The Power of Pizza

The pie’s ever-growing popularity has made mozzarella the big cheese in Wisconsin. CALS researchers are helping state cheesemakers feed and grow that demand by developing new varieties for specialized and international markets.

The busloads of schoolkids who visit Jauquet Dairy each year have lots to talk about when they get home—from the really cute newborn calves to the really big cows and the really cool machines that milk them.

Dave Jauquet gets a kick out of all that, but he wants them to remember something else as well: The link between his farm and what they eat. And he has a good way of getting that across.

“I tell them that the milk from these cows ends up on pizza. I like to tell them that because they can connect it all the way from standing here, seeing a lot of cows eating food, to something they actually have for supper,” Jauquet says. “Because pretty much every kid eats pizza.”

And so do their parents, friends and neighbors. In the myriad menu items that make up American cuisine, pizza is as close as you get to a universal food. Ninety-seven percent of U.S. consumers had some at least once last year, and 41 percent of us eat it once a week.

That matters in a very big way to people like Jauquet and his partners—his wife Stacy and brother Jeff. Virtually every pound of milk produced on their Kewaunee County farm is made into six-pound loaves of mozzarella and sleek “salamis” of provolone. Like the people who buy that cheese—mostly independent Italian eateries—the Jauquets, their dozen employees and 600-plus Holsteins are in the pizza business.

That’s the case for somewhere around a quarter of Wisconsin’s 1.25 million dairy cows—the working girls in an industry that generates 150,000 jobs, half of the state’s farm revenue and $26.5 billion in economic activity. At least 85 percent of the state’s milk goes into cheese, a third of which is mozzarella, the vast majority of which ends up on pizza.

“As pizza goes, so goes the dairy industry,” says John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Forty years ago, cheddar was the state’s big cheese. Mozzarella was a specialty cheese, made by firms that specialized in Italian varieties sold primarily to Italian American customers. Since 1970, Wisconsin’s mozzarella production has increased tenfold—it surpassed cheddar in 2000. So has U.S. per capita consumption. “That’s all pizza,” Umhoefer says.

In a nation with 70,000 pizzerias and pizzas sold in every bowling alley and convenience store, it’s hard to imagine a time when pizza wasn’t part of the broad cultural landscape. But it wasn’t until after World War II that pizza went mainstream. Cultural historians attribute the shift to American G.I.s who acquired a taste for it while serving in Italy. It also meshed with trends of the time: Informal dining, ethnic foods, eating by the TV, and lots of cars to facilitate takeout, delivery and road food.

If you want to get a feel for how pizza transformed Wisconsin’s cheese business, a good person to talk to is Roger Krohn, master cheesemaker at the Agropur facility in Luxemburg. Krohn is in charge of turning milk from Jauquet Dairy and 150 other area farms into pizza cheese. His family began making cheese at this site in 1892, and when they sold the business 108 years later, Roger Krohn stayed on to oversee cheese production. It was in his DNA. He grew up next door to the cheese plant and began making cheese there at age 14.

For the first 68 years, like most Wisconsin cheese firms, the Krohns made cheddar. In 1960, that changed. “I think my dad was looking to branch out into something a little less competitive—a new niche market,” Krohn says. “An Italian gentleman encouraged him to get into mozzarella, because he foresaw the pizza industry really taking off.”

It was a leap of faith—“Pizza was not a real big deal in 1960, at least not in the Midwest,” Krohn says—but a smart one. The mozzarella making began modestly—two guys kneading and stretching the curd by hand—but never stopped expanding. By next year, when a major expansion is done, the plant will be using 2.4 million pounds of milk from 28,000 cows to produce about a quarter of a million pounds of pizza cheese—every day.

As pizza picked up, more Wisconsin cheddar plants followed suit, says Dean Sommer of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), a CALS-based dairy foods research and education program.

“They read the tea leaves,” says Sommer, who in 1986 took a job at Alto Dairy (now Saputo foods) in Waupun—then the nation’s largest cheese plant—to help the firm expand into mozzarella. “Consumption of pizza was on a double-digit increase every year, and the margins of making mozzarella were higher than for cheddar cheese. They could see that with the growth of pizza and the growth of mozzarella, and the profitability, this was a better place to be.”