A Wisconsin Cheese Journey: Part 1

Wisconsin: it’s America’s dairy land, the state that generally comes to mind when people think about cheese in the US.

As a champion for locavore eating, I have appreciated Wisconsin’s (and Vermont’s, California’s, etc.) cheesemaking heritage, but have focused my attention on the fantastic cheeses made close to home in the Pacific Northwest. Nonetheless, I was excited to learn that by placing in the top 10 at the Cheesemonger Invitational in San Francisco in January, I had won a trip to Wisconsin to learn more about the state’s cheese culture.

So I found myself in Wisconsin on a beautiful autumn morning, bleary-eyed and exhausted after a red eye flight brought me from Seattle to Chicago to Madison. I was surprised to find it slightly warmer than Seattle. The leaves were only barely beginning to turn yellow, it was sunny, and I had packed too many sweaters.

The trip, which was sponsored by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, kicked off with a welcome reception at a small cheese shop on the capitol square called Fromagination. There was of course a cheese board for us, featuring cheeses from some of the creameries we were about to visit. The owner talked about his mission showcasing the state’s cheeses through a small, rotating selection that also included a few cheeses from other parts of America and some staples from Europe.

The vast majority of cheeses in the case were hard and semi-firm, with so few soft and semi-soft cheeses I could count them on one hand (e.g., goat cheeses from Wisconsin’s Dreamfarm and Hook’s, plus Italian Taleggio).

The rest of the shop was full of cheese accompaniments: jams, pickles, crackers, chocolates, and meats, artisan grocery items like duck fat spray and pasta, and books and small housewares including cheese boards and knives. Many items were made in Wisconsin, and it was a pleasant store through which to browse. As a cheesemonger, it is nice to visit other shops and see how everyone else is doing what we do.

But let’s be honest: the real treat for cheesemongers is visiting creameries and dairy farms, seeing how cheeses are made, talking to the folks who make them, and petting the animals who make it possible. Luckily that was the focus of our visit, which would take us to six creameries in three days. I’ll be breaking each day down into a separate blog post, so be sure to check back for the next iteration.

On the first day, we visited some of the state’s biggest artisan cheese idols: Uplands Cheese and Roelli Cheese.

20191007_1045142801556071258305334.jpg

Uplands Cheese

Uplands Cheese is located in Dodgeville, in Wisconsin’s Driftless region, a portion of the state that was not flattened by prehistoric glaciers and is characterized today by steep, rolling hills. It is beautifully green. It is also not where the bulk of the state’s dairy farmers settled, as the land was considered too hilly for agriculture.

As you might expect, Uplands Cheese is different from the average midwestern dairy farm. The 140 cows are not bred to be prolific milk producers, but rather to be tough and athletic enough to withstand the landscape. They graze outside on the 300-acre farm for as much of the year as the weather allows, then spend the cold winters in their barn eating hay.

20191007_1044458802216678585244647.jpgHead cheesemaker Andy Hatch says that the farm is more sustainable because they chose to plant pasture instead of crops, which take extra energy to harvest and make into feed. Cropping the land also creates soil erosion and may require chemicals for pest control, which Uplands prefers to avoid. As they note on their website, the hundred-year-old farm was also one of the first to return to rotational pasture-grazing practices in the early 1980s.[1]

The cows get their food directly from the earth by grazing in the fresh air, rather than by having feed crops go through several layers of processing before it gets to them. The cows get exercise, and the milk they produce is higher in vitamins and minerals—as well as being more flavorful because of the grass.[2]

The cows, who are milked seasonally rather than year-round, do get corn as a treat when they come into the barn to milk.

“People say it’s not natural for cows to eat corn,” Andy said. “Well, it’s not natural to milk them twice a day to make cheese, either. If we’re going to ask more from them, we need to give them more in return. The corn provides extra energy, and the grass provides protein.”

The farm has a closed-loop system, in which all of the cows who are part of the herd are born on the farm, and the farm uses its own bulls rather than buying semen–a common practice in modern dairy farming. They keep about 20 new cows each year to replenish the herd, which has been growing since the 1980s.

Andy and his wife Caitlin jointly own the farm with Scott and Liana Mericka; Andy manages the cheesemaking, and Scott manages the herd. They bought the farm from Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude in 2014.[3]

Mike only made Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a raw-milk, Alpine-style cheese produced from May to September that is one of the most decorated cheeses in America. As an apprentice on the farm, Andy introduced Rush Creek Reserve, a raw-milk, bark-wrapped, Vacherin Mont d’Or-style cheese made only from September through Thanskgiving.

Andy explained that the goal of Pleasant Ridge Reserve is to show off the quality of the cows’ summer milk: you can taste the southwestern Wisconsin terroir through the grass and the milk itself. Rush Creek Reserve is made when the cows are transitioning to hay and the butterfat content goes up as the cows prepare to stop lactating. The goal of Rush Creek is to showcase what the cheesemaker can do to shape the cheese through banding it, washing it, and aging it.

“I like to say that Pleasant Ridge is made in the fields and Rush Creek is made in the caves,” Andy said.

This year they made about 10,000 wheels of Pleasant Ridge and will make around 30,000 wheels of Rush Creek.[4]

20191007_1017368119709055979954682.jpgWhile we were there, the workers were taking fresh wheels of Rush Creek, wrapping boiled spruce bark bands around them, and holding the bark in place with rubber bands. They then took older, banded batches of Rush Creek and wrapped them in paper for the final few weeks of aging before they would be released for sale in early November.

20191007_0911454692509908650687671.jpg

In another room, two cheesemakers were flipping and brushing young wheels of Rush Creek. And in another room yet, wheels of Pleasant Ridge were being flipped and inspected.

20191007_101555_std.original

As we were leaving the creamery, all of the cheesemongers were taking pictures of the rolling hills when the cows began moving into our sight lines. As they moved closer, the mongers began running up the street toward them. Getting to see the cheeses we so enjoy being made and cared for was pretty special, but there’s nothing like seeing the animals whose milk makes the cheeses.

20191007_1048086703507227134329104.jpgAfter our trip organizers eventually separated us from the cows and herded us onto the bus, we made our way down the road to Shullsburg, to Roelli Cheese Haus.

Roelli Cheese

20191007_1334173664070717801250486.jpg

Chris Roelli (pronounced “raw-lee”) is a fourth-generation cheesemaker who carries on the craft his great-grandfather brought from Switzerland. Chris is a master cheesemaker, a distinction you can only achieve in Wisconsin and in Switzerland.

The master cheesemaker program is administered by the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. To enroll, a licensed cheesemaker must first have 10 years of experience making the cheese they will be getting the certificate in; each masters is for one type of cheese. The program involves course work, field work, and a written exam, and cheesemakers are required to submit their cheeses for grading every year to ensure the quality and workmanship remain at the level of a master cheesemaker.

20191007_135254.jpgChris Roelli is a master cheesemaker certified in cheddar-, blue-, and alpine-style cheeses. We got a glimpse of the stainless-steel vats and equipment in which he makes those cheeses before he took us to his cheese caves. Built in a single-story building, there are three aging rooms for Roelli’s cheeses. Two of them have windows that you can see from the entryway. In one room, young wheels of cheddar sat glistening on boards. In the other room, orangey-pink wheels of Alpine-style Little Mountain sat on boards on one side while wheels of sheep’s milk Raclette populated the other side.

20191007_135441.jpgChris gave us a taste of the Raclette, an experimental cheese, and sought our input. It was springy—a tad bit young yet—but rich and dense with a beautifully round flavor. (Coincidentally, a customer asked me the very next week if we carried sheep’s milk Raclette. If only!)

20191007_1407581863652865553121913.jpg

Chris, whose creamery is close to Uplands and to Hook’s Cheese Company,[5] admits that the neighboring cheesemakers share equipment to try new things. He said Andy has used his equipment for experiments with different cheese milks. The three creameries not only share equipment, space, and resources, but they also try to use the same shipping schedule to lower the cost of distribution. Teamwork is the name of the game, despite competition for sales.

Roelli is not a farmstead creamery, meaning they do not have their own herd of cows. Yet Chris stressed that he works with one neighboring farmer for his milk. Like Uplands, the dairy farmer Chris works with has a closed herd of cows.

Chris said working with a single herd gives him as a cheesemaker control over the milk he turns into cheese. It is more predictable when you have a strong relationship with your producer, and you have a better understanding of how that milk will react when you work with it.

“Your milk is only as good as the weakest cow in the herd,” Chris added, illustrating that pooling milk from different herds can diminish quality or add too much variability, especially if you don’t have a handle on the animal husbandry occurring at each farm.

In order to help the farmer he works with to produce the highest quality milk without cutting corners, Chris pays four or five times the market rate for fluid milk.

“I believe that farmers should earn a living wage,” he said. “It’s hard work, and the economy has been especially hard on them in the past few years.”

In fact, the economy was on everyone’s tongue from the time I arrived in Madison. From my taxi driver to the cheesemakers themselves, the trade wars, tariffs, and American economic policy were a hot topic. To understand their perspective, Wisconsin lost nearly 700 family-run dairies in 2018 and more than 400 in 2019.[6]

By having to sell off their herds, these farmers make the largest dairies wealthier as they consolidate small herds into their mega-sized herds. By having a larger output to help combat the weak price of milk, the largest farms have an advantage of volume over the smallest farms who struggle to compete.

While creameries have not necessarily been closing, they have less access to milk as neighboring farms disappear. And if they aren’t controlling their own milk by having their own herds or by having strong relationships with the dairy farmers, the quality of milk they are getting may be diminished due to the market’s merciless demands for ever-cheaper milk (despite the fact that cost of living and goods goes up each year for farmers as it does for everyone else).

As one of my fellow cheesemongers on the trip pointed out, when customers wonder why one cheese is so expensive, a better question might be to ask why the cheese they are comparing it to is so cheap.

Cheesemakers like Chris Roelli, whose family also runs a milk-hauling business, understand that pain and try to offset it as best they can while making the milk into a value-added product like cheese.

20191007_1419178998246720969299439.jpgChris has won numerous awards for his cheeses. His family cheese shop that stands next to the creamery and the aging caves started as a small grocery store just off of Highway 11, and is now what Chris refers to as a “brand destination” for people in the know seeking his special cheeses.

While some of Chris’ cheeses, such as Dunbarton Blue and Red Rock, are more widely available throughout the country, he makes other cheeses that are only available in his shop (such as the Lowlander Goudse Kaas and sheep’s milk Raclette) to help bring in business.

When I first started out selling cheese, we carried Red Rock and Dunbarton Blue. In the years since then, I had forgotten just how good both cheeses were. They are cheddar-blue hybrids, but are quite different from one another.

Red Rock, which comes in a perfectly square, elongated log, has a bloomy rind. The paste is dyed orange with annatto, and the cheese’s blue veins create a geometric pattern as the needles were pierced into the cheese at 90-degree angles. It is a beautifully architectural cheese, and it has a pleasant flavor that is at the same time cheddary and minerally. It evokes a cave-aged quality at the same time it has the comforting feel of an American-style cheddar.

Dunbarton Blue comes in a flattened, drum-shaped wheel. It has a natural rind, and the paste has not been dyed so that you can see the creamy, whitish color of the milk marred only by the points at which the needles were pierced into the cheese to allow the blue mold to flourish in contact with air. This cheese is complex, although not overpowering. It is nutty, with notes of horseradish and a faint mineral quality. It is a thing of beauty.

Chris also makes several types of cheddars, including the Haus Select Cheddar, which can be aged anywhere from 90 days to three years, Monterey Jack, a Colby-style cheese, the aforementioned Little Mountain and Lowlander, cheese curds, and something called Gravity Hill: a raw-milk cheese that the Roellis call an “English farmstead-style acid crumbly cheese,” that was supposed to be similar to Cheshire but has become its own beast.

It was a real treat to get to meet both Chris Roelli and Andy Hatch on their own turf, to see them in their creameries and to experience the landscape that helps shape their cheeses. While I already knew I loved Andy’s cheeses, I have a renewed adoration for Chris’s cheeses (and I hope that we can get at least one of them into my shop in 2020!).

This was a strong start for my three-day journey into Wisconsin’s creameries. How could it get better than Uplands and Roelli, after all? You’ll just have to check back for my next post to find out how it went from there.

[1] See: “About Uplands Cheese Company.” Uplands Cheese, 2019, uplandscheese.com/about-us/. Accessed 3 Nov. 2019. << https://www.uplandscheese.com/about-us/.>>

[2] Heins, Brad. “Grass-fed cows produce healthier milk.” UMN Dairy Extension. University of Minnesota,  2018, extension.umn.edu/dairy-nutrition/grass-fed-cows-produce-healthier-milk . Accessed 3 Nov. 2019. << https://extension.umn.edu/dairy-nutrition/grass-fed-cows-produce-healthier-milk.>>

[3] “About Uplands Cheese Company.”

[4] Rush Creek Reserve was included last year in my 8-week holiday cheese series in 2018.

[5] Hooks is most famous for long-aged Cheddars, such as 10-year, 15-year, and 20-year aged Cheddar. See, for example: https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/dining/hook-s-to-release–year-cheddar-in-june-for/article_37c9a27a-f757-5d62-9cc8-e99c08183efa.html.

[6] See, for example: https://www.jsonline.com/in-depth/news/special-reports/dairy-crisis/2019/05/16/wisconsin-dairy-farms-closing-milk-prices-drop-economics-get-tough/3508060002/ and https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/wisconsin-dairy-farmers-are-struggling-to-stay-afloat.

1 thought on “A Wisconsin Cheese Journey: Part 1

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.