Recent Fromagination Cheesemonger Vivien Rendleman – who asked a lot questions in the milking parlor  – wrote our fifth installment:

The last stop on our incredible tour organized by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board was Kellercrest Farm in Mt. Horeb. It seemed fitting to end our day with one of the many Wisconsin families responsible for producing the high-quality milk necessary for making the local cheeses we love. The farm, which has over 300 cows on about 400 acres, has been in the family since the 1960s. Today, brothers Tim and Mark Keller, alongside Tim’s wife Sandy, operate the farm that their parents began. Not only did we meet Tim, Mark, and Sandy Keller, but we also were able to meet Tim and Sandy’s children, who have shown the family’s Holsteins since they were children, as well as the family dogs.

This is all to say that Wisconsin has been able to maintain the efficiency of its milk industry – the Kellers have one of the highest producing herds in the state – while keeping much of production within family businesses. What this means for consumers is not only delicious milk to drink or eat as cheese, but also the comfort that their dairy farmers care about their cows, their farms, and their communities. The Kellers, for instance, have been very active in preventing soil erosion on their family farm. Although the dairy industry can often be maligned for causing soil degradation,  Mark and Tim Keller explained their efforts in a way that made a lot of sense. To them, their farm’s land was valuable both for its importance to both their family and their business. Maintaining this land – keeping it from eroding, for instance – is key to maintaining the Kellercrest Dairy operation.

Although we were sad the day was over, the Fromagination cheesemongers left the Kellers with a greater understanding of how the cheeses we carry get to our shop. Often, we behind the counter get a lot of the credit for getting delicious artisan products onto your cheese plates, but we would be unable to do that without the effort of local producers such as Andy Hatch, Tony Hook, and the Kellers.

Recent Fromagination Cheesemonger Vivien Rendleman – who helped sample lots of cheese at the Emmi Roth USA headquarters! – wrote our fourth installment:

In 2016, a Wisconsin cheese took home the title of Grand Champion in the World Championpionship Cheese Contest for the first time since 1988. This cheese was Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix, a creamy and nutty Alpine-style cheese that melts just as beautifully as it fits on a cheese plate. Our cheese mongers were able to visit Roth this May to see the dedication it takes to make a World Champion, as well as dozens of other quality cheeses.

The Roth Creamery is located in Monroe, where it opened as Roth Käse USA in 1991. Roth, which has Swiss origins dating back to Oswald Roth’s 1863 cheese company, still specializes in cheese made in the Alpine tradition – as its Grand Cru Surchoix demonstrates – though that is not to discount the innovation taking place in Monroe. Much of our time at Roth was spent tasting their cheeses, from GranQueso Original (which is great with honey, by the way!) to the raw-milk Buttermilk Blue. It quickly became apparent just how much thought Roth devotes to how its cheese taste. Our hosts not only focused on how the cheesemakers crafted the most delicious product possible, but were rife with suggestions about how to best pair their cheeses for the fullest tasting experience.

What was especially exciting during our visit to Roth was the news that the company is now producing a line of organic cheeses, including organic versions of their classic Havartis and Grand Cru original. What this meant for the cheesemakers, who still make each artisan cheese by hand, was greater diligence: the organic cheeses, made with locally-sourced milk, were made using equipment that had not yet touched the milk of other cheeses. After tasting Roth’s Organic Sharp Cheddar, our cheesemongers can guarantee the deliciousness of the final product, as well as the significance of such a well-known producer branching out into organic dairy.

Recent Fromagination Cheesemonger Vivien Rendleman – who took copious notes during our visits to producers – wrote our third installment:

Tony Hook has been involved in cheese making since 1970, when he began working for the Monroe Cheese Corporation in Barneveld, the town that now gives his tasty goat milk Blue cheese its name. We visited his own cheese making operation, Hook’s Cheese Company, in the picturesque Mineral Point this spring, which is one of the first facilities to popularize making Blue cheese in Wisconsin in 1997. Tony Hook and his wife Julie know more about the history of the cheese industry in the state than most people, having begun producing cheese before the recent boom of artisan dairy. In fact, the Hooks are responsible for many trends we take for granted now. For instance, in the 1990s, the pair decided to focus on aged cheddars at a time when consumers really could not find anything aged longer than five years. The time invested in aging Hook’s Cheddar has certainly paid off for Julie and Tony, as they produce some of the most popular varieties of aged Cheddars in the state – one batch as old as twenty years!

Today, Hook’s produces over fifty types of cheese, including the Colby that won the World Championship in 1982 (a cheese that Julie entered into the competition). Seven of these cheeses are Blues, produced in the same facility as the famous Hook’s Cheddars. Additionally, the Hooks no longer limit themselves to just cow milk, as they also produce cheeses with sheep milk and goat milk. To keep production running smoothly, the Hooks follow a tight cheese-making schedule, using cow milk on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, sheep milk on Tuesday, goat milk Monday morning, and mixed milk cheeses (which feature all three types of milk) on Tuesday and Wednesday. One of our recent favorites has been one of these mixed-milk cheeses: Hook’s Triple Play Extra Innings, made like an aged Cheddar with sheep, goat, and cow milk. We highly recommend adding this cheese to your aged Cheddar rotation, as well as trying the many other innovative, small-batch cheeses the Hooks are producing!

Recent Fromagination Cheesemonger Vivien Rendleman – pictured middle in the attached image – wrote our second installment:

As cheesemongers at Fromagination, we are often asked how we know so much about cheese. While a lot of our knowledge certainly has to do with our own individual passion and interest, we are also lucky to interact with many of our local producers one-on-one. Sometimes we hear directly from the producers when they come into the store for a Saturday cheese drop-off before the Dane County Farmers’ Market, but we also make visits to our producers ourselves. At the end of May, we learned about the efforts of our local partners to maintain Wisconsin’s reputation as America’s Dairyland.

The cows at Uplands Cheese Company were up bright and early when we visited. After coming back from one of the fields on Uplands 300-acre farm, the cows were receiving the first of two daily milkings. Over the course of a few days, that milk would be cultured, cooked, pressed into wheels, and salted, at which stage it would begin to resemble the cheese Uplands is famous for: Pleasant Ridge Reserve, named for the ridge on which the farm sits.

As cheesemaker Andy Hatch, who last year received Martha Stewart’s American Maker award, said, using this fresh, grass-fed milk is “like starting on third base.” Hatch is of the philosophy that great cheese starts with milk. Not only does Pleasant Ridge Reserve begin with grass-fed milk, but it also benefits from a rotational grazing technique that Hatch has borrowed from the Alpine tradition and championed in Wisconsin. The Uplands cows spend about twelve hours in a given field, of which the farm has twenty, before moving to a new one. What this means is that they are constantly eating new grass – and grass that has not suffered from over-feeding.

Hatch admits this is a luxurious approach to cheese-making, but it has certainly paid off. Pleasant Ridge Reserve, which can only be made between May and October due to its grass-fed milk, has won best in show at the American Cheese Society’s competition three times – more than any other cheese. This makes the approximately 100,000 pounds of Pleasant Ridge produced annually some of the most desirable cheese in the country – and the world. Uplands also produces the softer Rush Creek Reserve starting in late August, using hay-fed milk. Because Rush Creek Reserve is more labor-intensive than even Pleasant Ridge – being flipped 8 times every day for about sixty days – Uplands produces only about 15,000 pounds a year. If you stop into Fromagination during the holiday season, you will be lucky enough to try these two cheeses side-by-side and taste the thought and care that goes into great Wisconsin cheese.

Working as a Cheesemonger at Fromagination requires an interest in cheese, clearly.

Part of the customer education that Fromagination employees carry out in our downtown Madison shop is focused on connecting people to their food.  This means we need to know where the cheese comes from (and, before that, the milk), who makes it, and why and how it’s made.  Just as the Dane County Farmer’s Market – right outside our door on Saturday mornings! – helps to connect people to their food, our cheesemongers must also be able to tell customers the details about the cheeses and other items they see at Fromagination.

So…working at Fromagination also requires some active study of the rich Wisconsin cheese-making culture.  Hence, Fromagination tries to get employees out of Madison to visit the people who make the artisan cheeses that they sell daily.

In late May, seven Fromagination staffers went on a day-long tour, organized by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), to allow staff a chance to meet producers, taste cheese, see three different processes from beginning to end, and to see a dairy farm.  It was a quick trip, but rich with little moments of learning.

We saw a variety of equipment; demonstrations of sanitation, storage and packaging; varying attitudes about cheese types and pairings; and a lot of lovely terrain in southwestern Wisconsin.  We also met a group of people who are proud of their work, products and legacy – one that more and more people have become aware of as our local cheese culture grows (no pun intended).

Our itinerary included four stops:

  1. Uplands Cheese, outside of Dodgeville
  2. Hook’s Cheese, in Mineral Point
  3. Emmi Roth USA, in Monroe
  4. Kellercrest Dairy Farm, near Mount Horeb (seen in the image we’ve connected to this post)

In upcoming posts, we’ll tell you what we learned at those four stops.