and would never claim to be,” added Gentine, whose business is based in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin. “So Cabot Creamery and Beecher’s Handmade Cheese (the cheesemakers who have dominated the category for the past three years) — I really respect them. They are crafting some truly amazing American Originals.”

While Gentine may not be a cheesemaker, he is a cheese geek. A licensed cheese grader for the past 15 years, his palate is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a Grade A and Grade AA cheddar. His new line of Deer Creek specialty Cheddars are believed to be the only Grade AA Cheddars on the retail market, and that’s no accident. No cheesemaker really wants to go through the hoops to meet the higher standard, as each batch must be personally inspected by one of a handful of official State of Wisconsin certified cheese graders.

But Gentine’s got the ambition, passion and geektoidness to make it happen. That’s why he’s spent the past three years working with Wisconsin cheesemakers, affineurs and cheese graders to develop a specialty, three-year Cheddar called Deer Creek Reserve, and that is why Deer Creek Reserve is now considered to be the best Aged Cheddar (between 2-4 years) in the nation.

Both the Deer Creek and Deer Creek Reserve are made in 40-pound blocks at the Land O’ Lakes cheese plant in Kiel, long considered to produce some of the best Cheddar in the nation. The cheese is then aged and graded by Wisconsin Aging & Grading (aptly named), specifically for Gentine.

“We pull some samples from every vat, and then the team evaluates each sample,” Gentine said. “We usually narrow it down to a smaller group, and then submit it to DATCP (WI Dept of Agriculture) for their official cheese grader to analyze. From that group, he might say only two or three meet the Grade AA standard. So those are the samples we age out. This is a process we have to go through every time to meet the Grade AA standard.”

Gentine also oversees the production of two more cheeses: 1) Deer Creek The Fawn, made in 22-pound bandaged and waxed daisy wheels by Kerry Hennig at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel (this cheese took a second in its category at this year’s ACS competition), and 2) Deer Creek Vat 17, a cocktail culture Cheddar that was originally made specifically for a customer whose business model changed and could not purchase it (this cheese took second in the Aged Cheddar category).

“The Deer Creek Vat 17 is a really unique cheese,” Gentine said. “It’s got a cocktail of cultures in it that represent some of the best global Cheddars from the United Kingdom to Canada to New Zealand. It’s an amazing cheese to watch and taste, as one culture dies off, another comes to the front and the taste completely changes. We’re lucky it peaked at the right time to win at ACS.”

So now that he has these amazing, award-winning Cheddars that heretofore no one had ever seen, how can the average person buy it? That’s a good question, Gentine says. Because the wins at ACS were a surprise, he didn’t have any of the cheese yet placed in the retail market. He’s now working with distributors and specialty stores to make it available to the public, as calls are coming in from the publicity garnered from ACS.

As for future awards and accolades for the Deer Creek cheeses, don’t expect too many. Gentine says he probably won’t enter them into the American Cheese Society competition again, because he felt awkward competing against Wisconsin cheesemakers, many of whom are his clients.

“We’ll continue to make it, sell it at retail, and I’m sure we’ll be exporting the heck out of it,” Gentine said. “But I think my time on the awards stand is done. I’ll leave those honors to the cheesemakers. They’re the ones who deserve it.”