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

The Future of North Hendren Cooperative Dairy

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Photo Caption: Sonja Williams, age 2-1/2, is already helping feed the cows at her parents’ dairy farm, and she’s not shy when it comes to showing new baby calves to podcast interviewers. She talks about her favorite cow, Clementine, and about “Surprise”, the latest born calf, peeking through the gate.

Listen to an interview with North Hendren cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind, dairy farmers Luke Yurkovich, Adam and Emily Williams, and their 2-1/2 daughter, Sonja, on Cheese Underground Radio:


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

A bit of the backstory:

This week, I visited small town Wisconsin and talked with two dairy farm families, both milking small herds of just 60 cows, and who for decades, have shipped their milk to the local cheese factory: North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, near Willard.

There’s just one problem.

In January, the buyer who purchased their blue cheese for years ended their contract. The folks at North Hendren went from making 2.2 million pounds of blue cheese last year to less than 75,000 pounds so far in 2017. And now, a small group of people are trying to help a historic cheese factory supporting 24 farm families stay in business.

My story starts with Luke Yurkovic, a third generation dairy farmer. He farms near the tiny town of Willard, Wisconsin, population 539. His grandfather came to the United States in 1910 from the eastern European country of Slovenia, seeking a better life for his family. After landing in Ellis Island, the Yurkovich family moved first to Ohio, but soon traveled by train and settled down in Wisconsin to farm, clearing acres and acres of stumps left behind from logging, They used horses and dynomite to clear the land, and within 15 years, had built by hand a milking barn, the farmhouse, machine shed and pig barn from stones picked off the land. And in 1923, he helped found North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, a cheese plant still owned and operated by 24 local dairy farmers, including his grandson, Luke.

Today, Luke, his wife, Judy, and son Brenden, live on that same home farm and milk 60 cows. For nearly 100 years, three generations of Yurkoviches have sent their farm’s milk to North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, where it is made into cheese. In 2002, the plant converted from making low-profit commodity cheddar into higher-profit specialty blue cheese. They sold it all under private label to stores across the country as Black River Blue and Black River Gorgonzola.

But since January, Black River Blue has not been made by North Hendren Cooperative Dairy. The brokerage firm that purchased the factory’s blue cheese for 15 years cut their ties with the farmer cooperative and is now sourcing Black River Blue from a different cheese factory.

Since the first of the year, 24 dairy farmers, each milking an average of 50 cows, have been struggling to pay their long-time cheesemaker, Mike Vetterkind, to stick around until they can find another distributor to sell their cheese. And to further complicate things, as part of the buy-out agreement they signed with their former brokerage firm in January, the farmers are operating under a non-compete clause for one year. That means they can’t sell their award-winning blue cheese under any name – not Black River Blue – not even North Hendren Blue – to any of their former distributor customers.

I caught up with longtime Cheesemaker Mike Vetterkind and General Manager Ashlyn Nowobielski at the North Hendren cheese plant last week to learn a little more about their operation and to get an update on the situation. Mike’s been making cheese for 50 years, and was one of two cheesemakers at North Hendren who first helped the cooperative convert to blue cheese in 2000. He’s disappointed and angry that the broker buying his blue cheese canceled a long-standing contract and is instead sourcing Black River Blue elsewhere. He says the same thing happened to him at a blue cheese plant in Thorp a couple of decades ago. The same brokerage firm shut it down for the same reasons.

“The little guy is continually getting squished,” Vetterkind said. “But there’s nothing that can be done about the past. We need to move forward. Lesson learned, but it was a costly lesson.”

When Mike talks about a lifetime of quality cheesemaking and lessons learned, his words echo those of the 24 dairy farmers who own North Hendren. Many of them are second and third-generation dairy farmers. They’ve spent their lifetime milking cows, sending milk to the little cheese factory they own, and being proud of serving that cheese to their friends and neighbors.

Adam and Emily Williams are two of those dairy farmers. They milk 60 cows. And they’d like to pass their farm onto their four children: Clara, almost 7, Jack, age 5, Sonja, age 2-1/2 and little Gus, just 1 year old. The couple is young and just getting their feet planted in their farming career.

Both Emily and Adam grew up on dairy farms, and it’s a way of life they want for their children: “It’s what I know, it’s what I grew up with. I like the values it puts into people. I want it for my kids. It’s hard work, but it’s good work,” Adam says.

Note: If you’d like to support North Hendren Cooperative Dairy, you can purchase their blue and gorgonzola cheese at Fromagination in Madison, as well as Metcalfe’s Markets in Madison and Wauwatosa. Just look for the North Hendren label. Thank you to Rock Cheese, of Madison, Wisconsin, for recently adding North Hendren blue cheeses to their distribution and helping make sure North Hendren cheeses are still sold to privately-owned stores in southern Wisconsin.

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Photo Caption: Third generation Wisconsin dairy farmer Luke Yurkovich

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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

Making Cheese in Copper Kettles

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Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman and learn about the science of copper cheese vats from expert Neville McNaughton on Cheese Underground Radio:


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A bit of the backstory:

In a world full of stainless steel, just a handful of the world’s most iconic cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, Emmental, Raclette and Gruyere in Switzerland, as well as French Comte, are all crafted in cheese vats made from copper. What difference does copper make in these cheeses? To find out, we tracked down one of the only American cheesemakers making cheese in a copper vat: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello, Wisconsin.

We caught Bruce last week when he was operating on only about three hours of sleep over the course of two days. That’s because the computer that helps run much of his equipment had broken down the day before, and he was still trying to catch up. But he was happy to sit down, take a break and talk cheese.

Bruce has been making cheese for 46 years and has 11 Master Cheesemaker titles under his belt. At Edelweiss Creamery, the cheesemaking starts every weekday at 1 am and finishes up by 4 pm. That’s because Bruce is old school – when he started making cheese years ago, he didn’t have enough capacity to cool milk for more than a few hours, so he got used to a schedule of making cheese at night. Today, it’s all about efficiency – by making cheese during “off peak” hours for electricity, he saves a “boatload of money.”

When Bruce talks about being old school, the factory that he owns and operates – Edelweiss Creamery – is old school. It’s a historic cheese plant, one of more than 200 originally built in Green County, Wisconsin, more than 100 years ago. It started as a Limburger plant, but was converted to making Big Wheel Swiss by 1951. A total of 13 copper kettles, each making one wheel, were once housed inside Edelweiss Creamery. Those kettles are long gone, but a large, modern copper kettle – imported from Switzerland and capable of making four Big Wheel Swiss wheels – now sits in their place, along with several open vats where Bruce makes more than 20 varieties of cheese.

“Big Wheel Swiss” is what the Swiss call Emmental. Wheels weigh 200 pounds and contain eyes – or holes – the size of 50-cent pieces. Bruce ages his wheels and then ships them to retail stores across the country. Not only is he one of a handful of folks making cheese this way in America, but he is one of only two American cheesemakers making Big Wheel Swiss in a copper kettle.

I asked Bruce why he uses a copper vat. He again chalks it up to old world cheesemaking. A copper vessel heats evenly and makes a difference in the flavor when making old world Swiss cheese. But of all the cheeses Bruce makes, the copper kettle is reserved for only his Big Wheel Swiss. Everything else is made in stainless steel.

I asked Neville McNaughton about the science of copper vats and why they’re reserved for making alpine cheeses. Neville owns a company called SDI, which makes specialized equipment for cheesemakers. He’s also a consultant for cheesemakers in the United States, and since 2000, has developed recipes and equipment design for some of the most famous artisan cheesemakers in America. And if you listen to the podcast, you might be able to tell from his accent that he’s a native to New Zealand.

Neville says historically, copper was an easy metal to work with, and it heated uniformly. Compared to steel, it didn’t rust. “I don’t know that anyone sat down (hundreds of years ago) and created a designer cheese that had to be made in a copper vat, but there are certainly things that are unique about the cheeses that are made in copper vats.”

Many of the cheeses historically made in copper are cooked at higher temperatures – Parmigiano Reggiano, Emmental, Gruyere, Comte. One of the things that all of these cheeses have in common, is that at the point the whey is removed, the pH is still very high – at 6.5, compared to 6.2 for a cheddar. That means many of the minerals are retained in the milk. A copper vat will also contribute micro levels of copper to a cheese. “The copper is working on the fat in the cheese and creating a note at low levels that is very pleasant.”

I asked Neville if one can make cheddar, for instance, in a copper vat and his answer was clever. “Well you certainly can, but the answer is: should you?” He knows of one cheesemaker making cheddar in a copper vat, but it doesn’t taste as good as cheddar made in stainless steel.

A few years ago, I spent a day making cheese with Bruce Workman. You can read about that adventure by clicking here.

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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