Widmer’s Brick & Colby: Wisconsin Originals

Brick and Colby: perhaps two of the most underrated cheeses in America. Some folks call them boring. Others simply write them off as commodities. After all, Colby is really just Mild Cheddar, right? And blocks of Cheddar sell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, along with cattle, corn and cotton. So why should these cheeses even be considered interesting, much less blog-worthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three reasons: 1) Joe Widmer,  2) Joe Widmer, and 3) Joe Widmer.

Every once in a while, I teach a class on what I call “Wisconsin Classics.” Attendance is usually down because people note what cheeses we’ll be eating, proceed to yawn, and then wait to sign up for the next month’s class on American Originals. But the truth of the matter is that both Brick and Colby are indeed American Originals, as both were invented in Wisconsin in the 1800s.

Today, there’s no one in Wisconsin making better Brick and Colby than Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa. To the skeptics who call Brick and Colby “bland,” I challenge you to taste Joe Widmer’s Mild Brick and Authentic Colby and not call these cheeses anything but artisan and full-flavored.

Fifty years ago, you might have known more than a dozen Joe Widmer-types, all crafting authentic stirred-curd Colby in little cheese plants across Wisconsin. That’s because until the 1970s, by law, Colby was required to have an open texture, meaning the curds could not be tightly pressed. This allowed a more milky, dairy flavor to develop, and depending on the cultures used and cheesemaker who crafted it, a flavor all its own.

That all changed in the 1970s, when lobbying from the state’s ginormous Cheddar makers resulted in Wisconsin statutes being changed to allow Colby to have “a closed body,” the same as Mild Cheddar. That allowed big cheese plants to make more Mild Cheddar and label it as both Mild Cheddar and Colby, thereby accessing two market shares with the same cheese. Two years ago, I did some research on this very topic and wrote a post called The Colby Conundrum, which resulted in a flurry of anonymous hate mail from what I suspect are some of the state’s biggest Cheddar makers, and which explains why today, many people unfortunately still consider Colby to just be Mild Cheddar.

The USDA doesn’t even take Colby seriously. It lumps it with Monterey Jack in the “Other American Types” cheese category when reporting annual production. Luckily, the folks at the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service do appreciate it a bit more. Their stats show Colby cheese production exceeded 100 million pounds for a number of years in the 1970s, and even approached 200 million pounds in the mid 1980s.

Joe Widmer is good at putting that number in perspective. During Colby’s peak years, Joe says it accounted for almost 20 percent of the state’s total production of American–type cheeses, and for more than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production. That’s pretty significant.

Colby production has been on the decline since the mid ’80s, both in terms of total production and in terms of its importance in Wisconsin’s cheese production picture. In 2000, Wisconsin produced 86.4 million pounds of Colby, or less then half the level of the mid ’80s. And today, at least according to my research, there are only three cheesemakers left making authentic stirred-curd, non-pressed Colby: Joe Widmer at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa; Tony Hook in Mineral Point; and Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Most others are simply making a stirred-curd Mild Cheddar with a closed texture and labeling it as Colby. You can tell the difference pretty easily – the next time you buy Colby in a store, check to see if it has pin-prick holes in the body. If it does, it’s authentic. If not, it’s likely Mild Cheddar being labeled as Colby.

Brick cheese, like Colby, is another Wisconsin Original. It was created in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss immigrant who was running his own Wisconsin cheese factory by the time he was 14 years old. Much like Jossi, Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager, and Brick is one of his specialties.

Widmer crafts about 360,000 pounds of Brick cheese a year, using the same open vats in the 12,000 square-foot facility that his grandfather bought in 1922. And he still uses the same well-worn bricks his grandfather used to press the whey from the cheese. In fact, he’s credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country to continue to use real bricks as part of the make procedure of his Brick cheese.

After pressing, Joe removes the bricks and places the cheeses in a brine solution to take on salt. He also makes a German-Style Brick, a washed-rind “stinky cheese” soaked in a solution to take on bacterial cultures. This cheese is cured in a “warm room” – about 70 degrees – where the bacteria works its magic and is then “smear ripened” with a top-secret Widmer mixture of brine and whey.

“Most people don’t even know what real Brick is,” says Joe. This alone drives his mission to craft the real deal and share with cheese lovers everywhere – and he does mean everywhere, including his very own dinner table. “A Wisconsin cheesemaker can spend a lifetime perfecting his craft,” Joe says,  “much of it spent resisting the urge to eat all the cheese.”

Hook’s Cheese: Almost 40 Years & Still Going Strong

Nearly 40 years ago, a pair of college sweethearts decided to make a living making cheese. Today, that same couple, Tony and Julie Hook, are still going strong, crafting more than 50 cheese varieties, including a stunning line-up of award-winning blues and aged Cheddars at their Hook’s Cheese factory in Mineral Point, Wis.

Renown to locals and tourists alike as the super enthusiastic duo who samples and slings cheese under the “Hook’s Cheese” tent every Saturday at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the Hooks have developed a first-class model for making award-winning cheese by buying fresh milk from the same group of small, local dairy farmers for the past three decades.

“The farmers know what kind of milk we want, and we pay them a good price for it,” says Tony Hook. “It’s a system that’s worked for 35 years.”

It’s also a system that provides the basis for consistent, high-quality cheese. The Hooks know this well, as they started that system back in 1977. That was the year they were hired as cheesemakers at Buck Grove, a factory dating back to 1887, which was rebuilt after a fire consumed the original building in 1925. At Buck Grove, they made mostly Cheddar and Monterey Jack, but it was a 1982 Colby that put the pair on the map.

That year, Julie’s Colby entry won the “Best of Class” award in the World Cheese Championship, a medal coveted by cheesemakers around the globe. And, as if that weren’t enough, her cheese was then judged against the winners of all other classes, and was named the “Finest Cheese in the World.” It beat 482 entries from 14 states and 16 countries. Wisconsin Cheesemaker Julie Hook was, and still is, the only woman to win the World Championship Cheese Contest (see the list of world champions).

The Hooks continued to make their world-winning Colby and other cheeses at Buck Grove until 1987, when the factory was closed after its patron farmers could not afford the $24,000 to modernize the factory’s pasteurizer to meet new state regulations.

So the Hooks decided to purchase an idle factory in the village of Mineral Point. Their farmers followed, and continued shipping high-quality milk to the now Hook’s Cheese on Commerce Street. Their new factory – well, actually old, as the factory dates back to 1929 – allowed the Hooks to start aging cheese in the facility’s three aging caves, one of which is 16 feet underground.

“When we bought the plant, one of the things we really liked was that it offered a lot of cold storage,” Tony says. “So we started aging Cheddar. We thought we’d go maybe three or five years, which back then, was a good, aged Cheddar. Now we age it up to 15 years, and have some set aside to go up to 20 years.”

The latest batch of Hook’s 15-year Cheddar went on sale in early November at select specialty cheese shops — click here for the list — and retails for between $50 and $60 a pound. I’ve never tasted a Cheddar so aged, yet still a bit creamy amongst its crumbles and flavor crystals. Mmmmm … I say it’s worth every penny.

In addition to the couple’s amazing aged Cheddars, the Hook’s are also well known for their blues, which they developed in the mid ’90s after customers at the Dane County Farmer’s Market began asking for a Wisconsin blue.

Their first result was Hook’s Original Blue, launched in 1997, and still considered by many to be THE benchmark against which all blues are judged. In 2001, the Hooks’ followed with a Gorgonzola, which won a Silver Medal at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest. In 2004, they developed two new blue-veined cheeses: Tilston Point, a drier, washed-rind and some might say a “stinky” blue, and Blue Paradise, a double-cream and sweet, smoothy blue.

One of my favorites, Bloomin’ Idiot, followed a few years later. I still remember the first time Tony showed me this bloomy-rind, blue-rind cheese at his plant, back in May, 2009, when he let me make cheese with him (read: mostly let me get in his way).

Finally, the Hooks’ Little Boy Blue, a sheep’s milk cheese and a sister to Hidden Springs Creamery’s, Bohemian Blue, was launched a couple of years ago. Little Boy Blue won a Best of Class Award at the 2011 American Cheese Society competition. (I let out a “woot woot” for them at the awards ceremony in Montreal).

Phew. That’s a lot of cheeses, and I didn’t even mention their Sweet Constantine, Stinky Fotene, Parmesan or Aged Swiss. Too many cheeses, too little space. Let’s just say that from world-renown Colby to record-setting Aged Cheddar to award-winning Blues, the Hooks have seen it all in their 40 years of cheese production.

Tony sums it up this way: “In 1970, when I was apprenticing at the Barneveld Cheese plant right out of high school, we were still getting milk in cans – I think we were one of the last factories to do so. Then at Buck Grove, most farmers had switched to bulk tanks, so the milk got delivered in milk trucks. At our factory in Mineral Point, I picked up the milk until 1999, when I finally hired a trucker because I was too busy making cheese.”

“Too busy making cheese” led the Hooks, in 2001, to make a switch they say is the key to their success today. Ten years ago, they were making cheese six or seven days a week, selling all but what went to the farmers market to a large distributor, where it ended up being sold under a variety of other company’s labels. Today, they make cheese two or three days a week and it all carries their label.

“In 2001, we put everything under our own label and set our own prices,” Tony says. “We always made high quality cheese, at least I’d like to think so. We just decided to pay more attention to each batch and to grow into other varieties.”

I’d say the Hooks’ have accomplished that and much more. At more than 50 different varieties and at least three different walls full of awards, the Hooks are still going strong. They even have a succession plan in place: younger brother Jerry Hook has joined the operation and now has his cheesemaker’s license. And then there’s the next generation. “The grandkids are coming up, so who knows?” he says with a smile. Yes, I definitely predict there will be more Hook’s cheese in the future.

New Roelli Cheese: Red Rock

Named for the local stone that surrounds the room in which it is aged, Red Rock is the newest creation from up-and-coming rock star cheesemaker Chris Roelli in Shullsburg, Wisconsin.

While technically a Cheddar-Blue, Red Rock differs significantly from Roelli’s flagship cheese, Dunbarton Blue. Where the Dunbarton was designed to be an elegant table cheese, imparting the feel of an English cheddar, yet spiked with the delicate, subtle flavor of a fine blue, Red Rock is more of a working man’s cheese. Where the Dunbarton is earthy and crumbly, Red Rock is creamy and sliceable. It’s the type of cheese that will take a sandwich to the next level, yet you won’t be able to stop peeking at it between the slices of bread because it’s so strikingly beautiful.

“I view it as Dunbarton’s little cousin,” Chris Roelli says. “A few years ago at the American Cheese Society, I saw a super dark orange cloth-bound Cheddar and thought it was really striking. So that’s the look I was going for.”

Colored with twice the amount of annatto as a traditional Wisconsin Cheddar and aged between 3-6 months, Red Rock is more of a creamy Cheddar than a crumbly Blue. Roelli uses five different starter cultures to frame the flavor profile of the cheese, placing curds into 40-pound block forms to set. Once the cheese is pressed, he cuts the big blocks into smaller 5-pound loaves, hand spiking each individual loaf to let the blue mold breathe. Red Rock is then placed on racks for cellar-aging and allowed to develop a natural blue rind, while inside, deep spikes of blue mold grow through the center.

While Red Rock won’t be sold at cheese shops until mid-October (it’s still aging to perfection), early batches are currently for sale at the Roelli Cheese store between Shullsburg and Darlington. It’s too new to be included yet on the company’s online store, but will be available by Christmas.