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.

basque houses

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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Setting Up Cheese in the Dark: Hook’s Cheese

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Listen to a podcast with Tony Hook, his sister, Julie, and what it takes to sell cheese at the largest producer-only farmer’s market in America on Cheese Underground Radio:

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

A bit of the backstory:

A few weeks ago, I called cheesemaker Tony Hook in Mineral Point with the idea of doing a story on what it was like to sell cheese at the largest producer-only farmer’s market in the nation. Every Saturday morning from April to November, about 170 stands pop up on the capital square in Madison, Wisconsin. All of the items for sale are grown, raised, and produced by the person behind each table.

Tony told me he usually arrives by 4:45 a.m., so I told him I’d see him there. I’m not entirely sure he believed me, so as he navigated the orange construction barrels on Pinckney Street in his Chevy Tahoe and trailer at 4:40 am, he shook his head in disbelief as I greeted him at the curb.

“Well, you told me you’d be here early, but I didn’t think you meant this early,” he said. As I helped him unload the trailer in the pitch dark under the light of a street lamp, it occurred to me how very quiet a city can be before dawn. Hell, even the swarms of squirrels that usually dot the capital grounds looking for leftovers weren’t even up yet. And to think, in just a couple of hours, the market would be so crowded that customers three-deep would be vying to buy cheddar, blue and American original cheeses from the Hook’s Cheese team.

Tony and his wife, Julie Hook, have been selling their cheeses at the Dane County Farmer’s Market since 1994, and they have it down to a science. Tony is generally in charge of setting up the booth, and Julie is in charge of prep work – cubing cheeses, setting up everything on the tables, and making sure toothpicks are in the right spot.

But this week, Julie is missing, because she’s getting a new knee in a few weeks, and standing on the cement aggravates the pain. So, Tony is happy to see another family member arrive – someone who actually knows what she’s doing (unlike me) – and that’s his sister, also named Julie. When he’s talking about his wife and sister, he keeps his Julies straight this way: Julie Ann is his wife, and Julie Marie is his sister. Because they all work together in the same cheese plant, middle names are key when calling for a Julie.

Now that Julie Marie is here, the set-up really begins to click along. We unload the Tahoe, which is filled to the absolute brim with more than a dozen giant square blue coolers, filled with dozens of varieties of cheeses, and each cooler is meticulously labeled with the contents. I get tasked with emptying little cubes of cheese from plastic baggies into individual sample containers, so that in another hour, customers can try each cheese before they buy it.

Before long, we look at our watches and it’s already 6 a.m. The market officially opens at 6:15 a.m., so we snag Tony for a few minutes to talk cheese before the crowds descend, and Julie Marie promises to hold down the fort.

I ask Tony why he’s been selling cheese at the Dane County Farmer’s market (which celebrates its 45th year this summer), since the early 1990s. “This is the best market in the country,” he says. “About 6 percent of our overall sales comes from this market. We’re selling cheese in 37 states, and we attribute an awful lot of our artisan cheese growth to this market.”

Up until about 2001, the Hooks were making big vats of commodity cheeses – Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack – and selling that cheese to “the big guys”, who then sold it under a third-party label. “In 2001, we cut back on making cheese, and said: ‘Alright, everything’s going to go under our label. It’s going to have Hook’s on it, no matter where it goes,’” Tony said. “That’s when we started dealing with small specialty retailers, grocery stores and distributors that were willing to pay a little bit better. We attribute a lot of getting our name out there to the chefs buying our cheese here at the market.”

Back in 1994, the Hooks sold at 10 different varieties of cheese. In 1997, they started making blue cheese. Today, they make 70 different varieties of cheese, including dozens of different ages of Cheddar and Swiss. They also specialize in making mixed milk cheeses, and are making more sheep and goat’s milk cheeses every year. They purchase their sheep and goat milk each from one farm, while all the cow’s milk cheeses come from three small farms, the largest of which milks 50 cows. These are the same three farms that have shipped milk to the Hooks since they started making cheese in Mineral Point in 1976. “We’re trying to keep the little guys in business,” Tony says.

We walk with Tony back to his cheese stand, and by now, it’s already starting to get busy. People in this town love their Saturday morning farmer’s market, and many come early to get the best selection. We walk past stands of apples, popcorn, organic vegetables and beautiful bouquets of flowers.

Once we’re back at the Hook’s booth, it doesn’t take long for customers to start sampling and buying cheese. One customer wants to know the difference between different ages of cheddars, and Tony does a remarkable job of explaining in detail how acid plays a huge part in the flavor of cheese. His cheddars aged 2, 3, 5, and 6 years will be more acidic, while the cheddars aged 10 and 12 years are much smoother, sweeter and full of calcium lactate crystals. The customer purchases the 10-year cheddar. By the way, that’s the same age cheddar Tony says he keeps in his fridge. Every day.

By this time, I am in serious need of coffee, so we say our goodbyes to Tony and Julie and head across the street for caffeine. And this being Wisconsin, there is of course a guy standing on the corner of the farmer’s market, playing an accordion for tips. We put a dollar in his bucket and walk away, humming “On Wisconsin.”

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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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Seasonal Milk, Seasonal Cheese at Uplands

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Listen to an interview with the farmer, the cheesemaker and the cows behind two of the best cheeses in America on Cheese Underground Radio:

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

A bit of the backstory:

Located on scenic Highway 23 between Dodgeville and Spring Green, Wisconsin, Uplands Cheese is one of the best known farmstead cheese plants in the nation. Its flagship cheese, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, is the only cheese in America to ever win both the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest and take Best in Show – three different years – at the American Cheese Society Judging Competition. Uplands is run by business partners Scott Mericka and Andy Hatch. Scott is the herdsman and Andy is the cheesemaker. Together, they and their families produce seasonal milk and seasonal cheese, two incredibly uncommon commodities in the United States, a country where everyone, it seems, wants their favorite food year-round.

Last week, we caught up with the pair just in time for evening milking and helped Scott bring in the cows from pasture. Then, we sat down with Andy in the cheese plant and talked about the difference seasonal milk makes in Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Rush Creek Reserve, and a new cheese he’s working on.

We arrive at Uplands Cheese just as Uplands herdsman Scott Mericka is coming in from building fence. He’s dressed in a bright blue t-shirt filled with holes, shorts that are a little too short, and knee-high rubber boots. I tell him I’ve never met a farmer before who wears shorts, and he laughs, and makes a joke that at least they’re not Daisy Dukes. We start walking out to the pasture to bring in the cows for the evening milking. We’ve gotten a lot of rain in southern Wisconsin this summer, and the pastures are unusually lush for late August.

“We’re milking a little over 200 cows right now and catching up on things that we couldn’t get done in the springtime,” Scott says. The cows at Uplands are rotationally grazed, which means the cows are moved to a different paddock every 12 hours with fresh grass. The cows are also bred seasonally, which means they all give birth to calves in the spring and are dry – or don’t need to be milked – for a few months in the dead of winter. This is the old-fashioned way of farming, long abandoned by most dairy farmers who like to get paid for milk year-round. But unlike Scott and Andy, most dairy farmers don’t own their own cheese factory.

“Most farmers don’t get a chance to own their milk market,” Scott says. “I have a way to control the milk price and volatility, which is really important for a young family. It’s nice for both Andy’s family and my family to be able to control the price we’re getting paid for our milk.”

At this point, we look up at the sky and see a thunderstorm is headed our way, so we let Scott do his thing with getting the cows in. They know that his whistle means it’s time to head to the barn.

We stand off to the side, and the cows slowly start walking past us on the way to the barn. It’s not raining yet, and one of them, a dark cow named Cocoa, walks right up to me and demands attention. “Ah, I see you found Cocoa, or that Cocoa found you,” says Scott, referring to the black cow that is currently head-butting me, demanding to be petted continuously.

After we get the cows up and into the barn, we head into the cheese plant, where cheesemaker Andy Hatch and Esther Hill have a table filled with dozens of plugs of Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Andy and Esther are evaluating several vats of cheese and invite us to participate. We take our time, because it’s August, and that means Andy’s not making cheese. That’s because August in Wisconsin is usually hot and dry, and neither the grass nor the milk usually hits exceptionally high quality standards. So, Scott and Andy instead sell their milk to another manufacturer, and take time to work on other stuff. For example, today, Scott’s been building fences, and Andy took the time to answer his email, which means Cheese Underground Radio is sitting at his table.

As we taste different vats of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, I ask Andy to talk a little about what seasonality of milk means to a cheesemaker.

“There are a couple of ways to look at it,” Andy says. “First, there’s the poetic way: that we are preserving the bounty of summer. We make cheese seven days a week, and the cows are in a different pasture every day. It’s almost a log of the season, as if we’re bottling time. And, then there’s the practical way: it’s a competitive strategy. Seasonal milk is giving our cheese the most distinctive flavor possible.”

Andy starts making Pleasant Ridge Reserve in the spring, after the cows have calved in the pastures, usually starting the first week in May. Then he and his team will make Pleasant Ridge every day for a solid 80 days. They take a break in August because of the weather. This year, he could have kept making cheese straight through August because of the mild weather and steady rains, but his cheese caves are full. That’s why he’s planning an expansion for more cheese aging space. He resumes making Pleasant Ridge again in September into October, and then switches to Rush Creek Reserve in October into November.

After Rush Creek season is over, Andy says he still has a few weeks of beautiful grass-based milk in early November. It is this period of the year where he is experimenting with a new cheese: a small-format soft cheese, which to date, has only been tasted by Andy and his team, and the farm’s pigs. He’s still perfecting a recipe and is in no rush to release a third cheese to the market.

“There are only so many times in a cheesemaker’s career where you’re at the drawing board and you can do all sorts of goofy stuff. Once you hone in on a cheese, and the market has expectations for it, now you’re talking about a life of refining and tweaking,” Andy says. “So, to be at the drawing board is fun. We’re playing around with different shapes – rounds, squares, pyramids. We’ve learned a certain amount about cultures and ripening techniques. This year we’ll use last year’s trials and narrow it down pretty quickly. We know more about what we want. But then again, there’s what we want, and then there’s what the market wants.”

I tell him that he’s already making two world-class famous cheeses, and maybe he’s earned the right to be a little selfish and make a third cheese that makes him happy. He demurs. “I’m in love with Pleasant Ridge Reserve, really,” he says. “I wouldn’t make anything else. And maybe we won’t in the long run, but I know there’s milk there that can be made into another cheese.”

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Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.

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Wisconsin Cheese Camp Debuts This Fall

Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook

Exciting news, cheese peeps! Tickets to my brand new Wisconsin Cheese Camp, a two-day festival in Madison featuring cheese tours, a Wisconsin Cheddar dinner, a master cheese seminar and Meet the Cheesemaker Gala, go on sale Sept. 6 to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals. Remaining tickets will go on sale to the public on Oct. 3.

Wisconsin Cheese Camp takes place Nov. 4-5 at The Edgewater in Madison. Tickets will be available first to members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization dedicated to connecting consumers and Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers. Anyone may join the organization for $35 a year. All membership dues are used to fund beginning cheesemaker scholarships for new Wisconsin artisan cheesemakers.

It’s been several years since I retired the Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival at the Monona Terrace, and I wanted to bring a new event to Madison. So I thought: who doesn’t want to go to a cheese camp? It will be a fun and educational way for folks to meet their favorite cheesemakers, learn more about the cheeses they love, and most of all: eat good cheese!

Wisconsin Cheese Camp is generously sponsored by Carr Valley Cheese – check out their super cool new website. Thank you, Carr Valley! Cheddars crafted by Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook (that’s him, pictured above) and a variety of Wisconsin cheesemakers will be featured in the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar dinner at The Edgewater. Author Gordon Edgar (one of my most favorite people in the world), the cheese buyer for Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco, will be the 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 master cheese seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place will be presented by Bronwen and Francis Percival, authors of the new book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes, and the Fight for Real Cheese. Bronwen (who I secretly want to be when I grow up) 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. They’ll partner with Wisconsin cheesemaker Andy Hatch, of Uplands Cheese, for a 90-minute talk and tasting. All seminar attendees will also receive a complimentary copy of the Percivals’ new book.

A big thanks the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board for its support of Wisconsin Cheese Camp. All attendees to the Sunday Meet the Cheesemaker Gala will receive a complimentary insulated lunch bag with the Wisconsin Cheese logo. Woot woot!

Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for: tickets are available both in VIP packages and individually for three different Saturday bus tours, the Saturday night Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner, Sunday morning master cheese seminar, and Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala.

VIP Package:
All-in-one package is $359: includes your choice of one Saturday all-day cheese factory bus tour, one ticket to Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner featuring author Gordon Edgar, one ticket to Sunday morning seminar on Biodiversity and Taste of Place with authors Bronwen & Francis Percival, one VIP ticket with early entrance to the Sunday afternoon Meet the Cheesemaker Gala inside The Edgewater Grand Ballroom. Note: hotel not included — book separately if needed (see below).

Ala Carte Prices:

  • Saturday small-group All-Day Cheese Factory & Dairy Farm Bus Tours, each limited to 25 people: $139 (see the website for tour descriptions)
  • Saturday evening Wisconsin Cheddar Dinner with author Gordon Edgar at The Edgewater: $120 (includes complimentary copy the book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese)
  • Sunday morning Cheese & Microbes seminar with Bronwen & Francis Percival and Cheesemaker Andy Hatch: $45 (includes complimentary copy of the book: Reinventing the Wheel: Milk, Microbes)
  • Sunday afternoon VIP – early entrance to Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $75 (includes one-hour early access,  three free drink tickets good for craft beer, wine or soda — see the website for a listing of all artisans and cheeses being sampled)
  • Sunday afternoon regular admission Meet the Cheesemaker Gala: $50 (includes two free drink tickets for craft beer, wine or soda)

Hotel
I’ve set up a hotel room block at The Edgewater. All you need to do is book before Sept 20 for $199/night. Make your online reservation here or call 800-922-5512 before Sept. 20 and ask for the Wisconsin Cheese Camp block rate.

For a full listing of all tour descriptions an all the cheesemakers involved, please visit my website here: http://www.wisconsincheeseoriginals.com/wisconsin-cheese-camp/

I can’t wait to see you all at Wisconsin Cheese Camp!

Wisconsin Women Cheesemakers

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Listen to an interview with three award-winning Wisconsin women cheesemakers on Cheese Underground Radio:


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

A bit of the backstory:

Of 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin, less than 60 are women. Three of them: Katie Fuhrmann at LaClare Farms, Anna Landmark of Landmark Creamery and Diana Murphy at Dreamfarm (pictured above from left to right), shared their stories with me and dozens of others at an event I hosted at the Wisconsin Historical Museum last week. Each of these three ladies came to cheese making from a different path with different goals, but they all share one opinion: cheddar is heavy.

You’ve heard this story before: Two people get married. They have kids. Sometimes, one of those kids is allergic to cow’s milk, so the couple buys a goat. A few years go by, and one goat becomes two goats. Two goats become 10 goats. And now, with an oversupply of milk, mom starts making cheese. Pretty soon, she’s making more cheese than her family can eat. So, she shares some with her neighbors and friends. It doesn’t take long before mom is now looking into ways she can sell her cheese. And before you know it, another artisan woman cheesemaker is born.

One of those women is Diana Murphy. She’s the lead cheesemaker and owner at Dreamfarm near Cross Plains. Her fresh chevre is legendary in southern Wisconsin. She’s a super small-batch cheesemaker, so you’ll have to visit us to find her cheese, but one taste of her Apricot Honey Lavender-infused fresh goat cheese will convince you that America’s Dairyland is calling your name.

“I grew up on a traditional dairy farm with 40 cows and a very large family. I loved growing up on the farm, but when I turned 18, farming was not the direction I wanted to go, so I went off to technical school to become a commercial artist. I like using my hands and being creative,” Diana says. “And I loved being in that field until it went to computers. That wasn’t fulfilling. So, when I started a family with my husband, we got animals. Pretty soon we had more goat milk that we could consume, and I started making cheese.”

Today, Diana, her husband, Jim, and her daughter, Alicia, milk 22 goats and one cow – there’s a great article in the current Isthmus by Jane Burns talking about Diana and her cow, Nelle. She hauls her milk in buckets from the dairy barn to the cheesrie, where it is pasteurized and then made into fresh cheeses and some harder cheeses. You can find her cheeses in Madison at Willy Street Cooperative and Metcalfe’s Market-Hilldale.

Like Diana Murphy, cheesemaker Anna Landmark first starting buying a few animals after she and her husband purchased a small farm near Albany. She started playing around with cheese on her stove, and it wasn’t long before she knew she wanted to earn her cheesemaker’s license. Today, without a cheese plant of her own, she travels to different factories to make and age cheese. One of my favorites is Anabasque, a cheese whose name is a play on the Annas that run Landmark Creamery – cheesemaker Anna Landmark and her business partner, Anna Thomas Bates.

“I got my cheesemaker’s license in 2014,” Anna says. “My specialty is primarily sheep milk cheeses. We’ve made cheese in three different plants since we started, and now are making it all at Cedar Grove in Plain. The cheese is then aged in a different location at Bear Valley Cheese.”

So, while Diana focuses on fresh goat cheeses and wants to keep her farmstead creamery on the smaller side, and Anna is focusing on sheep milk cheeses and is growing her business to one day build her own cheese factory, our third cheesemaker – Katie Fuhrmann, of LaClare Farms – has already done all that.

In 2011, her career was fast-tracked when she won the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest with Evalon, an aged goat milk cheese made with the milk from her family’s farm. Today, she leads a team of eight cheesemakers at her family’s farmstead creamery and focuses on agri-tourism. That means visitors can watch 800 goats being milked twice a day. You can also eat lunch and dinner in the creamery’s café, purchase all of the LaClare products – goat milk yogurt, bottled milk and dozens of different cheeses, in the farm’s retail store, and watch cheeses aging to perfection through the cellar’s viewing windows. But believe it or not, her career path to cheese started when she thought she was going to be on television.

“I grew up on a dairy goat farm, and we got to the point where we were milking 29 goats by farm. My parents asked us kids if we wanted to go commercial. And I was like: ‘We’re going to be on tv?’ So that’s how this thing got started,” Katie said. “I was a gypsy cheesemaker like Anna for a while – we made cheese at Saxon Creamery for three years but got to a point where we wanted to expand our product line.”

I asked the ladies if they ever faced any challenges specifically because they were women. “I wouldn’t say I’ve hit any barriers being a woman cheesemaker, but I have hit barriers being a woman business owner,” Anna said. “Wisconsin is a really great place to launch a cheesemaking business because of its infrastructure and resources, but when it comes to bank financing, being a little business in a really big industry has been a challenge.”

Katie chimed in: “There used to only be girls in the plant, and we kind of enjoyed that,” she laughed. “Women typically make softer, smaller cheeses vs the bigger, heavier cheeses. I probably wouldn’t have said that when I was 22, because I had to prove to the world that I could do anything. But after having two kids, I like making smaller cheeses, because it’s not so physically draining. Having men working in the plant helps us make the bigger cheeses.”

All the women agreed on one thing: cheddar is heavy. “Forty pound blocks – I don’t care what anyone says. After you lift a bunch of them, they get really heavy,” Katie said.

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Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.

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Sold! Wisconsin State Fair Cheese Auction

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Photo caption: from left: 70th Alice in Dairyland Crystal Siemers-Peterman, Lake Country Dairy Plant Manager Gary Gosda, winning bidder Jeremy Huston from Chr. Hanson, and 2017 Fairest of the Fair Rebecca Starkenburg.

Listen to an interview with top cheese judges, the grand master cheesemaker, and hear what it takes to get a winning bid for the best cheese in Wisconsin on Cheese Underground Radio:


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

A bit of the backstory:

Summer in Wisconsin means only one thing to many folks: fair season. There are county fairs, there are local fairs and then there’s the grand daddy of them all: the Wisconsin State Fair, an 11-day extravaganza that encompasses everything from showing cattle, pigs and chickens to eating a Beer-Battered Bacon-Wrapped Cheddar Sausage On-a-Stick. But for cheesemakers, the best place to be is the Blue Ribbon Cheese and Butter Auction, where 28 blue ribbon cheese and butters are auctioned off to the highest bidder in a mission to raise money for scholarships and dairy promotion.

For a little over an hour at the Wisconsin State Fair each year, a big white tent fills up with everybody who’s anybody in the Wisconsin dairy industry. Bidders come from around the state to bid on 28 blue ribbon cheeses. Folks bid for different reasons. Retailers want the publicity of being able to sell a big winner. Dairy supply companies – such as equipment manufacturers and cheese packaging firms, often bid to either thank cheesemakers for past business, or to woo them for future deals. Each blue-ribbon cheese is sold individually, with the winning cheesemaker brought to the front to be recognized on stage. Cheesemakers and winning bidders are then flanked by a host of local and state dairy queens, all wearing tiaras and smiling broadly for photos.

But perhaps the best part of the evening comes at the very beginning, when the Grand Master Cheesemaker is named. Every year, it’s a surprise. No one, not even the Secretary of Agriculture, who makes the announcement, knows who will be named best in show. Everyone, including the 28 cheesemakers in attendance, fall to a hush and pay attention.

This year’s announcement is a BIG surprise: the winner, a cave-aged, smear-ripened cheese, is one almost no one in the tent has ever heard of and because it’s brand new, the winning company – Lake Country Dairy in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, only sent one company representative because winning the big title was such a long shot. We caught Plant Manager Gary Gosda, representing Team Lake Country Dairy, right after the announcement. He was lugging a giant, Wisconsin-shaped wooden trophy away from the stage.

“We invested in making our own cave about a year and half ago and started making this cheese,” Gosda said. “It’s been a year and half of figuring out what we are doing. This is the first contest in Wisconsin we ever entered it in.”

New cheese, first contest. And it’s a winner: not bad for a first go-round. I wondered how winning cheeses get chosen at the Wisconsin State Fair. So, right before the auction, I talked with Wisconsin State Fair Chief Cheese Judge Mike Pederson, whose day job is the lead cheese grader for the State of Wisconsin, and Bob Aschebrock, veteran USDA dairy grader. The pair explained the judging process, what they look for in a supreme cheese, and what it’s like to grade cheese for a living.

“This year we had a record number of entries, so each team judged between 60 and 70 cheeses in about six hours,” Pederson said. “The defects we saw in these cheeses were so subtle, because many of these cheeses are the best cheeses in the state.”

So what’s it like to bid on a winning cheese at the Wisconsin State Fair cheese auction? Well, it just so happens I found out personally. When 11 pounds of Chris Roelli’s blue ribbon Dunbarton came up on the auction block, I started raising my arm for Metcalfe’s Markets, who had authorized me to bid on their behalf. And when the Secretary of Agriculture starts personally lobbying you to keep bidding, it’s hard to stop.

In the end, I didn’t get the winning bid, but I was still happy to see a great cheese go for a good price. And at the end of the night, a total of $56,760 had been raised, with cheeses such as LaClare Farm’s Evalon fetching $290 a pound, and a Havarti made by Decatur Dairy going for $320 a pound. We talked with Katy Katzman, Coordinator for the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board, on what happens with the money raised at auction, and the role dairy plays at the Wisconsin State Fair, including something called “The House of Moo.”

“The money that comes in from the auction helps with our dairy promotions here at the State Fair – we put on milking demonstrations four times a day and we have the House of Moo, which is a hands-on dairy education center in the dairy barn. And, of course, we award scholarships. This year we’ll give out six, $1,000 scholarships to students pursuing careers in the dairy industry,” she said.

“This is such a special event – sometimes we see a lot of these folks just once a year here at the auction,” Katzman continued. “It’s a big reunion every year and it’s great fun to be involved with.”

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Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.

fromaginationwithphraselong