The Beginning of the End of Raw Milk Cheese in Wisconsin?

Wheels of Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, once made
exclusively from raw milk, are now pasteurized
because Cheesemaker Willi Lehner can’t find a cheese
plant that will today allow raw milk through its doors.

I have been exceptionally lucky to have been in the right place at the right time most of my life. But no luckier than in 2003, when I took a job at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture and got drafted into a small team that would go on to help artisan cheesemakers launch a dairy renaissance in America’s Dairyland.

Since then, I’ve been privileged to watch dozens and dozens of artisan cheesemakers start-up and craft what have become national and international award-winning cheeses, and many of those cheeses have been made from raw milk.

That’s why it’s particularly painful for me to put the last part of that sentence in past tense: “have been made from raw milk.” Because whether the American consumer is aware of it or not, many Wisconsin-made artisan cheeses that were only a year ago made from raw milk, are now pasteurized.

Last week, I got lucky again – this time I was in the right place at the right time to escort a leading French scientist to visit Wisconsin cheesemakers making raw milk cheeses. Christine de Sainte Marie is a senior research fellow at the French Institute National Institute for Agricultural Research. Her current research is on the political economics of reconnecting farming, food and the environment. Instead of slow food or fast food, she is studying people who are “farming in the middle” e.g. farmers using sustainable farming methods or cheesemakers making artisan cheese, but who are not certified organic. And she came to Wisconsin to study raw milk cheese.

So you can imagine my surprise when we arrived at Bleu Mont Dairy for our pre-arranged tour with one of Wisconsin’s original raw milk cheesemakers, Willi Lehner – once described by the New York Times as an “off the grid rock star” – only to find out he hasn’t made a raw milk cheese in months. Why? With no creamery of his own, he relies on renting space at other Wisconsin cheese factories to make his award-winning creations. And now, because of increased scrutiny and inspection protocols from federal inspectors, none of those factories will allow raw milk cheese out their doors.

“I feel there is an underlying fear in the whole cheese industry, that drains away the passion of our craft. And one of the results will be less and less real raw-milk cheese,” Willi said.

Brenda Jensen, cheesemaker and owner at Hidden Springs Creamery near Westby, agrees. Brenda makes more than a half dozen different cheeses, all made from pasteurized milk. She makes one cheese from raw milk: Ocooch Mountain, an alpine-style beauty that many have compared to a sheep milk’s salute to Gruyere.

Last week, this 50-time ACS award winner for farmstead sheep milk cheeses had a FDA inspector come to her door and ask for 20 wheels of ONLY her raw milk cheeses for testing. The inspector wanted the chain of ingredients, where they came from, all lots associated from them and a make sheet with all info. None of those requests are out of line, so Brenda spent several hours reviewing what was needed. But she kept thinking: “Why just the raw milk cheese?”

“Instead of the intimidation, I would rather have the inspectors help train me on what issues they are seeing with raw milk cheeses, and how better to safeguard against having these become a problem,” Brenda said. She is now considering stopping raw milk cheese production.

Bruce Workman, at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, decided last year that making raw milk cheese was no longer worth the risk or the headache of increased FDA scrutiny. His Edelweiss Emmentaler, traditionally made with raw milk, is now pasteurized.

Meanwhile, some cheesemakers, such as Andy Hatch at Uplands Cheese, remain committed to making raw milk cheese. With no pasteurizer in the plant, Andy crafts the thrice-awarded ACS Best in Show Pleasant Ridge Reserve on a seasonal schedule, making cheese only when cows are grazing on fresh pasture.

On our visit to his farm last week, Andy told Christine he plans on making his raw-milk Rush Creek Reserve this year (last year, he suspended production, because of uncertainty in forthcoming FDA regulations). But he admits, his passion for making cheese is now coated by anxiety.

“What’s different now is that the decision-making behind creating a new cheese is laced with an apprehension over unclear and changing regulations,” Andy said. “Whereas before my first instinct was always towards developing something unique and expressive, now I instinctively worry first about making an acceptable product, and then second about making it delicious.”

Despite uncertainty over FDA’s potential changes with regulating raw milk cheeses, Andy hopes cheesemakers will stay the course. In an update to ACS members today, it was noted that the FDA is embracing an approach in regulating raw milk cheese that will “involve continuing outreach to stakeholders and expanding the conversation” – especially about the aging process for soft-ripened cheeses – before making any decisions on next steps in changing the 60-day rule for raw milk cheese in the United States.

“We, as cheesemakers can’t allow those concerns to trump our efforts to make expressive, distinctive cheese. If we’re given a chance to prove with testing that our cheeses are safe, than those goals need not be mutually exclusive,” Andy said.

On Location: ACS in Madison

Well it’s official: the 30th American Cheese Society annual conference and competition is now on the books as one of the biggest (and do I daresay best?) cheesy shindigs in the history of cheese nerd conventions. Ever.

With nearly 1,000 cheese geeks from across North America descending upon Madison, Wisconsin this past week to talk, eat and sell cheese, most everyone is now on their way home or has made it to their final destination with their bellies full of cheese and their briefcases full of business cards. And let me just say that after spending the past 15 months planning 32 seminars, 5 tours, numerous special events and a grand Festival of Cheese featuring nearly 1,800 different cheeses for the tasting, co-chairs Bob Wills, Sara Hill and I are ready for a nap.

But before I nod off, let’s share a few photo highlights of the week.

Here’s my cheese-sister-in-crime Sara Hill after being inducted into the prestigous Guilde Internationale Des Fromagers. Check out the website – it’s in French – so you know it’s important. Sara has worked 30 years in the cheese industry and deserves this honor. Congrats, Sara!

Next, let me be the first person to tell every retailer in the nation that you need to carry the new Savory Spoon Panforte, which debuted at Saturday night’s Festival of Cheese. Featuring locally sourced cherries and honey, along with the traditional nuts which made this 15th Century Italian dessert famous, the Door County, Wisconsin version crafted by Janice Thomas can be cut to order or sold in small, gift wooden boxes sourced from France. Two words: super yummy. Contact to order.

Willi Lehner and his Third Place Best in Show Bandaged Cheddar and Big Sky Grana (for the first time ever, the same cheesemaker tied himself for a Best in Show ribbon) – may have (rightfully) stolen the show …

But probably the happiest cheesemaker to win a ribbon may have been Martha Davis Kipcak maker of Martha’s Pimento Cheese. When Martha’s Pimento Cheese with Jalapenos was announced as the second place winner in the Cold Pack Cheese and Spreads with Flavor Added category, she almost couldn’t stand up in shock. But you should have seen her face when the announcer proclaimed she had also taken FIRST in the category with her original Martha’s Pimento Cheese. For someone who’s been in the food industry for 15 years, but only making cheese for less than a year, this is a well-deserved honor. Congratulations, Martha!

Before the conference proper started, ACS goers had their pick of five different tours featuring Wisconsin dairy farms and creameries. I had a blast planning and leading the Driftless Tour of Wisconsin Sheep and Goat Dairies, visiting Dreamfarm in Cross Plains, Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby, and Nordic Creamery in Westby. With a local-foods lunch catered right on the farm and a perfect blue sky, this particular tour showcased the best of Wisconsin.

Thanks to Sarah Bekkum for leading the tour at Nordic Creamery!

Thanks to Brenda Jensen (first in line!) for leading us through her amazingly beautiful dairy sheep farm and creamery.

And thanks to Diana Murphy for showing us her goat farm and creamery!

Of course, there were the seminars. This being Wisconsin, we wanted to plan some not-so-usual tasting sessions, so we brought in experts from the University of Wisconsin to lead a fluid milk tasting …

… and the first-ever cheese curd tasting session!

Of course there were also more traditional seminars, such as a 90-minute educational session on the flavor profiles of Comte.

My favorite event is always the Meet the Cheesemaker, where this year, 70 cheesemakers from across the nation and Canada lined up their wares for show and tell. Of course some cheesemakers, such as Cesar and Heydi Luis are more photogenic than others. Say cheese!

The weather could not have been more perfect to welcome members of the University of Wisconsin marching band to the Monona Terrace rooftop, where the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board threw the mother of all opening conference parties, complete with a toe-tapping band, picnic-style food, mounds o’cheese and of course, free beer. This is Wisconsin, after all.

The conference proper wrapped up Saturday night with the annual Festival of Cheese, where Best in Show winner Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farm was featured (thanks to Mateo for having three cases overnighted to the festival so everyone could have a taste)!

And where tables of blue cheese …

And smoked cheese …

And, well, every kind of cheese filled a room to hold 1,200 attendees.
Many, many thanks to the hundreds of volunteers, ACS staff, cheesemakers and all attendees for helping make the 30th ACS so memorable. See you next year in Sacramento, California, July 29 – August 1.

Wisconsin Cheese & Sommelier-Mixologist Duel

Sommeliers Ruben “Biggest Toad in the Puddle” Mendez
and Aaron “Burr” Johnson

Every once in a while I luck out and happen to be in the right place at the right time. Lucky for me, last night was one of those rare whiles.

After spending an hour on the capital square persuading total strangers to wear cheeseheads and stroll casually behind a staged shot of Wisconsin cheesemakers Chris Roelli, Andy Hatch and Willi Lehner waiting at a bus stop (we were shooting video for the official 2013 American Cheese Society introductory film, but more on that later), I tagged along to an event at L’Etoile where the trio were the guests of honor.

Fortunately, I was already gussied up for the video shoot, which turned out to be a good thing, as little did I know I was walking into a sold-out, 45-person sit-down Wisconsin Cheese and Sommelier-Mixologist Duel in the private back room at one of the best restaurants in America.

Holy crap. These are not typically the kinds of things I attend, as I a) usually drink Diet Coke and b) usually wear flip flops. But thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, I found a seat at the Texas Stagecoach table and listened to directions that seemed to require me tasting six cheeses (no problem), six glasses of wine (could be a problem) and six alcoholic mixed beverages (yes, Houston, we have a definite problem). 

Mixologists Casey “The Kid” Kammel and
Nic “The Quick & The Dead” Waerzeggers

The event was billed as a duel between what paired best with cheese: wine or chemical cocktails. On on the sommelier side, our hosts were Aaron “Burr” Johnson and Ruben “Biggest Toad in the Puddle” Mendez. On the Mixologist side were Carey “The Kid” Kammel and Nic “The Quick & The Dead” Waerzeggers. At my right was cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who seemed as baffled by the event as I was. I looked to my right, where cheesemaker Willi Lehner was sitting, trying to make small talk with guests at the High Noon table, and behind me, where Chris Roelli was seated at the Dusty Tumbleweeds table. We all shrugged our shoulders, as if to say, well, what the hell, and plowed in. 

First up: Uplands 10-month Pleasant Ridge Reserve, paired with what I think was a Pinot Noir (In good news, Lindsay Christians from 77 Square was also at the event, so be sure to read her future musings, as my beverage expertise is pretty much limited to diet soda), and a drink called “Once Upon A Time in Wisconsin”, which consisted of Lillet Blonde, orange juice, lemon juice, simple syrup and Lakefront Wisconsinite beer. (Andy and I decided it tasted like a Mimosa). So far, so good.

Next was Roelli Cheese Marigold, a clothbound, cave-aged, jack-style cheese with the nuttiness of an Alpine cheese. Made from grazed milk, the cheese carries a deep yellow color (hence its name) and is not yet on the market. Look for it closer to the holidays. Marigold was paired with (again, I really have no idea) some white wine, which was very good, and a concoction that tasted somewhere between root beer and bacon. Let’s just say the cheese was the highlight of this particular pairing.

Third was a Bleu Mont “Mystery Cheese,” which was actually a sheep’s milk cheese inspired by Willi’s recent trip to Italy and Switzerland. This is the first time he’s made cheese with sheep milk. At just 60 days told, this raw milk beauty will be even better in another month. It was paired with Gruner Veltliner from Austria and Kita’s Wry Redemption (perhaps a play on Willi’s partner’s name Q’itas), consisting of Redemption Rye, St. Germain, soda water and a lavender dip.

Then it was intermission. Which meant Arthur Ircink (the genius behind the camera at Wisconsin Foodie) and I rushed out to get a shot of my car’s license plate driving away while it was still light out (again this was for the aforementioned ACS video, but more on that later). After “driving away” six or seven times and then backing up into my original parking spot, we hoofed it back to L’Etoile in time for the fourth pairing, which was Uplands 24-month Pleasant Ridge Reserve (an OMG this is so good cheese), paired with a Sangiovese and a drink called “.01 Parts Wine”, which was actually part champagne currant, Ransom Old Tom Gin, Galliano-Tart Cherry pipette and Sauvignon Blanc. Awesome pairing. Hands down, my favorite.

Moving into the home stretch, we had two pairings left. At this point, I have to admit things get a little fuzzy and my notes seem to end. Turns out chemical cocktails are WAY stronger than my usual Diet Coke, so I didn’t even get a picture of the Bleu Mont Reserve Bandaged Cheddar and “Fist Full of Blueberries” drink, or the Roelli Dunbarton Blue and Pintar a Cambechana, which was a mixture of cherry-ginger sauce painted on the inside of a wine glass, mixed with Caonton ginger Cognac, rum, and Mexican Coke. I do remember it was very pretty.

All in all, it was an amazing night, and I had a ton of fun with some of my favorite people, including some intense giggling with Sara Hill, seated on my left, who assured me it was perfectly okay to dip my cheese into a glass of wine to get the full effect of a pairing. I have no idea which pairing actually won and who left with the adorable miniature silver trophies, but it was all in good fun.

As for the American Cheese Society video shoot — well, you’ll have just have to wait until the video’s premier in Raleigh, North Carolina in three weeks, when Sara Hill, Bob Wills and I introduce it at this year’s American Cheese Society, and prepare to welcome 1,000 people to Madison in 2013, when the conference is hosted at Monona Terrace. Until then, I leave you with this parting shot. Who says Wisconsin cheesemakers don’t have a sense of humor?