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The rise of Wisconsin's artisan cheese market

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.

Looks like pizza, tastes like heaven, especially with a bit of jam: Brunkow Cheese’s Karl Geissbuhler wields a tray of freshly baked juustoleipa.

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.

He’s not the only one to view it this way. The growth of the artisan cheese industry has resulted from a coordinated and ongoing effort involving not only the cheesemakers themselves but government, academia and nonprofits. Wisconsin’s artisan cheese renaissance may be a happy miracle to a cheese lover, but it’s no accident.

Before the 1990s, a hopeful cheese artisan had little to guide her. “Now, if you want to become an artisan cheesemaker in Wisconsin, it’s like there is a handbook to do it,” says DBIC’s Jeanne Carpenter. “Whereas there was a handbook before, but it was in French.”

The CALS Center for Dairy Research (CDR) has been offering courses in cheese technology for years, but as John Jaeggi, the cheese industry andapplications coordinator there, points out, “Originally it was just us with cheese help, but we didn’t bring the full package.”

Back then, they all were artisans: Cheesemakers taking part in a short course at the University of Wisconsin’s new dairy school, ca. 1901. they pose with some tools of their trade and fruits of their labor (probably Muenster, Swiss and brick).

Now, by design, the artisan dairy players are several and closely entwined. CDR provides a number of educational programs to the dairy industry, be it classes for the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, numerous short courses, or more individualized research. The Center also works directly with new and established manufacturers on product development and trouble-shooting, often calling on the CALS food science department down the hall for basic science to complement the applied science of dairy production.

The Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, once known solely as a source for tasty ice cream, now employs Gary Grossen, a master cheesemaker in brick, Muenster and cheddar—and No. 2 in the world in Gouda, the sole American in an otherwise Dutch top three. Grossen not only makes Babcock Hall’s cheese and provides income, but serves as a resource to industry members like Jay Noble and a mentor to apprentices logging the required 240 hours with a certified cheesemaker to obtain a license.

Outside of the university, DATCP regulates the dairy industry, placing food safety and quality as its No. 1 goal. As a government agency, DATCP also tends to be a first point of contact for dairy industry members, and therefore its role includes connecting a cheesemaker or dairy crafter facing a challenge with the necessary resources to help resolve it. “If they need some great assistance for developing a new product, they should go to CDR—but they may not know that,” Norm Monsen notes.

Cheese manufacturers have the opportunity to meet with the regulators and food safety inspectors from DATCP—a chance to build relationships and ask questions before breaking ground on a facility, thus avoiding any unpleasant surprises at inspection time. It’s a state of affairs that Jeanne Carpenter, who used to work for DATCP, calls “a total 180 from 2003 or 2004, when I first started there.”

The Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC), too, connects resources and dairy crafters and provides business support, be it through business plans, sourcing or financial guidance. And the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) works the public relations angle, keeping Wisconsin cheese in the sights of magazines, chefs, home cooks and retailers.

WMMB played a key role in another early part of this initiative—the creation, in 1994, of the aforementioned Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, which is funded by dairy farmers represented through WMMB and administered by CDR. The program, comprised of a rigorous series of courses and a three-year apprenticeship, is open only to a cheesemaker who has amassed 10 years of licensed cheesemaking experience and five years making a particular type. The goal was to recognize and publicize—both in the industry and the marketplace—the state’s cheesemaking expertise.

By 2004, each of these entities—CDR, DATCP, DBIC and WMMB—had taken up its own tasks in growing and supporting the specialty cheese industry. They work together and with the industry, and that cooperative spirit either has filtered down or else reflected a unique characteristic the industry already had. For while Wisconsin dairy is justifiably known for its infrastructure, its other great strength is that cheesemakers—veterans and novices—work together and share ideas.

“Now, everyone talks,” says Mark Johnson, describing the cheesemaker culture. “The openness, the camaraderie is there. They are competitors, but I think they try to help each other out. Especially the smaller artisan cheesemakers are talking this way, but that camaraderie is all over Wisconsin.”

Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communication for WMMB, concurs. “I can’t think of one cheese that’s been created by only one person,” she says.

Certainly that’s true of juustoleipa. In the winter of 2001, Jim Path, then a researcher with CDR, was hunting down intriguing new specialty cheeses to share with the state’s small cheesemakers. But when he received a call from a county agent in Hurley urging him to travel to northern Wisconsin to taste “squeaky cheese,” Path was reluctant to go. “Squeaky” sounded like plain old cheese curds to him, plus, it was winter on the Upper Peninsula. So he put off his trip until summer.

Babcock’s master cheesemaker Gary Grossen testing pH levels in some Gouda.

But the cheese, which was being made in homes and farmstead kitchens and sold neighbor to neighbor, turned out to be a unique one. It was made without a starter culture, it softened with heat but did not melt, and it was baked and browned in an oven. More research revealed the Finnish name of juustoleipa. Path traveled to Finland and found that juusto was quite popular, eaten warm with coffee or cloudberry jam, and even boasting its own section in Finnish supermarkets. “It’s not the cheddar of Finland,” Path says, “but maybe the Monterey Jack or colby of Finland.”

The Finland visit demonstrated that a genuine market could exist for juusto—but that wasn’t the only reason the cheese had grabbed Path’s attention. Juusto was not only singular in appearance and flavor, it was nearly indestructible, impervious to extended refrigeration and even freezing. Best of all? For once, a small cheese manufacturer might find its size an asset. A small factory, Path points out, will have a small vat and can likely obtain one pizza oven and try out a little batch at lower risk. But for a big factory to economically make juustoleipa, the batches and the risk must be far larger, and the necessary new equipment is more like four or five ovens. Path assumed the larger manufacturers were likely to hold off until the market was proven, and in the meantime, he hoped, the little guy would wedge a foot firmly in the door.

But first, juusto required a few introductions. Path had tweaked his recipe and procedures to fit the industry and asked Babcock Hall Dairy Plant’s then-cheesemaker to try it out. He then brought the idea to Bass Lake Cheese’s Scott Erickson, who had also encountered juusto through the Master Cheesemaker program (he is certified in cheddar, colby, Monterey Jack, Muenster and chevre).

Erickson liked its versatility and felt juusto could cross over into the Hispanic market, so he and Path developed a technique at CDR that improved the shelf life and safety while retaining the traditional characteristics. Early on, Erickson estimates, sales might have averaged about 500 pounds per week; today, an average month’s output from March to September might be 1,000-1,500 pounds, while during juusto’s peak season around the holidays he might sell 2,500-3,500 pounds per month.

CDR also spotlighted juustoleipa in a 2002 fresh cheese seminar. Among the cheesemakers who took note was Steve Bahl, then-owner of Fennimore Cheese. Here juusto got a boost from that surprisingly cooperative spirit among the state’s specialty cheesemakers: Bahl asked Karl Geissbuhler at Brunkow Cheese if he’d be interested in partnering on juusto, with Brunkow making the cheese and Fennimore baking, packaging and marketing it. As the cheese built a following, Brunkow began to manufacture and sell juusto on its own. Bahl, who died in 2010, sold Fennimore to Carr Valley, where Sid Cook, master cheesemaker in cheddar, fontina and mixed milk cheese, kept the cheese in rotation, too.

Every juusto devotee agrees on the most effective form of marketing. The buttery, caramelizing fragrance of juusto being warmed on a griddle—at the farmers’ market, in the store, or at the trade show—seems to do the trick every time.

But each manufacturer has found a way to distinguish its offering, and has watched the numbers rise. Erickson stayed with traditional juustoleipa—very soft, sweet, high in lactose and very low in salt—and also offers ostbrod, a Swedish-style version made with goat’s milk. Grossen’s juusto is baked a deep, dark brown with only an occasional spot of ivory. Cook felt the Finnish name was a hindrance to sales, so he christened it “bread cheese,” trademarked the name, offered it in plain and garlic, and saw Carr Valley’s production rise from one vat of bread cheese every two or three months to two or three vats per week. And Brunkow’s Geissbuhler went with the hybrid name of “Brun-uusto,” added such flavorings as bacon, jalapeno and garlic, and has gone from 200- and 300-pound batches to 3,000-4,000 pounds per week.

Today, seven Wisconsin cheese companies sell juusto, and five of them produce it. This spring, the cheese reaches an important milestone: Erickson will be the first Wisconsin master cheesemaker to be certified in juustoleipa.

Juustoleipa may be a perfect example of CDR’s distribution of ideas, but the flow of information goes in both directions. “The ideas work both ways,” explains CDR’s John Jaeggi. “We either come up with ideas and push them out, or the idea is from the outside but they don’t know how to get it going.”

Stirring the curds at Brunkow: This steamy, swirling cheese bath is the most mesmerizing part of the process.

Jaeggi’s cheese industry and applications team works directly with the food industry in its many forms: established cheesemakers, restaurant chains, food service companies, culture manufacturers and others. They might tweak a recipe to meet a manufacturer’s goals for melt, or confront a blue cheese lacking sufficient blue-colored mold or blue flavor—precisely the type of endeavor in which access to the CALS staff of top food scientists proves invaluable.

CDR also lends support through product development, depending on how much a cheesemaker wants or needs. However romantic the life of a dairy artisan may sound, beneath the veneer is a demanding business. Scott Rankin, chair of the food science department, explains it thusly: “To go from dairy farming to dairy manufacturing is like going from driving a car to building a car. It is a very complex culture to navigate.”

For this reason, the would-be cheesemaker must commence less with a dream than with a business plan, and perhaps training from DBIC in obtaining financing, sourcing equipment or building a facility. And the future artisan has some education ahead of her. Courses include CDR’s core curriculum and its changing selection of short courses, such as cheese and dairy technology or Marianne Smukowski’s classes in food safety geared especially for farmsteads. In sensory courses, students can learn to evaluate good and bad cheeses firsthand, so that “when we say something has gone rancid, acid, buttery, they know what we’re talking about,” says Mark Johnson.

And when it comes to the nuts and bolts of product development and troubleshooting, three or four artisans each year might finally begin to work with Jaeggi’s cheese industry and applications program.

That process, which can take two or three years, begins with a sit-down at which artisan and CDR staff sample a cheese they hope to use as inspiration. Next, they set up a cheese trial, using specific milk if needed.

The researchers design four to 12 recipes, using different combinations of procedure and ripening. They make the cheeses, age them out, and finally gather to taste with the cheesemaker and narrow down the recipes that meet the cheesemaker’s intention. Then they repeat the manufacture again, at which point the cheesemaker decides if this is the cheese he wants to make and market. Many artisans then work with incubator plants, who make the new cheese during times of open production capacity.

Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist on Jaeggi’s team, sums it up: “What sets the CDR apart from any other group in the U.S. is this: we can essentially provide the whole technical package.” After Jaeggi’s group makes the cheese, after the sensory group evaluates it, and after the analytical group tests for information such as composition and microbiology, “We’ll go with the people to their plants, elbow to elbow, any time of the day or night, and make cheese with them side by side. That gives them a tremendous comfort level. Because you can talk about it, you can tell them till you’re blue in the face,” says Sommer, “but when you have to do it on your own, that first or second time, it’s like—” He mimics a terrified scream.

Wisconsin may be producing more than 600 kinds of cheese, but there’s room for plenty more, say those close to the field.

WMMB’s Heather Porter Engwall hopes for more raw milk cheeses that fit the state’s strict regulations but still rival their European counterparts. CDR also hopes for more funding for sheep’s and goat’s milk dairy; currently they are funded by a dairy check-off program that is overwhelmingly from cow’s milk. Another future trend, Carpenter and Sommer believe, is bloomy rind cheese. Wisconsin produces very few, the minimal presence of French immigrants showing in a correspondingly tiny number of traditional Bries and Camemberts.

That opportunity illustrates another issue for CDR. “You’ve got to have the curing room for that,” says Gary Grossen. “It’s like making blue. You have to be careful with blue mold- and smear-type cheeses.” A volatile bloomy rind mold could contaminate every other cheese in CDR’s small facility.

But if CDR’s fundraising efforts go as hoped, a facility expansion might help them serve the dairy industry in a number of new and expanded ways. The Babcock Hall facility is 60 years old, says Rankin; there are major infrastructure issues and the rooms are grossly undersized. Rankin has hopes for a new facility in the next three to five years. Without it, he says, “We can’t keep providing the scale, number and caliber of programs.” The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association recently announced a $500,000 gift toward that project.

For the dairy industry to remain healthy, growth in new and diverse directions is crucial, as is a balance of plants of all sizes. Smaller artisans pop up, closed factories return to life. As both grow into larger entities, the next wave of new ones must sprout. “Anything we can do to augment or help that in any way is a positive,” says Sommer.

Mark Johnson concurs: “We work with so many folks, and are so proud of them. I don’t know how much we’ve helped them, but we take pride in seeing Wisconsin cheesemakers stand out. And we know every one of them.”