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A bit of the backstory:
Imagine building a brand new artisan cheese factory. You’ve made your very first batch of cheese, and just days later, opened a shiny new retail store. It’s the beginning of a busy tourist season in Door County, Wisconsin. Customers are flowing in, eager to see a state-of-the art factory, cheese market, restaurant and wine counter. You’ve got cases filled with nearly a hundred different cheeses, charcuterie from around the world, and specialty food items for sale. But everyone wants one thing: to taste and buy your cheese. The problem? None of it will be ready for months.
That’s the situation Master Cheesemaker Mike Brennenstuhl, owner of Door Artisan Cheese Company, found himself in this spring. After building a brand new, 18,000 square-foot facility in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, that includes a retail market selling more than 100 different varieties of cheese, a wine counter with 150 different wines from around the world, and a fine-dining restaurant serving small plates and full entrees, the one thing Mike Brennenstuhl could not offer was his own cheese. It just wasn’t ready yet.
“It was brutal in the beginning,” Mike says. “We did good sales from day one, but how do you explain to people who come in that you don’t have any of your own cheese ready yet? We were making fresh cheeses, like Colby, but even that takes a month to age out. We’re finally in a place now where we have some cheeses for sale that we’re making, and it’s been a lot more fun.”
“In August of 2016, we blasted our first stick of dynamite,” says Mike. It turns out most of Door County is rock from the Niagara Escarpment, a prominent rock ridge that spans nearly 1,000 miles in an arc across the Great Lakes region. To build Door Artisan Cheese Company, Mike’s crew had to blast 18 feet down and remove 34,000 cubic yards of rock to pour a foundation. All that rock had to be crushed and re-used on site. Most of it went to build a beautiful rock patio just off the restaurant, perfect for outdoor dining and sipping a glass of fine wine.
Nine months later, Door Artisan Cheese Company opened on April 22. Since then, Mike and Master Cheesemaker Jim Demeter have been making cheese non-stop. Inside the facility’s 5,000 square-foot caves sit some of the American Originals Mike’s already created, including:
- BelaSardo, a Romano-style cheese crafted in a unique barrel shape
- Rosette, brined in Italian red wine for five days (Mike won’t disclose his secret wine of choice, but it looks beautiful)
- BelAdagio, a parmesan made in 20-pound wheels
- Valmy, named after the community of Valmy just down the road, a salty, creamy cheese made in the Trappist style and washed with Chocolate Stout, aged 4-6 months.
- Zivile, named after of a favorite employee, a Swedish Fontina-style cheese
- 1265, a raw milk British Shopshire Blue -style, named after 1265 Lombardy Avenue, the corporate office of the Green Pay Backers, and a green & gold cheese still in development.
- Crema Pressato, a young Asiago-style
- Top Hat Cheddar
- Big Horn Colby, Monterey Jack and Pepper Jack
All of the milk used to make Door Artisan cheeses comes from Red Barn Family Farms, a small group of dairy farmers in the Appleton area committed to farming sustainably. One of the most interesting cheeses made from that special milk is BelaSardo, formed in a unique shape and made from molds that Mike hunted down and imported from Sardinia, an island off of Italy with a rich cheesemaking tradition. BelaSardo looks like a miniature beer barrel.
“When my family was making cheese in my hometown of Symco, Wisconsin, we made a cheese called Sardo Romano – this was back in the 1960s. As I learned the trade, I made my first full vat of cheese at age 16, and I made a vat of Sardo Romano. That little round barrel was quite popular for a long period of time, and for whatever reason, going into the 1980s, it disappeared,” Mike says. “We are now the only manufacturer in North America that is making that shape of cheese again. We’re going to create a whole line of cheeses made in that shape, so that when people see it, they know it was made at Door Artisan Cheese Company.”
While his future may be in barrel-shaped American Originals, Mike Brennenstuhl is already famous for making amazing blue cheese. In the 2000s, Mike created a full line of award-winning blues at Seymour Dairy (now owned by Great Lakes Cheese). Today, he’s itching to start making a line of blues again, and is planning to release his 1265 Shropshire-style blue around Christmas.
When Mike and Jim make cheese at Door Artisan Cheese, one of them almost always wears a headset with a microphone. Guests watching through the viewing window can press a button and talk directly to a cheesemaker. Mike and Jim are able to answer questions on the spot and share the steps of cheesemaking with visitors.
“Our goal with Door Artisan Cheese was to enhance the experience of people visiting and living in Door County,” Mike says. “I think we’ve accomplished that. We’ve learned a lot this year, and I think next year will really be our breakout year in the business. We’re all about celebrating Wisconsin cheese.”
Today’s Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Dairy Connection Incorporated, supplier of cultures, enzymes, cheesemaking supplies and trusted expertise since 1999. A family-owned business based in Madison, Wisconsin, the dedicated Dairy Connection team takes pride in its commitment to be the premier supplier to artisan, specialty and farmstead cheesemakers nationwide. To learn more, visit dairyconnection.com.