Colby Makes A Comeback with The Robin

In 2009, Jon Topp of Chesterfield, Missouri, sent me an email and attached a spreadsheet listing dozens of Colby cheeses he had ordered from Midwestern cheesemakers during the past several years, in a quest to find the Colby of his youth. Growing up in the 1960s in central Iowa near a small country store that carried the “absolute best Colby cheese,” Jon remembered eating Colby in longhorns, wrapped in cloth and wax.

He said he could remember the taste like it was yesterday: mild, deliciously nutty, firm and laced with small holes. Most importantly, like much of the Colby made today, it was NOT mild cheddar. It was dry, not rubbery, gooey or wet and had the perfect salt to moisture ratio.

In short, it was perfect. And Jon Topp could no longer find it. Since then, I, too have been on a quest to find true, original Colbys (and found them at Hook’s Cheese and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars). This week, fellow cheese peeps, I found another one.

Introducing Deer Creek The Robin, named for Wisconsin’s state bird, this Colby is a partnership between Henning’s Cheese in Kiel and Chris Gentine of The Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan. Turns out Chris, too, has been on a quest to find true Colby, so he worked with the Colby masters at Henning’s to create a young cheese with a firm, open and curdy body. It is not made in longhorns (good luck finding many cheesemakers who want to hand-punch curd into a longhorn form anymore), but it is made in12-pound tall wheels, bandaged with linen and dipped in wax.

The result could very well be the end of Jon Topp’s journey: a true Colby of years gone by, with a fresh, dairy flavor, buttery, yet curdy texture with nutty notes and nice salty finish.

If you’re wondering why this is such a big deal (I know what you’re thinking – I can buy Colby in any supermarket store in America), let me give you a brief background on this iconic cheese. Colby was invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County’s first cheese factory three years before.

The Code of Federal Regulations – as specified in Sec. 133.118, describes the requirements for making Colby cheese. The key difference between cheddar and traditional Colby is that during the make process, the curd mass is cut, stirred, and heated with continued stirring, to separate the whey and curd. Then, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water, with continued stirring, which is different from cheddar (no added water/rinse with cheddar). The Colby curd is then completely drained, salted, stirred, further drained, and pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.

Back in 2010, after Jon Tropp initially emailed me, I contacted cheese industry guru John Jaeggi at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison, and he told me this traditional make method allowed Colby a curdy texture with mechanical openings. The flavor was slightly sweet with a slight salty note. Best of all, John said, the cheese had a dairy, milky note.

All this was grand until 1998, when the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture changed the state standard of identity for Colby cheese — here is a link to the original document with the original wording – you’ll have to scroll down to 81.50(2) and note the the hand-written notation with the change in statute — and amended ATCP 81.50(2) by adding this little gem of a sentence:

“Wisconsin certified premium grade AA colby and monterey (jack) cheese shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body.”

This annotation, especially the portion I’ve highlighted in red, led to significant changes in the make process of Colby by Wisconsin manufacturers. Because mechanical openings were no longer required of Colby, many processors today simply (and I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but it is the truth) make a cheese that resembles mild cheddar but label it as Colby.

But it’s not just the change in state statutes that doomed Colby in Wisconsin. Jaeggi notes technology improvements have also changed Colby. “I think cultures are faster. Older cultures were slower single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese,” Jaeggi says. Another change is the curd wash, he says. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse (no hold) after dropping the curd pH down to a 5.60. Old time Colby makers used to drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still sweet – at 6.00 pH or higher. Then after the whey was drained to the curd line, water was added to drop the curd temperature to a set target. After 15 minutes, the whey/water was drained off the curd and then the curd was salted. Most of the acid developed in the press. The reason this changed was larger plants understandably did not want to process all that water along with the whey.

Lastly, the hoop sizes and pressing of the cheeses is much different today than it was back in the day. Traditional Colby was made in the longhorn shape and pressed in 13 pound horns. They were then waxed for sale. Other plants made Colby in 40 pound blocks.

Which gets me back to Deer Creek The Robin. This Colby is a true anomaly – it is crafted in a 12-pound wheel, but has the taste, flavor and texture of longhorn Colby cheeses of years gone by. I got a chance to taste the cheese this week when Gentine shipped me a wheel at Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale in Madison. We cut open the wheel, and then stood in awe, as we smelled the old-time milkiness of true Colby and could literally count the openings in the curd like stars in the sky.

Deer Creek The Robin is just now making its debut in national markets, and I am excited that Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale is one of the first stores to carry it. We have it proudly displayed on our Deer Creek shelf, sandwiched between Deer Creek The Stag and Deer Creek The Fawn, two Grade AA Cheddars Gentine has also created with the help of Henning’s Cheese.

So, Mr. Topp – wherever you may be – while you may never find the Colby you grew up with (Jaeggi says most traditional Colby was made by small cheesemakers, each factory had their own unique flavor profile, and sadly, most, if not all, of those factories are now closed) — you may want to try Deer Creek The Robin. It may very well be a close second to the the Colby of your childhood.

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.”