Build a Dairy, Name a Goat: Bifrost Farms Looks to Rise in Wisconsin

Everyone knows that in Wisconsin, it’s not easy starting up a small-scale, farmstead cheese operation. Every cheesemaker selling cheese commercially must be licensed, his or her facility must be licensed, and an array of permits and bureacratic hoops written for the big boys must be navigated. And if you’re a small goat or sheep dairy operation, good luck finding a banker to loan you money.

That’s why Meg and Joel Wittenmyer, land stewards for a diverse 20 acres in northwestern Wisconsin that they call Bifrost Farms, recently launched a crowdfunding campaign on Their goal? To raise $4,000 before the ground freezes to install critical infrastructure needs at their farmstead goat dairy so they can work on the interior of a new micro-creamery this winter.

“It’s scary enough starting a new career at 57,” says Meg, a Wisconsin Licensed Cheesemaker, goat milker, hay thrower, animal wrangler and bottle washer (literally). “But one that requires not only physical stamina, but puts you in the position of being responsible for the lives of so many wonderful animals…well, it’s kind of daunting. But, I’ve faced challenges all my life and never met one I couldn’t overcome.”

The Wyttenmyers’ first step is renovating a building on their farm for a new micro-creamery, with a goal to open in May 2016.  This fall, they are trying to get critical infrastructure work done before the snow flies, so early next year, when they apply (and hopefully receive) a USDA micro-loan, they are ready for the rest of the work.
Meg has been experimenting with making goat’s milk cheeses for years, and after spending the past two years earning her Wisconsin Cheese Makers License, she’s already found her first waiting commerical customer. After tasting samples of Meg’s delicious Chevre and Farmhouse Feta, Menomonie Market Cooperative is eager to carry Bifrost Farms cheese as well as Cajeta (a thickened syrup usually made of sweetened caramelized milk, originally from Mexico) and, one day, Gelato. “We can’t get this done fast enough,” Meg says.
In addition to making goat’s milk cheeses, Meg is also dedicated to opening her facility to aspiring cheesemakers looking to gain their 240 needed apprenticeship hours with a licensed cheesemaker. Small-scale operations that meet the state’s requirements for internships are few and far between, especially on the western side of the state. 
Those hoping to have their own micro-creamery one day must do as Meg did. Part of her hours were attained at the UW-River Falls Dairy Plant over three semesters, (where incidentally, not only did she not get paid, but had to pay student tuition to be able to work in the plant for liability reasons). The balance of her internship time included a short stint of 30 hours with a small goat dairy two hours away, while the rest occurred at a medium-sized creamery, which was still 100 times larger than her plans for Bifrost Farms, and an hour’s drive from her home.

Once Bifrost Farms is operational, Meg plans to hang out her shingle for interns who not only want to make cheese, but need to understand what it’s like to operate at a micro-level, where often times one or two people are doing all the work. This is not a new problem for small cheesemakers, but hopefully, with one more micro-creamery in the mix, it won’t be so hard, she says.

If you’re interested in helping Meg & Joel with their dream of building an on-farm goat’s milk creamery, I’d urge you to visit their site, and learn more about their operation. Even a gift of $5 or $10 adds up, plus they’ll recognize you on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Larger donations come with more rewards, such as farm tours and baskets of cheese, once the dairy is licensed. My favorite reward? Donate $55 and you’ll get to name a goat next Spring at Bifrost Farms. Because who doesn’t want to name a goat? C’mon people!

On Location: In Pennsylvania Studying Cheese & Eating Whoopie Pies

Well, it’s official, I love Pennsylvania. Not only does this fabulous state host one of the best cheesemaker conferences I’ve ever attended, it also makes a whoopie pie that will literally be the best thing you’ve ever eaten in three bites.

Maybe I’m still riding the sugary high of this hand-made bad boy from the Rotelle family at September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA:

or perhaps it’s the cheese induced coma I’ve been in the past two days, but I’m telling you, the little burg of New Holland, Pennsylvania – birthplace of New Holland Equipment, home to my favorite hay rake growing up on the family farm (yes, I already emailed my dad a picture of the big downtown headquarters sign) – is one happening artisan cheese mecca. This is what I discovered, thanks to the fine folks who invited me to speak at the 2015 Cheese Makers’ Resource Conference, sponsored by the uber-organized Agri-Service LLC team.

More than 170 cheesemakers and dairy folk from around the country coming from as far away as Washington, Oregon, Arizona and Connecticut, descended on New Holland this week to attend the annual conference, featuring in-depth educational sessions on Cheddar cheesemaking, sheep & goat cheeses, regulatory challenges, cultured dairy products, creamery start-ups, and panel discussions on breaking into markets with new products.

My job was to lead two different tasting and sensory sessions on salt, sour and bitter notes in cheese (there’s nothing I’d rather do than talk cheese!), but by far, the highlight of the conference for me were three back-to-back sessions with veteran artisan cheesemaker and consultant Peter Dixon, who talked a rapt room through the art and science of making goat and sheep milk cheeses.

Taking notes as fast as humanly possible, I learned a whole lot of new information on how goat and sheep milk is different for cheesemaking, and how milk composition of these species varies greatly depending on the animals’ lactation calendar. As we all know, a female animal must give birth in order to start giving milk (lactating). The average length of lactating for sheep is 220-240 days, and for goats, 305 days, before the ladies “dry up” in time to give birth again a few months later.

Milk produced during the length of a ewe or doe’s (or cow’s for that matter) milking season varies greatly in composition. For example, the ratio of protein to fat in the last 30 to 60 days of a sheep or goat’s milking cycle is greatly decreased. In other words, the percentage of milkfat is higher, and the percentage of protein in that milk is much lower. Cheese yield goes up, but the quality of that cheese may go down, and be much higher in moisture.

That’s why it can be hard to make a good quality hard, aged cheese from late lactation milk in all species, Dixon says. The key is to make different types of cheese depending on the type of milk produced during the lactation cycle. European cheesemakers had this figured out hundreds of years ago in the Alps. They knew that after giving birth in the spring, the height of the cow’s lacation cycle was in the summer, when the cows would be on Alpine pastures, producing milk rich in both fat and protein and perfect for making huge, round Alpine cheese such as Emmentaler and Gruyere. In winter time – at the end of the cows’ milking calendar – cheesemakers invented tommes, smaller cheeses that didn’t need to age as long, and were often considered inferior in quality to the big wheel cheeses of summer.

Since we don’t live in the Alps, a modern American solution as to what to do with late lactation sheep’s milk, Dixon says, is to blend it with cow’s or goat’s milk to still get a solid quality ratio of fat to protein, and to have enough milk to make a vat of cheese (animals will start drying up at the end of the lactation schedule, resulting in less and less milk in the waning days of the season). Dixon’s general rule of thumb? Any cow’s mixed milk cheese must contain at least 20 percent of goat or sheep milk to obtain any flavor profile of the sheep or goat.

In addition, goat and cow’s milk may also be blended with sheep’s milk to make softer cheeses, or, late lactation sheep milk may be frozen and mixed with the next year’s milk to make a fresh batch of cheese.

“The key is: don’t make the same cheese thinking you have the same milk every day,” Dixon says. “Different milk equals different cheeses depending on the time of the year.”

While this year’s conference focused on cheddar and goat and sheep cheeses, next year’s conference will focus on soft-ripened cheeses, with keynote speaker Gianaclis Caldwell already booked for the February 9-10 event, said Dale Martin, president of Agri-Service. I’d highly recommend attending the conference, and then making a short road trip to September Farm Cheese to not only eat their line-up flavored cheddars and jacks, but to also consume the best Whoopie Pie of your life. Best. Day. Ever.

September Farm Cheese in Honey Brook, PA, home to the best Whoopie
Pie ever. Yes, ever.

La-Von Farmhouse Brie

Photo by Uriah Carpenter
A former Wisconsin dairy goat producer, yogurt maker and specialty cheesemaker is in the process of reinventing himself as one of the state’s best farmhouse brie makers.

Todd Jaskolski, of Caprine Supreme in Black Creek, Wisconsin, debuted his La-Von Farmhouse Brie last week at the Fourth Annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival. Named for his mother and available in both goat and cow’s milk, the brie is one of the first authentic farmhouse bries made in the state.

Made in 8-ounce rounds, the artisan cheese – made in mini batches, by hand – is not a commercial brie and, therefore, does not sport the perfect velvety half-inch thick white rind most Americans are used to seeing on tasteless mass-made, throw-it-at-the-wall-and-it-will-bounce-off brie. Instead, Jaskolski is using quality milk and real Geotrichum candidum to create a thin, tasty rind that is white with natural orange and sometimes even red mold dotting the outside. It’s the kind of brie you’re more likely to find in the French countryside than in an America cheese shop. Jaskolski makes it to order, so a three-week lead time is necessary. The cheese is made to be eaten between 3-6 weeks of age.

Once a dairy goat farmer and maker of the popular Caprine Supreme flavored goat milk yogurts, Jaskolski and his wife, Sheryl, had to sell their goat herd and retool the farmstead dairy plant after Todd suffered from a debilitating genetic disease that is essentially eating away his shoulders. After surgery on both, he can only lift his arms high enough to steer a car (think John McCain), and has remodeled the factory to lower all valves and tools so he can reach them. He carries a stool with him most of the time.

“We were bottling milk, making yogurt, making cheddar, milking goats twice a day and killing ourselves,” Jaskolski told me back in August when he brought one of his first test wheels to me to try. “I could sit at home and collect disability and get fat, or I could keep making cheese. I’d rather make cheese.”

Wisconsin is lucky Jaskolski decided to reinvent his farmstead dairy plant into an artisan brie creamery. While the cheese is just hitting markets, you can find it right now at Fromagination in Madison and in the coming weeks at Metcalfe’s Market. Be sure and ask your favorite cheese store to carry it.

Ziege Zacke Blue

Two of the fastest rising star cheesemakers – one specializing in goat’s milk cheeses, the other in signature cheddar blues – jointly released a new cheese this week that’s about to shake up the Wisconsin artisan cheese community.

Photo by Uriah Carpenter

Christened Ziege Zacke Blue (say zeegy zacky) by a group of Chicago chefs that enjoyed it so much, one night they started singing old German folk tunes while eating it, (Ziege means “goat” in German, Zacke means “wave” — thus a “Goat Cheese with a Wave of Blue”) the cheese is patterned after a Dry Jack, is part cow’s milk, part goat’s milk, and is cave-aged.

Wonderfully creamy, with a slight tang at the front and a sweetness on the finish, it boasts some extraordinarily rich earthy and bluesy notes I have never before tasted.

It’s almost as if Cheesemakers Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese and Katie Hedrich of LaClare Farms thought of all the current cool buzzwords in the cheese industry and then created a cheese to encompass them all.

The amazing part? They succeeded.

Ziege Zacke Blue, with its crazy catchy name, is made twice a month at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg. Hedrich hauls her family’s goat milk to the plant, and she and Chris spend a day crafting the original cheese by hand. Chris then ages it in his caves, and Katie markets it under the LaClare Farms Specialties label. Well, at least she will, as soon as there’s enough to sell. The cheese is just now aging out to perfection, and with limited quantities to start with, will likely only ever be for sale in select retail stores in Wisconsin.

While I had heard rumors the cheesemaking pair were working on a collaborative cheese, I didn’t know it was actually finished until I stopped by Fromagination yesterday to pick up cheese for my 2012 Wisconsin Artisan Cheese Series. There, sitting in all its glory on top of the cheese counter was a cheese called “Blue Jack,” described as creamy with a subtle blue taste, made by Chris Roelli and Katie Hedrich.

I bought a pound and then sent both cheesemakers an email with a big question mark. In typical humble Wisconsin form, Chris answered: “Katie would be the best to talk about the zz. It was kinda her idea, I just developed it and made it.” Yeah, that’s all, just developed and made it, you know, no biggee.

Luckily, Katie also answered, and elaborated with more detail. She said the combination actually came about at the 2011 Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival in Madison last November. 

“Chris asked me when I was going to start making a goat milk blue. I responded: ‘whenever Chris Roelli wants to’. Needless to say, I took a load of milk down to him on Dec. 9th and we made our first batch. We are now making one to two batches a month and having a blast with it.”

So will everyone who is lucky enough to try it. Welcome, Ziege Zacke Blue to the Wisconsin artisan cheese community. Here’s hoping you never leave.