Cosmic Wheel Creamery

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A southern gal who grew up in Louisiana, moved to Minnesota to attend art school, and then fell in love on an Upper Midwestern vegetable farm, is today making some of the best new artisan cheeses in Wisconsin.

Cheesemaker Rama Hoffpauir founded Cosmic Wheel Creamery in 2015 with the goal of crafting a product that would compliment the certified organic vegetables she and her husband, Josh Bryceson, grew on their 80-acre farm near Clear Lake. Today, the family (with two children, ages 3 and 6) offer seasonal CSA shares of fresh vegetables, meat and artisan cheese from their Turnip Rock Farm to nearly 200 customers. (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture and allows urban folks like me to purchase a “share” of food grown by a local farmer).

Rama earned her Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license in 2014, but her cheesemaking journey started in 2010 when she and Josh, who had developed a love for livestock after working for Heifer International, purchased a Jersey cow named Carl. Yes, Carl. After playing with Carl’s milk in the kitchen and making a few stove top cheeses, Rama consulted cheese recipe books and starter culture catalogs to get a feel of what kind of cheeses she wanted to make commercially. “I knew I needed to make at least a half dozen different kinds, because people don’t want the same cheese each week in their CSA box,” Rama said. “The folks at Dairy Connection in Madison really helped me select some styles of cheese that would compliment our milk.”

The milk going into Cosmic Wheel cheeses is pretty special. What started with one Jersey cow has grown into a small herd of 20 Jerseys. Josh, Rama and their livestock manager, Liberty Hunter, rotationally graze the cows on fresh pastures and cover crops. The cows calve, and thereby start giving milk, in the spring, and then “dry off,” or end their natural lactation cycle, around Thanksgiving. This is the old-fashioned way that dairy farmers used to farm: by following the seasons. As a result, Rama only makes cheese in her small, farmstead creamery from May through November. All of her cheeses are 100 percent grass-fed, boasting the beautiful golden color that results when cows are allowed to digest the beta carotene naturally found in grass and then pass it through their milk.

Rama makes a variety of aged, raw milk, natural rind cheeses using a small, 80-gallon vat, and then ages them in a small room connected to the creamery. My two favorites are Circle of the Sun, a Tomme style made in a 12-pound wheel, tightly pressed, then aged nine months. It features bright, herbal and grassy notes on the tongue. Then there’s Moonglow, an alpine style cheese resembling a French Beaufort, aged one year. Both are available starting today at Metcalfe’s Market Hilldale in Madison (Rama ships us wheels as they become available, but because she makes less than 7,000 pounds of cheese a year, quantities are obviously limited).

“I feel like 2017 may finally be the year our cheeses make it out of our neighborhood,” Rama laughs, noting that in her third year of cheese production, she’s grown to a point where she can offer a limited quantity of wheels to select retailers. For her CSA boxes, she also crafts Antares, a cow’s milk Manchego; Deneb, a Gouda-style; Lyra, a creamy and mild cheese; and Moonshadow, an alpine-style made in early spring when cows are still eating hay. She makes a variety of fresh, pasteurized cheeses as well, including cheese curds, Quark, whole milk ricotta, and feta.

“I don’t feel like I’m working a lot of magic, because our milk is so flavorful. The cows really do all the work,” Rama says.

I have a feeling most everyone who tastes Rama’s cheeses for the first time will beg to disagree: the milk coming from Turnip Rock Farm may be stellar, but the magic in the make room at Cosmic Wheel Creamery is second to none. I’d say we’re pretty lucky this Louisiana girl ended up in Wisconsin.

LaClare Farms Martone

LaClare Farms Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann
and Martone, her newest creation.

Never one to rest on her laurels – or let’s face it, rest at all – U.S. Champion Cheesemaker Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann of LaClare Farms returned from her Hawaiian honeymoon last Friday afternoon to host hundreds of visitors at her family’s farmstead creamery grand opening, and that night, attend the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, where she debuted a brand new cheese she’s been working on in secret for more than two years.

It makes me tired to even write that sentence, much less execute everything it entails.

But then again I’m not a young, energetic cheesemaker with a lifetime of award-winning cheeses ahead of me. Katie’s latest creation, enthusiastically enveloped by the artisan cheese community at the fifth annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival this weekend, is called Martone. Cheese lovers in Wisconsin have been anxiously awaiting a cheese like this: a surface-ripened beauty made from a 50/50 blend of cow and goat’s milk, resulting in a mild, buttery flavor and citrus finish. Sitting at about 1-1/2 inches tall and about 3-1/2 inches wide, Martone is my new favorite table cheese.

Katie says she named the cheese for her great-grandfather, Martin Kozlowski, a dairy farmer and the first generation Kozlowski to settle in Wisconsin. But the cheese is really inspired by Martin’s granddaughter, who just happens to be Katie’s mom, Clara. Mama Hedrich, as I like to call her, grew up on the family farm and was the first in her family to attend college. She went on to become one of of the first two women to graduate from UW River-Falls with a degree in agriculture education. She’s spent the past 37 years sharing her passion with thousands of students. In fact, she is the longest tenured ag instructor in the state and is revered by her current students at West DePere High School. It’s not hard to see where Katie gets her drive from.

Hedrich patriarch Larry Hedrich shows off
his new dairy goat freestall barn, which opens
to the outside with paddocks of fresh grass.
These are some seriously happy goats.

Martone is made with pasteurized milk, vegetarian rennet and is ripened 10 days. That means it will likely be between two and three weeks old when you buy it at a retail store and eat it, but you’d better hurry, because it’s only got a 30-day shelf life. After that, this bloomy rind blossom is likely to harden and lose it complex flavorings.

The cow’s milk used for the cheese is sourced from Red Barn Family Farms, a group of American Humane Certified cow dairies near Black Creek, Wisconsin. The goat’s milk comes from the Quality Dairy Goat Producers Cooperative Of Wisconsin, founded and managed by Katie’s father, Larry. Today, seven – and soon to be eight – farms, including LaClare Farms, milk between 120 and 600 goats. That milk is sold to cheesemakers, including Carr Valley Cheese, Sartori, and LaClare Farms, where it’s made into award-winning cheeses such as Sartori Extra Aged Goat, LaClare Chandoka and Carr Valley Billy Goat Blue. It’s also bottled into LaClare Farms Bottled Goat milk and crafted into ice cream for LaLoos Goat Milk Ice Cream.

While each of the seven farms belonging to the goat cooperative is a top-notch operation, the 450 dairy goats at LaClare Farms are living the high life in a brand new facility built specifically for them at the still-smells-like-new LaClare Farms farmstead creamery.

Turning off Highway 151 east of Lake Winnebago and driving into the parking lot of the new picturesque goat dairy, creamery and what should be called a visitor center just outside the bustling unincorporated berg of Pipe, Wisconsin, feels like entering the Disneyland of dairy goats. Because 1) yes, it’s that clean, and 2) yes, it’s that fun.

Run by the Hedrich clan – mom and dad Larry & Clara, along with their grown children: Cheesemaker Katie, Business Manager Greg, Store Manager Jessica and part-time Herd Manager Anna — the family has pulled together to create something Wisconsin’s never seen before: an agritourism destination where visitors can see animals in a barn, watch them be milked in a double 24 goat parlor through a huge viewing window, watch cheese being aged through windows in the visitor center, and then purchase an array of cheeses made both at LaClare Farms and from around Wisconsin, as well as ice cream from Kelley Country Creamery near Fond du Lac.

Rock Star Chef Jim McIntosh in the new
LaClare Farms farmstead kitchen outside
Pipe, Wisconsin.

And when they’re done with all that, they can order lunch or dinner made by renowned chef Jim McIntosh (most recently the executive chef at Grand Cafe in Minneapolis). This is a farmstead creamery with a top-ranked chef also cooking with its products. Open to the public seven days a week, the LaClare Farms Cafe has already drawn a grand reputation for its Friday night Fish Fry and hand-cut French fries, which according to this French fry connoisseur, are the best she’s ever eaten. Jim told me he’s already torn his hand-operated potato fry cutter off the wall twice in his anxiousness to get fries into the fryer. “The way I’ve got it bolted to the wall now, the next time it comes off, the wall’s coming with it,” he said in completely seriousness.

While the cafe, retail store and dairy goat milking parlor are up and running at 100 percent, the cheese factory is almost there. Katie estimates she’s about two weeks away from final inspections and finally making cheese in her own facility, after spending more than four years putting thousands of miles on her car, driving to three different area cheese factories to both make and age her cheeses. She’s been sleep-deficit for years, constantly on the road between home and a cheese factory that’s not her own. Married for exactly 18 days, Mrs. Katie Fuhrmann is looking forward to finally establishing a home base. It will be a well-deserved reward for one of the hardest-working cheesemakers in the state.

“It is going to be so awesome to make cheese in my own place,” Katie said during a tour on Monday. “I get goose bumps every time I walk past the cheese vats. We are so close.”

Katie will have two cheese vats at her disposal: a 5,000-pound and 11,000-pound vat, where she will make her champion Evalon cheese, as well as a full range of goat’s milk cheeses including Fondy Jack, Chandoka, Goat Cheddar, Chevre and the new Martone. What’s more, the new LaClare Facility boasts six – yes six – different aging rooms, which can be each set to their own temperature and humidity levels. Katie will have an Evalon room, a washed-rind room for cheeses currently under development, a cheddar room, and others still to be classified. She’ll also be making custom cheese for at least two companies. The goal is for LaClare Farms to become an incubator and affinage facility for new cheeses and cheesemakers who can not yet afford to make and/or age cheese at their own place.

Cleaning the cheese vats at LaClare Farms creamery.

“This has truly been a labor of love for our family,” Larry said on a tour yesterday, clearly in his element talking about the new facility. “We are proud to open one of the most modern dairy processing facilities in the United States producing the highest quality dairy products possible. We are proud to have our family here with us, working side-by-side. That was the dream, and we’re here.”

Manure, Milk and Cheese: Crave Brothers Reshaping Wisconsin Dairy

Quick: name the only carbon-negative, family-owned World Dairy Expo farm of the year that’s won 100 awards in 10 years for its farmstead cheeses.

I’ll give you a hint: the cheesemaker has a dry sense of humor, is quick to give all the credit to his wife, and whom, with his brothers, isn’t quite sure where the milking parlor’s light switches are located, because no one has ever switched them to “off.”

If you guessed the Crave Brothers of Waterloo, Wisconsin, then ding ding ding – you’re a winner! Producing two semi-loads of milk, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the Crave’s 1,200 registered Holsteins produce super-fresh, super-rich milk that’s crafted each day into Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

From just-right stringy Farmer’s Rope to perfectly-sweet Mascarpone to big-nose Les Freres, the Crave Brothers – specifically cheesemaker/brother George and his wife Debbie – are widely considered to be the folks who paved the way for commercial farmstead cheese factories in the state.

Since 2002, they’ve added on to their original farmstead cheese factory at least three times (frankly, I’ve lost count), been featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, hosted 100,000 people over three days at Farm Technology Days, and played host to some of the nation’s best known chefs, retailers and food writers. More importantly, they routinely do it all in style, grace, and occasionally – if George has anything to say about it – a little humor.

At a recent presentation on farmstead dairies in Wisconsin, George gave a stellar talk describing the commitment the Crave Brothers have in crafting “designer” cheeses with consistent, high-quality milk. George is quick to point out that his family operation is not seasonal or grass-fed, and his cheeses do not change with the phases of the moon. Instead, the Craves craft consistent, ultra-high-quality cooking and table cheeses that consistently please customers and judges at cheese competitions. In fact, George will say the question he most gets asked is: “What do you add to your cheese to make it taste so fresh?” George’s one-word answer? “Milk.”

Indeed, the first key to Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheeses is truly the farm’s milk. My favorite representation of that stellar milk, (combined with the second key – the art and science of good cheesemaking) is the farm’s Petit Frere. The cheese is named for George’s “little” brother, Mark, whom at nine years younger, today stands slightly over George at 6 feet, 4 inches (not that George is bitter about it or anything).

Crafted carefully in 8-ounce mini wheels and sold in wooden boxes, Petit Frere is an offshoot of the company’s original Les Freres, made in a larger, 2-1/2 pound wheels.

Perfect for taking to a dinner party because of its small size and attractive packaging, Petit Frere is a labor intensive cheese that carries a big taste and robust odor. Before opening, some might assume it’s a mini Brie, but in only seconds, its odor quickly gives it away. This is a big-nose, or stinky, washed-rind cheese.

After the make process, George says the cheese is flipped three times over two hours, and then taken to a “warm room” to mature for 20 hours. The next day, it goes into a saltwater brine (nature’s original preserver and flavor enhancer), and after two hours is moved into the company’s aging rooms, where it is dipped in a mixture of brevibacterium linens for the next two weeks. Ideal at 60 to 80 days old, it is similar to an Alsatian Munster, but I would consider it an American Original.

While I like it on the younger side, many like it older, even up to 120 days. At this point, when the cheese enters a room, you know it’s there. Or, as George would describe it: “At four months old, this cheese is natural birth control. You let this baby sit out all day and you’re going to be sleeping on the couch.”

George particularly enjoys taking Petit Frere to fancy international food shows, and witnessing persnickety French buyers taste Petit Frere, wrinkle their brows, take a step back, look up again at the Crave Brothers banner, and finally ask George where the cheese is really made, as they can’t believe an American cheesemaker could make such a thing.

“When I tell a French cheese buyer that Petit Frere is an American cheese, and then go on to say it’s made in a little community in Wisconsin called Waterloo, their eyes usually get real big,” George says. “Because as you know, the French aren’t real fond of Waterloo.”

When he’s not making cheese, and not making jokes about making cheese, George works with brothers Charles, Tom and Mark on the farm, making sure all aspects of the 2,000 acre operation are running smoothly. In 2008, the family installed an anaerobic digester to break down cow manure in a process that ultimately produces methane gas. The gas is then burned similar to natural gas, thus generating clean, renewable energy for the farm and nearby community.

The digester also brings added benefits. First, it reduces odor. One of the first things a visitor to the farm notices is a complete lack of that familiar “dairy air” – a pleasant surprise. Second, the digester is capable of producing products the Craves can use on the farm (liquid byproducts are used as fertilizer on farm fields and solid byproducts are used as animal bedding). Third, excess dry material has the capability to be sold as organic potting soil.

“People ask me: what do you make more of, milk or cheese?” George says. “The real answer is our number one product is manure. But because farmers are the ultimate recylclers, we recycle that manure into products we and others can use.” In fact, enough electricity is produced on the Crave farm to not only power the entire farm and cheese factory, but also another 300 homes.

Building a biodigester on the farm is just one step the Craves are taking to be a carbon-negative company. Another goal? Breeding their award-winning, champion Registered Holsteins to be a bit smaller, similar to Jerseys, thus lowering the farm’s overall carbon footprint.

“At the end of the day, we take corn and grain, we put them into a cow, and we get milk from her in return,” George says. “Our goal is to do that as efficiently as we can. And we’re working on that every day.”