My Next Big Adventure: Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese

fireflyFExciting news, cheese peeps. My cheese world is changing, and it’s about to get filled with a whole lot more caffeine. Beginning Friday, December 1, my husband, Uriah and I are the proud new owners of Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon, Wisconsin, and will be renaming it to (you guessed it): Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese.

Next year marks 20 years that Uriah and I have lived in Oregon, and for much of the second half of that time, the Firefly has literally been our second home. We are regulars every morning for our game of pre-work cribbage while drinking our small lattes (the staff often sets up our drinks as we walk in the door). I teach at least two cheese classes there every month, Uriah runs a Euchre tournament on the second Thursday, and you can find me working on my laptop several times a week in my favorite lounge chair next to the fish tank.

For years, most every cheese distributor, cheesemaker and local government official has known where to find me when I don’t answer my cell phone: the Firefly. Folks have figured out that Oregon’s Living Room is my hideout. And starting next week, my hideout will be my official place of employment, as Uriah and I take the reigns from owner Erika Weidler and attempt to carry on the massively successful dynasty she has created in my town.

So what does this mean?

First, if you’re a regular at the Firefly, do not panic. We’re not changing anything for awhile. I’ll be busy for a couple of months just trying to figure out vendor contracts, credit forms, water filtration systems and navigating a payroll of 12 employees. I’m already having dreams I’ve forgotten to order cups. And so far, I’ve pulled a whopping 12 shots of espresso, most of them being mildly terrible. Luckily, I will soon be the very proud supervisor of six full-time trained baristas and an additional six part-time amazingly friendly staff, all of whom can pull a perfect shot every time, make a Hammy Bagel Breakfast Sandwich in under four minutes, and bake a perfect scone every morning.

Second, my life will still revolve around cheese. While I’ve saying goodbye to the awesome job I’ve had for the past five years as the specialty cheese buyer for Metcalfe’s Market, the hundreds of members of my Wisconsin Cheese Originals can still expect me to send them news of classes, dinners, tours and festivals. In fact, mark your calendars now for Cheesetopia Milwaukee on April 8, 2018.

Third, I will of course be introducing artisan cheese to the Firefly (duh), but please don’t be in a super big rush, because I want to do it right, and that takes time. You can expect the Firefly to become a whole lot cheesier closer to spring. Between now and then, we’ll be tweaking the menu to include more local ingredients. And some night in January, we’ll host a big party for everyone to drink practice shots of espresso until Jeanne pulls 12 perfect ones in a row.

One more date to mark on your calendar: Friday, December 1 at 2 pm. That’s when the Oregon Area Chamber of Commerce is bringing their spool of red ribbon and giant scissors and we officially christen the new Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese. I am so flipping excited (and nervous and overwhelmed, but mostly excited, but really nervous) and I can’t wait to share this journey with all of you. I’m finally marrying the two food loves of my life: cheese and coffee. And best of all, I’ve got Uriah beside me. Cheese on.

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If You’re Buying a Story, It Should be a Story You Can Taste

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People who don’t work in the dairy industry are always amazed when they visit my house and come across back issues of Cheese Market News and The Cheese Reporter.

“Wait, you actually read these? How on earth can there be TWO national weekly newspapers dedicated to just cheese?” and the standard: “Wow, you’re weird.” These are the same comments I get when I take past issues into a coffee shop and dare to catch up on cheese news in public.

While I appreciate keeping up on the latest technology, industry news, commodity block prices and Class III milk futures that these publications provide, it’s always a jolt to sit down and read them after I’ve visited a small-batch, artisan cheesemaker in a far away place. I get reminded in a hurry of what’s important to Americans.

For example, here are three headlines from the current issue of Cheese Market News: “Laughing Cow Adds New Flavors to Cheese Dippers Line” and “Fairlife Introduces SuperKids Ultra-Filtered White and Chocolate Milks With Omega-3” and “Borden Cheese Unveils Snack Bars.” I’m not even cherry-picking headlines from multiple pages – all of  these stories actually exist on the centerfold pages of 8 and 9 in the October 13, 2017 issue of CMN.

When I compare these American dairy industry headlines to passages of the new book by Bronwen and Francis Percival: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese, I get a little depressed. In America, we are so focused on creating the next biggest, boldest flavor and punching it into the most-convenient-to-eat dairy package, that I’m not sure we still appreciate what actual milk can taste like when we turn it into cheese without adding starter culture cocktails, berries or peppers.

Creating – and appreciating – simple cheese is going out of style in America. In an instant gratification society of snap chats, instant messaging and presidential orders issued in 140 characters, more of us are demanding every bite of cheese should rocket every one of our senses. Every. Single. Time.

I compare those headlines to the half dozen sheep dairies I visited in the French and Spanish Basque region last month, and I remember tasting cheeses made from just milk, rennet and salt. No added berries. Not a pepper in sight. Most of these cheesemakers weren’t even adding starter cultures. The tools at their disposal included a recipe for “mountain cheese” that had been passed down through generations, and a reliance on raw milk that contained enough natural bacteria to acidify on its own. (If you’re not familiar with what I mean by starter cultures, here’s an excellent primer from HomeCheeseAdam).

Were these Basque sheep milk cheeses flaming rockets of flavor? Did they transform my every sense into rainbows and unicorns? They did not. But each cheese was slightly different. Each was startling in its simplicity. And each allowed me to taste and appreciate the valley, mountain top or farm on which it was made.

Cheese worth eating has a story. It doesn’t come conveniently packaged, and it doesn’t have the words super or ultra in its name. What it does have is a story you can taste. In fact, my favorite passage from the Percivals’ book, Reinventing the Wheel, comes near the end, and after reading 250 pages that reignited my passion for artisan cheese, this passage was like salve to my soul: “If it is a story that we are buying, then it should be a story that we can taste. And if we value environmental and farming decisions, these are the attributes that we need to value. This is the ‘best’ taste for now. It is the moral dimension of flavor.”

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You can meet the Percivals and hear them speak on Sunday, November 5 at The Edgewater in Madison, Wisconsin. The pair, along with Uplands’ cheesemaker Andy Hatch, are presenting a 90-minute “Taste of Place” seminar featuring cheeses from Europe and America. Tickets available only in advance here. The seminar is part of Wisconsin Cheese Originals’ Wisconsin Cheese Camp.

Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp on Sale Oct. 3

20170627-IMG_7178If you’ve ever dreamed of meeting the person who makes your favorite Wisconsin artisan cheese, then I have great news. Tickets to Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day cheese festival I’m hosting in Madison next month, go on sale Tuesday, October 3 at 8 a.m. Set your alarm now.

What is Wisconsin Cheese Camp, you ask? Well, it’s a series of events over the course of two days during the weekend of November 4-5, all located at The Edgewater in Madison. Each event is designed to help you get to know your favorite artisan cheesemaker better while eating the cheeses you like best. Basically, it’s a big cheese  party, and I’d love for you to attend.

The weekend kicks off bright and early Saturday morning with two all-day bus tours, each visiting three different dairy and cheese plants, where you’ll tour the factory, talk shop with the owner, and taste their favorite cheeses. Each tour includes lunch, transportation in a big comfortable coach bus, and all tastings. With increasing food safety regulations, most cheese plants no longer offer tours, so this is your chance to see things up close and personal.

A huge thank you to Carr Valley Cheese, who stepped up to sponsor Wisconsin Cheese Camp. In fact, aged Cheddars crafted by Carr Valley’s Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, as well as a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers, will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner at The Edgewater. Plus, author Gordon Edgar, cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the dinner’s keynote speaker, and all dinner attendees will receive a complimentary copy of his book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

On Sunday, a 90-minute Tasting Seminar on “Taste of Place” will be presented by Uplands Cheesemaker Andy Hatch and Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen is the cheese buyer for Neal’s Yard Dairy in London, and Francis is a cheese and wine writer and educator in the United Kingdom. All seminar attendees will receive a complimentary hard-cover copy of the Percivals’ new book, which is earning rave reviews, including this one in the Wall Street Journal.

Of course, no cheese camp would be complete without the chance to meet all of your favorite cheesemakers in one room, so that’s why Sunday afternoon marks a Meet the Cheesemaker Gala. You’ll get to meet 30 Wisconsin cheesemakers, taste 150 cheeses, drink free beer and wine (drinks are included in the ticket price) and nosh on yummy appetizers from The Edgewater. Check out the list of cheesemaker rock stars appearing here. 

A big thanks to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. Thanks to their generosity, all attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Plus, VIP attendees will even get a bag stuffed with Carr Valley cheese (VIP attendees also get in one hour early to Meet the Cheesemaker).

For ticket prices and a listing of all cheesemakers involved, please visit my website, Wisconsin Cheese Camp. I’d love to see you in Madison during the first weekend of November!

On Location: Cheese Caves in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Listen to a podcast with Queseria Main owner Javier Diaz, translated by Sandra Benzal, and hear more about the caves of Cabrales on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

High up in the Picos de Europa mountains in the autonomous community of Asturias, lies the tiny parish of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain. The nearest school or grocery store is 45 minutes away, and the number of sheep and cows grazing on alpine pastures vastly exceeds the hamlet’s human population.

There is a saying in the municipality of Cabrales that the higher the village, the better the cheese. And in Sotres de Cabrales, elevation 3,368 feet, there is a feeling that indeed, some of the best blue cheese in the world is made here. That’s because every two days for 10 months of the year, the husband and wife team of Jessica Lopez and Javier Diaz craft Cabrales, a blue cheese made that must be made from unpasteurized cow’s milk or blended in the traditional manner with goat and/or sheep milk.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Although Cabrales is a blue cheese, no blue mold spores are added to the milk during its production, and wheels are not pierced to allow the introduction of oxygen to facilitate any blooming of blue mold in man-made openings. Instead, during its production, cheese wheels are loosely pressed, and the cheesemaker relies on hundreds of years of blue mold built up in ancient limestone caves to naturally inoculate the wheels from the outside in to create one of the strongest, deepest blues in the world.

At Queseria Main in Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, every four days, Jessica, Javier, his father-in-law and brother-in-law transport the wheels of cow/goat milk blended Cabrales that Jessica makes to three different natural limestone caves in the Picos de Europa mountains. One cave is fairly close, and wheels may be transported to within 200 feet of the cave opening via motor vehicle. Another cave is further away and accessible only by foot, which means each person packs between four and six wheels in special backpacks and then hikes to the cave opening to place the wheels on wooden boards deep inside. A third cave is too far away to carry cheese on foot, so wheels are placed in packs on horseback, and horses are led to the cave opening, where the cheeses will age for four to 10 months underground on wooden shelves. In each cave, after new cheeses are placed on wooden shelves, existing wheels are washed and flipped, and wheels ready for sale are transported back to the factory in Sotres de Cabrales.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

All of the milk used in the production of Cabrales must come exclusively from animals in the region of Asturias, Spain. Cabrales is a PDO cheese (Protected Designation of Origin), and before gaining this protected status in 1981, was traditionally wrapped in leaves from the Sycamore Maple. Today, modern regulations require it to be sold in a dark-green-colored aluminum foil with the stamp of the PDO Queso de Cabrales.

Javier and Jessica have been making cheese for 10 years, and learned the craft from her parents, who own another Cabrales creamery nearby. The parents also allowed them to start aging their cheeses in caves where they had rights to do so. In Cabrales, all of the natural caves have been claimed, and the only way a new producer can gain access to aging space is by inheriting a cave, or taking over a cave when another cheesemaker ceases production.

In addition to the cave granted to them by her parents, over the years, Javier and Jessica have gained access to two additional caves that were not being used (and with good reason – they are only accessible via horse or on foot), but the couple is young and eager to forge their way in the world, and works extremely hard in their Cabrales production.

In fact, they were extremely gracious this week and allowed my group of 20 Wisconsin Cheese Originals tour members to enter their nearest cave, a 15-minute hike down the mountainside. When we arrived, Javier hooked up a generator to provide light. He then unlocked a steel door inserted into a natural rock wall, and we descended down 40 steps into a natural limestone cave filled with wooden shelves of Cabrales cheese.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Javier and Jessica are young, and at 10 years into cheesemaking, are successfully and slowly building their business to allow more people like us to view their cheesemaking and aging caves. After we hiked back up the mountain (and I tried not to die from being out of breath), the couple hosted us at picnic tables outside their creamery and filled us with tastings of their 4-month and 10-month wheels of Cabrales. paired with bread, fruits and quince paste.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

The only sound beside the chatter of 19 Americans and one Australian was the faint clammering of bells from nearby sheep, a few caws from a Magpie looking for a wedge of bread, and the chugging of a cement truck climbing the steep and narrow road to the village, where we noticed a new house was being built. Like many small, rural communities in America, the rural villages of Spain are empty of young people. But in the tiny village of Sotres de Cabrales, Spain, it was amazing to see a young couple continuing the ancient tradition of making one of the oldest blue cheeses in the world. “It is hard work, but it is honest work,” Javier told us. “And we are proud to do it.”

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This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Caves of Faribault, makers of cave aged blue cheeses in Faribault, Minnesota. Try their Amablu, the first blue cheese made and marketed in the United States, or St. Pete’s Select, a signature premium American blue cheese. Caves of Faribault cheeses are the only cheeses in America aged in natural, underground sandstone caves. Learn more at www.FaribaultDairy.com.

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On Location: Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Every two years, I pick a place in the world where I’d love to meet cheesemakers, taste their cheeses and learn their culture. And then I talk 19 people into going with me. This year, my Wisconsin Cheese Originals international trip is to the Basque Country of France and Spain, and our first visit was to a farmstead producer of Ossau-Iraty in the Pays Basque of France.

Ossau-Iraty is a Protected Designation of Origin cheese (PDO), which means it may only be produced in a precisely defined geographical area in southwest France from the milk of three breeds of sheep: Manech Tête noire (Black Face Manech), Manech Tête Rousse (Red Face Manech) and Basco-Béarnaise.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Jean-Francois Tambourin and his son, Michel, greeted us at their farm in Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry, where they milk 300 sheep from December to July. When we visited, the sheep were just beginning to be rounded up from the mountains, where they had spent the summer after drying up from milking. The ewes will give birth again in November, the lambs will be pulled from the mothers and sold in time for Christmas dinner, and the ewes will give milk until mid-summer.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

All of the milk from the Tambourins’ sheep is made into an annual production of 10 tonnes, or about 22,000 pounds of Ossau-Iraty, using a 200-gallon vat. The Tambourin family, which also consists of Jean-Francois’ wife, Noel, and their second son, Guillaume, milk Red Face Manech sheep, a breed that has adapted to the high altitude and temperature changes of the Pyrenees mountains. They also keep a few Blonde d’Aquitaine beef cows for meat production.

The Tambourin farm is located in a small commune in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques department in southwestern France, and consists of 12 farms. Each farmer owns between 22-40 acres, and all practice transhumance, the practice of moving animals from one mountain pasture to another in a seasonal cycle, typically from lower pastures in the winter to higher pastures in summer. The Tambourins paint a small red and green marking on their sheep in a specific pattern to distinguish their flock from their neighbors, which is important when it’s time to bring the sheep down from the mountains and back into each farmer’s barn for winter lambing. Lambs are sold when they weigh 11 kilograms, or 24 pounds, and most end up on the Christmas platter of Spanish families as milk-fed lamb.

The Tambourins milk their sheep in a modern parlor made by DeLaval, and in one hour, two people can milk 280 ewes. Cheese is made every two days into Ossau-Iraty, an uncooked, pressed raw-milk cheese, and aged a minimum of 80 days. The fat and dry matter content of the cheese are also fixed at 50 percent and 58 percent, respectively, and all farmstead-produced wheels carry a special sheep face-shaped brand in the top of the wheel, marked with an F.

Whey from cheesemaking is fed to hogs on the farm, located down the hill from the commune, and housed in huts with roofs made from mountain ferns.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals Basque Tour

Ossau-Iraty made at the Tambourin farm is sold in a small retail shop right on the farm, as well as at farmers’ markets and festivals. While producing a PDO cheese is more expensive than making a cheese which does not carry an appellation name (farmers must pay 8 Euros per every 1,000 liters of milk produced to the Ossau-Iraty PDO syndicate for help with promotion), Jean-Francois said they chose to become part of the Ossau-Iraty syndicate because of the help they receive in promoting their cheese. Ossau-Iraty is a relatively new PDO cheese, achieving its protected status in 1996. The mountain cheese recipe, however, is ancient, and is believed to be hundreds of years old.

Here’s a curious thing about the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty: it varies widely. We tasted both 4-month and 7-month wheels at the Tambourin farm, and both were exquisite – sweet, creamy and buttery with rinds that even tasted sweet. The next day, we went to a different farm in a different region, and tasted the Ossau-Iraty made at the local cooperative, and it was much drier and full of pea-sized holes.

This is because, even as a PDO cheese, the texture and flavor of Ossau-Iraty is allowed to vary significantly. In a very informative presentation to our tour group (which by the way, took place in the middle of a sheep barn, with the projector placed on a portable table), Celine Barrere, Secretaire Generale of the Ossau-Iraty Syndicate, revealed that aging techniques vary widely between regions.

In the Basque Country, aging cellars for Ossau-Iraty are dry, whereas in Béarn, they are more humid. In the Basque Country, the affineur rubs cheeses with a dry brush, while the Béarnais affineur coats the crust with salt water and a damp towel. These different aging techniques, which are obviously profoundly different, help explain the taste and visual differences between the Basque Ossau-Iraty and the Ossau-Iraty Bearnais. Also keep in mind that Ossau-Iraty is made by 150 different farmstead producers and 20 different cooperatives, with milk supplied by 1,300 farms.

At the Tambourin farm, located in Basque Country, all members of the family are well-versed in all aspects of the operation – farming, cheesemaking and cheese-aging, with no one person particularly specializing in any one aspect. In fact, this particular family is the 8th generation to milk sheep and make cheese on the estate, and their family’s house, or etxea (pronounced etch-A), dates back to 1778.

In Basque culture, the etxea is extremely important, For Basques, the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In fact, under ancient laws, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for a serious crime, police had no right to enter the house. In the modern world, the etxea retains its cultural status, but is not above the law.

Even the look of a Basque etxea varies significantly within each of the seven different Basque provinces. In a shop in the tiny village of Ainhoa, France, I found a display showing the seven different styles of Basque etxea, in miniature form.

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Alas, I digress. Back to Ossau-Iraty. When I asked Jean-Francois how he would describe the cheese he makes on his farm, he gave me a smile, flexed a muscle in his forearm, and then said a short exchange in Basque. When I turned to the interpreter (an older, deeply Catholic and extremely proper French woman), she blushed, and said, “He says that a good cheese is like a man. The outside is quite tough. The inside is quite tender.”

A huge thank you to the Tambourin family for your hospitality!

Starting from Scratch: Door Artisan Cheese Company

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Listen to a podcast with Master Cheesemaker Mike Brennenstuhl, General Manager Mary Beth Hill, and learn more about Door Artisan Cheese Company on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

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.”

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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.

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50 Years Over the Vat: Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook

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Listen to the podcast with Sid Cook, learn about the new American Originals he’s cooking up, and hear from a few of his industry colleagues about the difference Sid has made in American artisan cheese on Cheese Underground Radio:

Subscribe to future episodes by searching for Cheese Underground in your podcast app!

A bit of the backstory:

In just a couple of months, Sid Cook, owner of Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin, will celebrate the 50th anniversary of earning his Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license. You might think that because he’s spent a lifetime over a cheese vat, he might be ready to retire. But you’d be wrong.

When I sat down with Sid last week to talk cheese and mentioned that he was coming up on a half century of cheesemaking, at first he didn’t believe me. He took a second to do the math. And before he concluded that I was right, he revealed he’d actually been making cheese for several years with his dad before he ever got his license. “I was making my own vats when I was 12 years old,” Sid says. “I always really enjoyed being in the factory, and back then, you opened the kitchen door, and the vats were there.”

Here’s the thing about Sid Cook: he never stops working long enough to think about how long he’s been working. He may get a little good-natured teasing from his peers for no longer being in the cheese room every day, but that’s because his time is now more valuable thinking about what new cheeses to make. And just to be clear, he’s already made enough cheese in his lifetime for two or three people.

Before he became a professional cheesemaker, Sid earned a degree in political science and considered going to law school. But when he realized that meant he’d be sitting at a desk for a good part of the day, making cheese started to sound better. So after college, he worked for his dad for a year, and then prepared to purchase the business. After that, he made cheese seven days a week at two different cheese factories.

“I made cheese at the factory in Mauston, and once the cheese was in the forms or in the pre-press, then I would do down to the LaValle factory and make cheese there, too,” Sid said. “Then I’d do accounts receivable and accounts payable. I’d take a little nap under my desk until the phone rang, and then I’d wake up, finish up, and start over the next day. I did that from 1975 to 2003.”

Sid has made 40 or 50 different kinds of cheese and has developed recipes for dozens of American originals. Many of them are made from mixed milks – cow, sheep and goat. “You can make a different spaghetti sauce every day,” he said. “It’s the same way with cheese. You can develop a recipe, make that type of cheese, and then take it in the direction you want it to go through affinage and what temperatures you’re curing it at.” He says making cheese is like a working on a blank slate: anything is possible.

He’s been working on a new cheese for two or three years that will debut later this year: Fontina de Provence – it’s Fontina coated with Herbs de Provence. “We’ve sold it experimentally for a little while out of our retail stores, and it’s been selling well, so we’re going to roll it out,” he says.

Also new: Carr Valley Cheese Stix, the debut of artisan cheese single-serving snack packages. They’re available in Cranberry Chipotle Cheddar, Goat Cheddar, Native Sheep Cheddar, Smoked Cheddar, as well as long, slender sticks of Carr Valley Bread Cheese that are unbelievably warm and squeaky once you microwave them in the package for 10 seconds. He’s also preparing to roll out specialty butters with sheep cream, goat cream, cow cream, and a mix of the three that will be packaged in colored foils in quarter-pound three-inch squares.

“I don’t like to do things that other people are doing,” he says.

Over the years, while he was busy making cheese, he was also concentrating on building a business dynasty. Today, he owns and oversees four cheese factories, eight retail stores and a large mail-order business, in addition to a robust wholesale and foodservice distribution line.

It’s a dramatically different business model than his parents and grandparents operated under. As cheesemakers, they crafted 60-pound commodity cheese blocks and sold them green, or not aged, to a large distributor. They’d deliver the cheese on Friday and have a check by Tuesday. In this day and age, Sid Cook is a cheesemaker, a cheese ager, a distributor, a packager and a retailer. He sometimes waits 10 years to get paid for his aged cheddar. I asked him what he thought the generations of cheesemakers who came before him in his family might think of where he’s taken the company.

“My dad was very proud. When people would ask him about me getting into the cheese business, he’d say, ‘He just doesn’t know any better.’ And he always said it with a big smile. My parents made cheese their whole lives. I think they were just thrilled someone was doing what they had done.”

While Sid does not have an obvious heir apparent to take over Carr Valley Cheese, he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon. He and his wife, Lisa, have talked through several scenarios where he stays involved in the business but perhaps brings in a full-time day-to-day CEO and board of directors. In the meantime, when newer folks to the industry come to Sid for advice, he’s honest to the point of being downright blunt. He wants to make sure people know how much work there really is in making and selling cheese. And most people respect that.

One person who has always respected Sid is George Crave, owner of Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo, Wisconsin. “I was just dreaming about making cheese, and Debbie, my wife, and I went into the Center for Dairy Research to discuss the possibilities and research cheese,” George said. “We met Sid there – he was no doubt qualifying for another master’s certificate. We explained what we were thinking about doing: making cheese on our own farm, from our own milk, and Sid was very congenial and wished us luck, saying it would take us a few years, but if we were serious, he wished us nothing but well. Realizing all of his accomplishments, he could have said: ‘Go home, keep milking your cows and leave cheesemaking to the masters.’ But he didn’t, and I’ve always remembered that.”

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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.

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