A Wisconsin Cheese Journey: Part 3

[This is the final post in a three-part series on the Cheesemonger Invitational winners’ trip to Wisconsin in October. You can read the first part here and the second part here.]

My third full day in Wisconsin started off by jolting me with the hard, cold reality that I had already acquired a lot of cheese and beer with which I would have to fly home. We were packing our bags and hopping on a bus to visit two creameries on the way to Milwaukee, so it was a test for the next day’s trip home.

I had taken every opportunity to purchase cheese, cured meats, and regional beers: at Roelli Cheese on our first day, and on the second day at Sassy Cow Creamery, the Fromagination cheese shop, and Underground Butcher. The final day of the Wisconsin cheese tour was just getting started—and my bags were about to get even heavier.

To recap, the second day of our trip had been a master course in dairy farming at different levels of scale, and in the various ways that dairy farmers create value-added products to help them use the inevitable gallons of fluid milk their animals produce. This followed the first day of our trip, which had hammered home the concepts of sustainable agriculture and the need for living wages for dairy farmers—that there should be an adjustment to our society’s understanding of how much food should actually cost, especially if we want it to be produced well.

On the third day of our trip, we visited our final creameries: Widmer’s Cheese Cellars and Clock Shadow Creamery.

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars

Leaving Madison as the sun rose over Lake Monona, we headed northeast for Theresa—which, we were told, was pronounced “Tuh-reh-suh” and never “Tur-ee-sa” unless we wanted to get a lecture from the locals.

We drove into the quaint community, watching as we went how high the levels were in the nearby waterways. There had been a recent deluge of rain, and the waters sat high above their banks, pooling into playgrounds and parks.

Rather than turning out of town and down some bucolic country road, our van turned deeper into a residential neighborhood. It stopped at a corner overlooking well-maintained homes and another park that had succumbed to the flooded river. Widmer’s Cheese Cellars was unassumingly located in the lower level of a large house in a regular old neighborhood.

Shields depicting the coats of arms of Swiss cantons hung from the eaves, and a sign proclaimed that we had indeed reached Widmer’s. A couple of folks brushed past us to walk into the shop, emerging a few minutes later with a bag that must have held a couple of blocks of cheese. 

Joe Widmer came out to meet us on the sidewalk. He wore the sanitary gown and beard net of a cheesemaker, and he held a pink brink. The bespectacled man immediately began regaling us with tales not only of how cheese is made, but also of his family’s long history of cheesemaking.

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is a fourth-generation family business that carries on in the same building Joe’s grandfather, a Swiss immigrant, bought in 1922.[1] It had been a cheese factory since at least 1898.

Grandpa Widmer immigrated to the US in 1905 and learned the cheese trade at several factories in Wisconsin. After marrying his girlfriend off of the boat at Ellis Island so that she could get a visa to enter the US, he worked in a few other factories outside of Theresa before deciding it was time to go out on his own and purchasing the house and connected 12,000-square-foot cheesemaking facility.

The upper floors of the creamery building are the family’s home. Joe said he and his father both grew up there, and that his own son lives there now.

“There has always been a Widmer living up there for as long as we’ve owned the building,” Joe said.

Joe, like his adult son, Joey, who is coming into his own as a cheesemaker, started out as a child working in the creamery when he was home from school. Joe remembers coming home one afternoon to see an inspector making his father and grandfather throw away the wooden boards on which they were aging their cheeses—amid one of the earlier skirmishes with FDA and USDA officials against the use of wooden boards in cheesemaking. Despite the small changes the creamery has taken to adapt to contemporary food safety regulations, Joe insists that they make cheeses the same way his grandfather did: “natural, traditional, with no junk in it.”

Walking through the door, the small cheese shop is directly to your right. You can look over a railing to a half-floor below, where cheesemakers stoop over vats, making Cheddar, Colby, and Brick cheeses. While we were there, Brick was in production. One vat of curds had been hooped into square molds and a pink brick was placed over each one, pressing out the excess whey.

Brick cheese had been invented very close to Theresa by another cheesemaker. As Joe explained, the cheese was designed for the many German immigrants living there who wanted a strong, washed-rind cheese to eat on rye bread with mustard and onions. The cheesemaker who developed the Wisconsin original made just that: a square, washed-rind cheese with a sticky, orange-pink rind that smells funky. You could say that it is similar to Limburger in many ways.

It is called “Brick” because of the bricks used to expel the whey, and not because the blocks of cheese resemble the pink bricks that help make them.

Joe said the creamery used to have shelves with regular customers’ names on them, and that they’d place a cheese there each week for that person to come pick it up. He said the Germans would take the Brick out and put it on the counter before they went to work each day, then come home later when it was at room temperature and eat it. He joked that if one of the sons of these immigrant families married a woman who wasn’t of German heritage, their first fight would always be over the cheese that she had thrown away because it smelled like it had gone bad.  

From the main room of the creamery, Joe took us into a side room with plastered white walls. Two tanks filled with a saltwater brine solution ran along the length of the room. Squares of Brick cheese covered with mounds of salt floated in one tank. This was the cheeses’ second destination after they are made, formed, and pressed. They are floated in brine, then moved into the next room, the aging cellar, where they are washed and flipped until they are ready to be wrapped in foil and paper or cryovac-sealed ahead of their shipment and sale. 

The foil-wrapped Brick cheese is the more authentic, stronger version, whereas the plastic-sealed Brick is a milder iteration popular among broader audiences. In either instance, Widmer’s is the last creamery making Brick cheese and keeping it alive.[2]

The Widmers began making Cheddar because, as Joe put it, “Cheddar was king.” Their cheddars come in block shapes, like the Brick cheese.

“We never wanted to do round,” Joe said with a shrug. “It distinguishes our cheese.”

They also make traditional Wisconsin Colby, which is very different from modern, mass-produced Colby. True Wisconsin Colby had a softer texture, milder flavor, and is less acidic than mild Cheddar cheese. It also had small holes in it as the result of a looser texture. Colby is a relative of Cheddar, but it is not made by Cheddaring; instead it is made through a process of rinsing and stirring the curds before pressing them together.[3]

Joe said greedy industrial cheesemakers started adding less water to their Colby curds, cutting corners because it took extra work to make the cheese properly. Eventually the legal definition of what Colby is was changed to that of a cheese that is much firmer and closer in resemblance to mild Cheddar.

“They took an American original and killed our own cheese,” Joe said.

Keeping American original cheeses alive and carrying on generations-old traditions are at the heart of what goes on at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. We noticed that the shipping boxes they use to mail out orders are each emblazoned with black-and-white family photos showing off that generations-old history of the company’s cheesemaking tradition as well as its nature as a family business.

Our hearts were warmed and our bags were filled with cheese as we left Widmer’s and Theresa, heading southeast to Milwaukee and the final destination in our cheese journey.

Clock Shadow Creamery

We entered Milwaukee, turning off the highway and down streets lined with what appeared to be old factories and industrial-looking buildings. In a neighborhood that appeared to have once been run-down, we found a sleek, modern building, four-stories high, that houses Clock Shadow Creamery.

Clock Shadow Creamery is the brain child of Bob Wills, a Wisconsin cheese legend. Bob is a former board member of the American Cheese Society, helped create the ACS’ Best Practices Guide for Cheesemakers, is a long-time cheesemaker himself, and has supported many local cheesemakers in getting started—both with advice and with the use of space and equipment at his original creamery in Plain, Wisconsin.

Bob telling cheese stories to our group on the roof deck.

Bob grew up in Milwaukee and missed the city while living a rural existence making cheese at Cedar Grove Cheese, one of the oldest creameries in the state. He and his wife decided it was time to found a creamery in the urban center to get back to the city, to get ideas from the people who consume their cheeses, and to revitalize a neighborhood. Also, Bob said, “because nobody else was doing it.”

So they studied the model of Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, which has a creamery in Seattle, Washington, and one in New York City. Beechers’ cheesemakers work behind viewing windows at creameries that are located in high-traffic areas, bringing the labor of cheesemaking into the plain view of the masses.

“We looked at Beecher’s and did the opposite,” Bob said. “We went somewhere that had zero foot traffic.”

Taking a risk by building a working creamery and cheese shop in the historic Walker’s Point neighborhood, which was not a destination at the time, Bob helped pave a path for other businesses. He said that while things were tough at first, slowly neighbors began renovating and moving into the other crumbling buildings that stood near the creamery. Bob says there are now three James Beard Award-winning restaurants within sight of the building’s roof deck, new businesses opening all the time, and communities being revitalized throughout the neighborhood.

Milwaukee skyline as seen from the building’s roof.

Beyond the restaurants and food businesses, the neighborhood is home to lots of Eastern European immigrants, as evidenced by the diverse array of church spires that can be seen from the roof deck above the creamery. There is also a large German population in the neighborhood, just as there was in Theresa.

The creamery takes requests from its neighbors. They make soft, fresh cheeses like Fromage Blanc and Mozzarella for the restaurants, and they have dabbled in other recipes requested, for example, by the nearby churches whose patrons needed Quark for traditional recipes for potlucks and celebrations. Clock Shadow Creamery makes Cheddar and Colby, and sells a variety of fresh cheese curds, plain or with flavorings like pizza seasoning, garlic and herb, scorpion pepper, and pesto. The shop also sells locally made and designed food items such as jams, pickles, kitchen wares, and confections.

On the day we visited, the cheesemakers were making Cheddar cheese curds. As we watched them through the viewing window in the conference room that tour groups file in and out of throughout the day, the cheesemakers manually pressed the curds through a large, scissor-like press, rather than by running them through an electric mill. Bob said the curds retain more moisture this way and have a better texture and squeak.

The creamery is an attraction for visitors, but so is the building itself. The building is green certified, with geothermal heating, elevators that generate electricity when they are used, and a rainwater recycling system.[4] It was built from 50-percent reused materials, and the builders used nearly everything from the site so that nothing was wasted and no energy had to be used to remove debris.[5] This can be seen in the bike racks and benches outside that are made from old bricks and rebar. 

The building’s roof deck is largely populated by a rain garden; Bob explained that the plants are put there by abuse survivors as part of a therapy program. There were people doing yoga on the roof while we were there, and a group of disabled adults was leaving an exercise class as we filed up the stairs. It appears that the building functions as a space for community building in many ways.

It was not a stretch for Bob to build a creamery in an eco-friendly building. His creamery at Cedar Grove has a Living Machine that turns water waste from the cheese plant into clean water through a tiered system of natural filtration. Plants help filter the water, and by the end of the process the tank can support fish and aquatic animals. Bob says they even grow tomatoes in the living machine in the winter. 

While the milk for the cheeses at Cedar Grove comes from nearby dairy farmers, it’s a little bit more complicated to get fresh milk for a creamery in urban Milwaukee. Bob said they get their milk from the closest local dairies, as well as from the county zoo.

This was something none of the cheesemongers in the room could wrap their heads around. “I’ve never seen cows at a zoo,” someone said.

“Well, this is Wisconsin,” Bob replied.

Apparently there are four types of cows living at the county zoo, and Bob said they are the best cared-for cows you will find anywhere. He said the somatic cell count[6] is 0.05 percent—which is extremely low.

All of the cheeses made at Clock Shadow Creamery are made with pasteurized cow’s milk. Bob did tell us that other cheesemakers in the region are beginning to make more raw-milk cheeses, as well as more cheeses with sheep’s milk and goat’s milk. He told us there was one guy a few years back who even was working to build a water buffalo dairy in the area.

Bob said he adored the water buffalo milk, and that he wishes someone else would try milking water buffalo again. When the buffalo were around, he said Cedar Grove made his favorite-ever cheese from a blend of cow’s and water buffalo milk.

Bob, who started out as a lawyer and got into cheese through his wife, who had grown up in a family of cheesemakers, remembers when there were 2,600 creameries in the state. At one point, the number dropped to 100 creameries. He said the industry had to revive itself, and that Uplands Cheese paved the way by making Pleasant Ridge Reserve—a cheese that would not have been possible without its provenance at Bob’s own creamery.

Hearing this was kind of a full-circle moment for us. After all, we started at Uplands Cheese and ended at Clock Shadow Creamery, listening to tales of cheesemaking lore from a man who had helped Uplands’ first cheesemaker, Mike Gingrich, get started by using Bob’s equipment and knowhow at Cedar Grove to learn how to make the cheese that would become America’s most awarded.[7]

The End of the Road

By the end of my time in Wisconsin, I had visited Uplands Cheese, Roelli Cheese Haus, Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese, Sassy Cow Creamery, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, and Clock Shadow Creamery. I had also met Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery and Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese. It was inspiring to meet so many cheesemakers, to see their creameries, their shops, and their cows. It was also a lot of fun eating so much cheese, drinking too much beer, and enjoying time with so many like-minded curd nerds.

(It is always a revitalizing experience to spend time in close quarters with a bunch of cheesemongers, especially when they come from all over the place. As the saying goes, cheese people are the best people.)

I had a few take-aways from my Wisconsin cheese tour, and not just the cheese and beer weighing down my suitcases.

  • For one, Madison is super cute, and so are all of the little towns in the surrounding environs. I’m not sure anymore what I had thought Wisconsin ought to look like, but it beat all of my expectations for curb appeal.
  • You can find a cheese board and fried cheese curds on any restaurant menu in Wisconsin.
  • A Wisconsin Old Fashioned is very different from an Old Fashioned made anywhere else; the drink is made with Sprite and brandy in the dairy state.
  • Cheesemakers, regardless of where they live, generally care about sustainability. They are working on various projects that focus on the health of the environment, the care of their animals, and the quality of life for their employees and their neighbors.
  • There are a broad range of cheesemakers in Wisconsin making far more than just Cheddar and cheese curds. All of them are proud of their cheeses, of the camaraderie they have through sharing with one another equipment and facilities, shipping containers, and cheesemaking knowledge, of the state’s master cheesemaker program, and of the traditions of cheesemaking they are all keeping alive.
  • Ninety percent of the milk produced in Wisconsin is made into cheese, with 90 percent of that cheese sold outside the state. Far too many dairy farmers have closed their doors in the past few years, but most of the creameries have managed to stay open.  
  • Finally, I learned that the goal of Wisconsin Cheese, the organization that sponsored our trip, is to use its members’ money to lift all sails, providing marketing for the state’s cow’s milk creameries, which in turn helps to keep the remaining dairy farmers in business.

Wisconsin, with all of its cheese, its friendly folk, and its adorable towns and cities, is a pretty neat place. Perhaps you should consider visiting it, too.

The cheese board I made my family from all of the cheeses and meats I brought home. We also sampled the beers on the side.

[1] “Widmer’s Cheese Cellars Legacy.” Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, 2019, widmerscheese.com/widmers-legacy/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<https://www.widmerscheese.com/widmers-legacy/.>>

[2]“The Story of Wisconsin Brick Cheese.” Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, 2019, widmerscheese.com/the-story-of-wisconsin-brick-cheese/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<https://www.widmerscheese.com/the-story-of-wisconsin-brick-cheese/.>>

[3] Carpenter, Jeanne. “The Colby Conundrum.” Cheese Underground, 20 Jan. 2010. cheeseunderground.com/2010/01/20/the-colby-conundrum/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<https://cheeseunderground.com/2010/01/20/the-colby-conundrum/.>>

[4] Etter, Nicole Sweeney. “Bob Wills MS’81, PhD’83, JD’91: Urban Cheesemaker.” On Wisconsin, Winter 2012, onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/bob-wills-ms81-phd83-jd91-urban-cheesemaker/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<https://onwisconsin.uwalumni.com/recognition/bob-wills-ms81-phd83-jd91-urban-cheesemaker/.>>.

[5] “Our Story.” Clock Shadow Creamery, 2012. clockshadowcreamery.com/index.php/our-story/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<http://www.clockshadowcreamery.com/index.php/our-story/.>>

[6] A somatic cell count is an indicator of the quality of milk by way of animal health. The higher the somatic cell count, the greater the likelihood that pathogens might be able to survive in the milk. A high somatic cell count may also lead to a lower yield in cheesemaking. (Kindstedt, Paul. “The Pasteurization Dilemma.” American Farmstead Cheese. [Chelsea Green: White River Junction, VT, 2005]. 177.)

[7] “Around the Cheese Board with Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese.” Wisconsin Cheese Talk, 24 Feb. 2011. wisconsincheesetalk.com/2011/02/24/around-the-cheese-board-with-bob-wills-of-cedar-grove-cheese/. Accessed 1 Dec. 2019. <<https://www.wisconsincheesetalk.com/2011/02/24/around-the-cheese-board-with-bob-wills-of-cedar-grove-cheese/.>>

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