Wisconsin Cheddar Tour with Gordon Edgar

Exciting news, cheese peeps! If your lifelong dream has been to tour three cheddar cheese factories, eat lunch on a goat farm, enjoy dinner at a swanky Italian restaurant, and ride a bus with an acclaimed cheesemonger author, than I am about to make all of your dreams come true.

On Friday, October 23, my friend and author Gordon Edgar (of Cheesemonger fame) is coming to America’s Dairyland to celebrate the October release of his new book: Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.

To celebrate, Gordon and I are going to lead an all-day tour to the heart of Wisconsin Cheddar country. We’ll meet at Larry’s Market in Brown Deer at 8:30 am to talk Cheddar with co-owners Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson.

Then we’ll board our private coach bus and drive north for an exclusive tour of Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, the only cheese factory in America still making Mammoth Cheddar wheels. We’ll tour the factory, talk shop with Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning, visit their charming retail store, eat some cheese, and get back on the bus.

Mammoth Cheddar Wheels at Henning’s Cheese

Next stop: famous LaClare Farms, a farmstead goat dairy crafting raw milk goat cheddar and award-winning American originals, including the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheese, Evalon. We’ll tour the goat farm on a tractor and wagon with farm patriarch Larry Hedrich,  enjoy lunch in the creamery, prepared especially for us by farm chef Jim McIntoshk, and do a little shopping in the farm retail store.

Then it’s south to Theresa, this time for a tour and Cheddar talk with Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer at his third-generation family cheese factory, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. Joe and his son, Joey, are making some of the best Cheddar in the country, and we’ll hear from the dynamic duo on their secrets to success.

Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer making cheese.

The evening concludes with a four-course dinner and cheddar tasting at destination Italian restaurant Trattoria Stefano with chef and owner Stefano Viglietti in Sheboygan, along with a Cheddar tasting and talk with Chris Gentine, of The Artisan Cheese Exchange and founder of Deer Creek Cheeses, including such award-winning cheddars as Deer Creek The Fawn, The Stag and The Doe. We’ll be back to Larry’s Market by 8 pm.

On the bus in between stops, Gordon will entertain us with readings from his favorite chapters of his new Cheddar book. At the end, all tour attendees will receive their very own autographed copy!

Larry Hedrich giving a tour in the dairy
goat barn.

Cost for this Cheddar extravaganza is just $149 per person and includes:

•    Round trip coach bus transportation from Brown Deer to all tour stops
•    Lunch on the farm at LaClare Farms
•    Dinner and Cheddar tasting at Trattoria Stefano
•    Autographed hard-cover copy of Gordon Edgar’s new Cheddar book, to be released Oct. 5

This tour is limited to 30 attendees, and is already half sold out. Book your spot early at: www. WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com. I look forward to seeing you on the bus!

Culture Cocktails: A Cheesemaker’s Best Kept Secret

When 21 staff members of Cook’s Illustrated recently sampled 10 American artisanal cheddars, proceeded to rate each on flavor, texture, and sharpness, and then published the results, I’m pretty sure they had no idea they were about to expose what is one of the best kept secrets in the cheesemaking world: the rise of using “culture cocktails” to enhance Old World favorites and create New World originals.

The “Artisanal Cheddar Taste Test” in the soon-to-be-published July 2012 issue of Cook’s Illustrated  (read an online version here) starts out innocently enough. Much like its previous taste comparisons of balsamic vinegar, whole bean coffee, and even potato chip brands, the staff selects 10 varieties of American cheddar cheese from among top sellers at cheese markets and recent winners of American Cheese Society awards.

They then proceed to compare them on flavor and texture, thinking, I suppose, that a cheddar is a cheddar, right? How different can these cheeses really be?

But then it gets interesting. After a minor error where they don’t realize that it’s rennet, not culture, that causes milk to separate into curds and whey, the panel opens one of my favorite cheeses: Prairie Breeze from Milton Creamery in Iowa, made by two of my all time favorite cheesemakers, Galen Musser, and his father, Rufus (alas, if we could only get these guys to move to Wisconsin). It’s at this point the panel realizes that perhaps a cheddar is not always a cheddar.

In a copy block titled “Culture Shock,” the article wonders why Prairie Breeze – ultimately dubbed as the magazine’s favorite cheddar in its taste-testing exercise, can taste so different from similarly packaged cheeses also labeled as cheddars:

So how could two cheeses aged for the same amount of time and packaged the same way embody such different flavors? According to (Dean) Sommer, (a cheese and food technologist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research), the moisture level of the cheeses could play a role, but so could each maker’s specific blend of bacteria. In fact, the bacterial culture in our favorite cheddar (Prairie Breeze) likely had a big influence on its flavor. This cheese maker takes the culturing process to another level by adding a second round of bacterial cultures to its cheese. We learned from Sommer that it’s not just a repeat of the first culture cocktail; these secondary bacteria are strains more typically found in Parmesan and Emmentaler than in cheddar, lending the cheese the subtle “butterscotch-y” and “gamy” undertones that earned tasters’ highest praise.

This discovery prompts the tasting team to then go back and check the culturing details of every other cheddar they had tasted:

As it turned out, the particularly “toasty,” “earthy,” “complex” flavors of two other cheddars, including our close runner-up (Cabot Cellars at Jasper Hill Clothbound Cheddar), are also the result of that second dose of alternative bacteria. So much for plain-Jane American cheddar. 

And so much for an American cheesemaker’s best-kept secret.

In the past few years, I’ve watched a growing number of American cheesemakers begin using “adjunct cultures” in their cheeses. Some even have specific “culture cocktails” they commission from culture houses made especially – and only – for them. And that’s fine. Adding cultures to the milk to make cheese has always been part of the process.

But two weeks ago, I inadvertently walked into an industry meeting where a new culture house, having just opened up shop in the U.S. a few weeks before, boasted its ability to translate every customer’s need or demand into a “just right” culture.

I listened with a mixture of shock and awe as the saleswoman touted the company she worked for had developed cultures to mask bitterness, speed up the aging process, and “achieve refined flavor distinction without any drastic changes to the production process or yield.”

Need an adjunct culture to achieve the same fruity, sweet note as a Gouda? Check.

Want to replicate the raw-milk, “farmhouse” taste in a cheese without the raw milk or farmhouse? Check.

Need to develop a smear-ripened flavor without ever actually smear-ripening your cheese? Check.

The presentation got more interesting. We then proceeded to try samples of every cheese the company had made with each of these different cultures. Some were very good and some were so bad I inadvertently spit them out into a napkin before catching myself.

After much oohing and ahhing from the audience, I raised my hand. I told the sales lady that here in the United States, we preach the “art and science” of cheesemaking to consumers – telling them, and rightfully so in my opinion – that a cheese develops its taste because of how carefully the milk is handled, how well the cows, goats or sheep are cared for, and that good milk, paired with fine craftsmanship and affinage skills of a cheesemaker, are the true determinants of a cheese’s flavor profile.

The sales lady blinked at me, tilted her head, and spoke to me in a tone of voice that one might expect from a disapproving teacher toward an unruly student: “But why wouldn’t you want to use these cultures if they were available to you? These flavors are what the consumer wants. We’re only giving cheesemakers the tools they need to sell more cheese.”

Perhaps. But I would argue (and hope) that true American artisanal cheesemakers will use adjunct cultures and culture cocktails only to make good cheese better. Because in the marketplace, good cheese will sell. But a good cheese, made by a good cheesemaker, that carries an authentic story, will sell better.

P.S. If you’re wondering how Wisconsin cheddars stacked up in the Cook’s Illustrated article, only one cheddar from our state – Widmer’s Two-Year Aged Cheddar – was chosen for taste-testing. Deemed as “mild” and “lackluster” in comparison with others in the lineup, as it did not contain adjunct cultures, the magazine staffers took a pass, recommending readers “not go out of your way to mail-order it.”

No worries, Joe. I, right along with thousands of others of customers, will keep ordering and eating your good, old fashioned cheddar. And then we’ll order some more.

Widmer’s Brick & Colby: Wisconsin Originals

Brick and Colby: perhaps two of the most underrated cheeses in America. Some folks call them boring. Others simply write them off as commodities. After all, Colby is really just Mild Cheddar, right? And blocks of Cheddar sell on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, along with cattle, corn and cotton. So why should these cheeses even be considered interesting, much less blog-worthy?

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you three reasons: 1) Joe Widmer,  2) Joe Widmer, and 3) Joe Widmer.

Every once in a while, I teach a class on what I call “Wisconsin Classics.” Attendance is usually down because people note what cheeses we’ll be eating, proceed to yawn, and then wait to sign up for the next month’s class on American Originals. But the truth of the matter is that both Brick and Colby are indeed American Originals, as both were invented in Wisconsin in the 1800s.

Today, there’s no one in Wisconsin making better Brick and Colby than Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa. To the skeptics who call Brick and Colby “bland,” I challenge you to taste Joe Widmer’s Mild Brick and Authentic Colby and not call these cheeses anything but artisan and full-flavored.

Fifty years ago, you might have known more than a dozen Joe Widmer-types, all crafting authentic stirred-curd Colby in little cheese plants across Wisconsin. That’s because until the 1970s, by law, Colby was required to have an open texture, meaning the curds could not be tightly pressed. This allowed a more milky, dairy flavor to develop, and depending on the cultures used and cheesemaker who crafted it, a flavor all its own.

That all changed in the 1970s, when lobbying from the state’s ginormous Cheddar makers resulted in Wisconsin statutes being changed to allow Colby to have “a closed body,” the same as Mild Cheddar. That allowed big cheese plants to make more Mild Cheddar and label it as both Mild Cheddar and Colby, thereby accessing two market shares with the same cheese. Two years ago, I did some research on this very topic and wrote a post called The Colby Conundrum, which resulted in a flurry of anonymous hate mail from what I suspect are some of the state’s biggest Cheddar makers, and which explains why today, many people unfortunately still consider Colby to just be Mild Cheddar.

The USDA doesn’t even take Colby seriously. It lumps it with Monterey Jack in the “Other American Types” cheese category when reporting annual production. Luckily, the folks at the Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service do appreciate it a bit more. Their stats show Colby cheese production exceeded 100 million pounds for a number of years in the 1970s, and even approached 200 million pounds in the mid 1980s.

Joe Widmer is good at putting that number in perspective. During Colby’s peak years, Joe says it accounted for almost 20 percent of the state’s total production of American–type cheeses, and for more than 10 percent of Wisconsin’s total cheese production. That’s pretty significant.

Colby production has been on the decline since the mid ’80s, both in terms of total production and in terms of its importance in Wisconsin’s cheese production picture. In 2000, Wisconsin produced 86.4 million pounds of Colby, or less then half the level of the mid ’80s. And today, at least according to my research, there are only three cheesemakers left making authentic stirred-curd, non-pressed Colby: Joe Widmer at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa; Tony Hook in Mineral Point; and Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City.

Most others are simply making a stirred-curd Mild Cheddar with a closed texture and labeling it as Colby. You can tell the difference pretty easily – the next time you buy Colby in a store, check to see if it has pin-prick holes in the body. If it does, it’s authentic. If not, it’s likely Mild Cheddar being labeled as Colby.

Brick cheese, like Colby, is another Wisconsin Original. It was created in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss immigrant who was running his own Wisconsin cheese factory by the time he was 14 years old. Much like Jossi, Widmer, a third generation cheesemaker, has been making cheese since he was a teenager, and Brick is one of his specialties.

Widmer crafts about 360,000 pounds of Brick cheese a year, using the same open vats in the 12,000 square-foot facility that his grandfather bought in 1922. And he still uses the same well-worn bricks his grandfather used to press the whey from the cheese. In fact, he’s credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country to continue to use real bricks as part of the make procedure of his Brick cheese.

After pressing, Joe removes the bricks and places the cheeses in a brine solution to take on salt. He also makes a German-Style Brick, a washed-rind “stinky cheese” soaked in a solution to take on bacterial cultures. This cheese is cured in a “warm room” – about 70 degrees – where the bacteria works its magic and is then “smear ripened” with a top-secret Widmer mixture of brine and whey.

“Most people don’t even know what real Brick is,” says Joe. This alone drives his mission to craft the real deal and share with cheese lovers everywhere – and he does mean everywhere, including his very own dinner table. “A Wisconsin cheesemaker can spend a lifetime perfecting his craft,” Joe says,  “much of it spent resisting the urge to eat all the cheese.”