A Wisconsin Cheese Journey: Part 2

[This is a continuation of a three-part series on the Cheesemonger Invitational Winners’ trip to Wisconsin in October. You can read the first part here.]

After two nights in Madison, I found myself charmed by Wisconsin. The landscape was not as boring as I imagined it would be, the people were friendlier and more open than I was told Midwesterners were, and the weather was holding strong and mild while other parts of middle America were beginning to experience snow and freezing temperatures.

My second full day in Wisconsin saw two quite different enterprises, both in comparison to one another and to the creameries we visited on the first day.

In case you haven’t read my last post, or to jog your memory if you had, on the first day of the trip we visited Uplands Cheese and Roelli Cheese, a farmstead creamery and a small, family creamery located near one another in the Driftless region of Wisconsin. Uplands’ focus is on sustainable dairy farming and making seasonal, traditional, raw-milk cheeses. Roelli’s focus is both on continuing a tradition of making award-winning cheeses and on ensuring the dairy farmer is paid a living wage to sustainably produce high quality milk without cutting corners.

On our second day in Wisconsin, we visited Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese and Sassy Cow Creamery.

Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese

An autumn morning view from the cheese factory at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese.

Located amid rolling, green hills and vast vistas of morning fog in Waterloo, Wisconsin, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese is on a totally different level than Uplands or Roelli. A farmstead creamery, Crave Brothers houses just shy of 1,500 cows—1,100 of whom are being milked at any given time, year-round.[1] This is a massive difference from Uplands, which milks over 1,000 fewer cows on a seasonal basis.

The cows at Crave Brothers are Holsteins, a breed best known for prolific milk production. According to George Crave, who manages the business with his brothers and their large, extended family, the cows are separated into different barns depending on their specific needs: babies, teenagers, those who are pregnant, those who have just given birth, those who are fancy show cows, etc. They eat a fermented feed (silage) made of corn, hay, and soybeans that is nutritionally designed to support the needs of the cows in each individual barn.

George had us smell some of the feed that was sitting in a wheelbarrow, waiting to be spread out for the cows to dine on. It did smell fermented, almost pickled, and herbaceous. Smelling it made me wonder about the flavor of the fluid milk before it is cultured and turned into cheese.

As we toured the expanse of the farm and its barns in our commuter van, George explained to us that the farm buys sexed semen to impregnate the cows. This means that they are selectively breeding to ensure that female cows will be born on the property to continue milk production. George said they only keep enough cows each year to replace the number going out of rotation. Like Uplands and the dairy that produces milk for Roelli, Crave Brothers has a closed herd system; the only cows they milk are cows who have been born on the farm.

Young cows chilling at Crave Brothers in the calf barn.

One of the most striking elements of the dairy farm at Crave Brothers is not the selective genetics of their cow breeding (which is fascinating in and of itself), but rather the system that begins in the cow barns and ends with a negative carbon footprint.

Beneath the bedding that the cows lounge on in their barns is a series of floor grates. The cows’ manure and urine goes through the grates and funnels into a methane digester. It is a huge machine that looks like a couple of silos. Large murals on the side of it show diagrams of what is going on inside. (George said they have visitors from all over the world who come to see the methane digester, and that they just had several large tour groups come through during the World Dairy Expo the week prior.)

Basically, animal waste flows into the digester through gravity; once inside, it is fermented by anaerobic bacteria that produce both methane and carbon dioxide gasses.[2]

Crave Brothers’ methane digester.

The gasses are burned inside the harvester, producing enough energy to fuel the entire farm, creamery, family property, and an additional 300 homes. That energy is fed into the power grid, and then they buy back the electricity they need to run their operation.

The only other byproducts of the methane digester are steam condensation, which can be seen flowing from the top of the machine, and fertilizer, which is laid down in the fields that the farm uses to grow feed and bedding for the cows. As George puts it, this is a closed-loop system that creates a negative carbon footprint and gives back to the surrounding community.

Probably my favorite thing that George said to us was that, “Farmers are the original recyclers.”  That’s definitely a different perspective on what goes on in farming that many folks at the end-side of the supply chain don’t think about or even know to consider.

The farm has about 45 employees who care for the cows, make and process their feed, and keep things running. During the time we were there, workers fed the cows and mucked the barns, did sonograms of cows to see if they were pregnant, and stockpiled feed to get ready for the long winter ahead. We watched as bulldozers moved grain into big piles that would be covered with tarps to begin the fermentation process. The amount of feed necessary to keep 1,500 cows alive and healthy was mountainous—as in multiple huge hills of feed taller than one-story houses.

All of this labor serves the creamery, which employs another 45 employees who turn the cows’ milk into cheese.

Milk is pumped by pipeline from the milking parlor to the cheese factory, which is across the street from the farm. They had to dig down below the frost line to install the pipeline so that they could continue to milk and make cheese throughout the cold, snowy Wisconsin winters.

The dairy-farm side of the road at Crave Brothers. The milk pipelines run beneath the ground from here to the cheese factory.

The cheesemakers produce a number of soft, fresh cheeses, including a variety of Mozzarellas, Mascarpone, something called Farmer’s Rope, which is similar to string cheese, and Cheddar cheese curds. The cheesemakers work with massive machines that were purchased in Italy, making cheeses that are sold under the Crave Brothers label as well as private label cheeses for companies like Whole Foods.

Mozzarella making machinery at Crave Brothers popping out perfectly formed Bocconcini-sized Mozzarella balls.

Crave Brothers has won numerous awards for all of their cheeses. While we were visiting, we tasted the Mascarpone, Farmer’s Rope, plain and flavored cheese curds, several varieties of Mozzarella, and marinated Mozzarella.

Crave family members presenting us with a selection of cheeses (including pumpkin rolls made with their Mascarpone!) and a display of awards the creamery has won.

Because of the size and scale of their business, George said the emphasis of their cheesemaking is on consistency. They want to make sure that their Mozzarella is the same in May as it is in November. They accomplish this through staggered breeding and year-round milk production, as well as by standardizing their milk to erase seasonal variations. This was in stark contrast to Uplands, which focuses on expressing the flavor and texture of the milk in order to highlight that seasonal variation.

It was interesting to see these two types of creameries nearly side-by-side. Large-scale agriculture tends to stand vilified in much of artisan food production, so it was especially enlightening to see the emphasis on sustainability at Crave Brothers as much as the massive size of their entire operation (which is still quite small compared to many mainstream cheese and dairy producers, by the way).

One of the cheese vats at Crave Brothers filled with milk that is about to become Mozzarella.

It was clear at Crave Brothers that every detail has been considered and taken into account, and that there is a scientific rationale for each decision the business makes, from the farm to the cheese factory. It was also apparent that a larger creamery like Crave Brothers has a direct affect on the local economy in terms of jobs and economic prosperity.

George told us early in our tour that he and his brothers grew up on a different dairy farm, which the family had been forced to sell several decades ago when the situation among Wisconsin dairy farms was even more dire than it is today. He and his brothers started Crave Brothers themselves in an effort to carry on a generations-old tradition of dairy farming.

After giving us our tour, George and his brothers were meeting with lawyers to work on the business’s succession plan—a means for keeping the business going as the original owners grow older and reach retirement age. He didn’t say for sure, but George made it sound like some of their children were interested in taking over the reins of the farm and creamery.

The Mascarpone filling and sealing line at Crave Brothers.

As for us wandering cheesemongers, we ogled the Mascarpone-making machinery one last time, huddled around outside to pet the very friendly old farm dog, and then loaded back into our van to drive from Waterloo to Columbus for a different type of creamery yet.

Sassy Cow Creamery

Just a bunch of award-winning cheesemongers on tour.

The journey to Sassy Cow Creamery took us through broad swaths of green fields, a few more rolling hills, and plenty of cute little Wisconsin communities that tempt you with their serenity and the probability that their cost of living is going to be a quarter of what it is on the coasts.

Sassy Cow Creamery only recently began making cheese. Previously, they were known for their bottled milk, chocolate milk, and ice cream, as well as for butter and heavy cream.[3] The legendary quality of their ice cream is why our tour leaders at Wisconsin Cheese really wanted to bring us there, even though it was a cheese trip.

The upper walls inside the Sassy Cow Creamery farm store are lined with old milk bottles.

When we visited, Sassy Cow Creamery was in the process of expanding their farm store. Amid the construction debris, there was a small farm shop with lots of local Wisconsin cheeses and a large ice cream counter. Two viewing windows allowed us to look in on the milk bottling machinery and on the ice cream making room.

Unfortunately no milk was being bottled and no ice cream was being made, but we did get to sample some of the ice cream while we were there. I, of course, had a cup of the cow tracks: chocolate ice cream with peanut butter cups. There were plenty of other flavors, including sea salt caramel, white chocolate raspberry, and the ubiquitous pumpkin spice.

The milk bottling line at Sassy Cow Creamery.

While we ordered and slurped up our ice cream, Sassy Cow co-owner Robert Baerwolf talked to us briefly about his family’s business.

Robert and his brother, James, are third-generation dairy farmers. They own two dairy farms totalling 1,700 acres of farmland, and the creamery is located between the two farms. One farm is home to a 600-cow conventional dairy herd, while the other farm houses a 250-cow organic dairy herd.[4]

The decision to try their hands at organic dairying (as opposed to conventional, which they refer to as “traditional”[5]) came amid growing consumer interest in organically produced foods. The new organic herd is smaller, but stands to grow. The family has been growing the conventional herd since the 1950s.

Robert explained that they used to pool their milk with other dairies before they created the creamery, but that they are now able to control the milk’s fate every step of the way to the consumer—from growing most of their feed on up to transporting and processing their own milk and dairy products.  

Because they wanted to make and sell grilled cheese sandwiches in the new farm store, they began making cheese. In the store they were selling blocks of Sassy Cow Havarti, Pepperjack, and other Cheddar-style cheeses alongside blocks and wedges from Roelli Cheese, Saxon Creamery, Uplands Cheese, and more. While they could easily have used those other cheeses to make sandwiches, it makes sense that a dairy farm would want to highlight its own products in its farm store as much as possible.

This year Sassy Cow won third place in the 2% fluid milk competition at the Wisconsin State Fair & Butter Contest.[6] While we didn’t get to taste the fluid milk, we saw how excited the folks from Wisconsin Cheese were as they talked about it—especially the chocolate milk—and about Sassy Cow’s ice cream.

As a cheese person who appreciates all types of dairy products, it was enlightening to see a different type of dairy that is just starting to dip its toes into the cheese side of things.

By the end of our second day in Wisconsin, we had gotten to witness a variety of sizes of dairy farms and creameries, hear the different goals and processes the owners had for their businesses, and see various efforts toward sustainability not just in cheesemaking, but especially in dairy farming and in milk production.

There were also a couple of very pretty goats hanging out outside of the Sassy Cow Creamery farm store, just waiting to be petted and fed.

Coming out of this, we had one day left in Wisconsin to experience two more creameries. While I won’t give away too much, I will say that we were done visiting dairy farms and were about to get much more residential and urban in our cheese adventures. Check out the next—and final—post in this series to find out how!

[1] “Farm Overview.” Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, 2019, cravecheese.com/dairy-farm/farm-overview/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019. <<https://cravecheese.com/dairy-farm/farm-overview/.>>

[2] “Sustainable Story.” Crave Brothers Farmestead Cheese, 2019, cravecheese.com/dairy-farm/sustainable-story/. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019. <<https://cravecheese.com/dairy-farm/sustainable-story/.>>

[3] See, for example: https://sassycowcreamery.com/our-products.html

[4] “Our Farms.” Sassy Cow Creamery, 2019, sassycowcreamery.com/our-farms.html. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019. << https://sassycowcreamery.com/our-farms.html.>>

[5] See https://sassycowcreamery.com/organic-vs-traditional.html.

[6] Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. “Awards for Sassy Cow Creamery.” Wisconsin Dairy Council, 2019, wisconsindairycouncil.com/allaboutcheese/cheesemaking/awardpopup?CompanyID=417. Accessed 16 Nov. 2019. <<http://www.wisconsindairycouncil.com/allaboutcheese/cheesemaking/awardpopup?CompanyID=417.>>

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