Cheese curds are oddly soothing. This is evident on a recent morning inside the CALS Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, where a few hundred pounds of springy ivory cheese curds are being stirred and drained of whey inside a long gleaming vat.
Within a few hours, those curds will be transformed into juustoleipa (joost-oh-LEEP-ah), or “juusto” for short, a firm, baked Finnish cheese with a browned exterior speckled with creamy white. A barely cooled corner piece is a satisfying blend of fresh, sweet dairy flavor inside and savory caramelization outside—rather like the bubbly cheese part of a pizza without all that pesky pizza.
For now, however, the curds are still curds. Periodically, Babcock’s master cheesemaker Gary Grossen pauses from his constant circuit around the cheese production area to scatter a handful of salt or to cup a few curds in his palm, thoughtfully testing their texture. The cheese curds go from creamy and moist to drier, lighter, with a good portion of finer-grained curds to the egg-sized clumps. The constant motion inside the vat is rhythmic, even mesmerizing.
But for Jay Noble, who is visiting Babcock that day, the morning’s observation is all business. He had traveled from Noble View Creamery, his 400-cow dairy farm in Racine County, to observe Grossen at work. A sixth-generation dairy farmer—“Born with a pitchfork in my hand,” he says—Noble is curious about expanding into specialty cheese, such as Hispanic-style cheeses or possibly juustoleipa.
Noble’s reasons for considering specialty cheese echo a common refrain. In the face of volatile milk markets and dwindling prospects for passing a dairy farm to the next generation, cheesemaking offers a dairy farmer the chance to set his or her own prices and carve out a more stable niche in a growing market. Twenty years ago, a dairy farmer might have seen little cheesemaking opportunity in a Wisconsin landscape composed mainly of struggling commodity cheese manufacturers, all being squeezed out by far larger and ever-growing companies, while California threatened to snatch Wisconsin’s dairy industry mantle.
“Artisan cheesemaking is part of our unique heritage,” says Norm Monsen, senior agriculture markets consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “In the 1980s or 1990s, we were getting a little bit away from the lessons of our heritage. Since the early 2000s, there’s really been an effort and drive to get those lessons back.”
Today you’ll still find plenty of commodity cheddars and mozzarellas—but you’ll also find a wealth of specialty cheese, be it the savory, golden Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese, fresh, tangy Fantôme goat cheeses, or Bleu Mont’s bold cave-aged originals. There are crumbly, well-aged artisan cheddars, smoky blues, sticky, green-veined Gorgonzolas and a slumping, velvety sheep’s milk Brie. The list goes on and on.
Clearly, the state’s specialty cheese numbers have exploded. Ten years ago Wisconsin had six artisan cheesemakers, whereas today that number is a little above 30, according to Jeanne Carpenter, communications director of the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC). In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, Wisconsin produced 477 million pounds of specialty cheese, 18 percent of its total cheese production. That’s a 40-million-pound leap over 2008 figures, courtesy of both newly minted cheesemakers and existing manufacturers who’ve adopted specialty items.
The most successful of Wisconsin’s artisan cheese producers are winning international awards and commanding top dollar in a market increasingly willing, even delighted, to expand its culinary repertoire. “People are beginning to appreciate different flavors in cheese beyond traditional cheddars, Muensters, and Monterey Jack. They want more intense flavors,” notes Mark Johnson, interim director of the CALS Center for Dairy Research. The shift into artisan cheese is so marked, and so needed, that Johnson is willing to call it a “salvation” for the small cheesemaker.