Widmer’s Cheese: 100 Years of Continuity Still Tastes Good

This is a picture of Joey and Joe Widmer at the Widmer's Cheese factory in Theresa, Wisconsin.

The village of Theresa, Wisconsin (pop. 1200+), on the Rock River south of Fond du Lac, is home to a cheese factory run by one family for more than 100 years.

Formerly the Riverside Cheese Factory, the small-two story building decorated with the crests of Switzerland’s 20-plus cantons houses an operation that relies on traditional recipes and, in one case, antique equipment.

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars has been located in Theresa since 1922. On the walls in the office are life-size posters of its first two generations of cheesemakers. Joe Widmer, Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, and his son, Joey, are part of the third and fourth generations of the operation.

“We’re still using the bricks (that) my grampa used in 1922,” Widmer said. Those bricks are the same equipment that Widmer’s Cheese uses to make its Aged Brick cheese, one of the products that sets Widmer’s apart from other cheese producers around America’s Dairyland.

Brick cheese, a washed-rind cheese, was invented in 1877. German, Italian and French cheesemakers emigrated to the United States, and they went to Wisconsin, where the milk was, Widmer said.  His own ancestry is Swiss, hence the Alpine décor outside the factory’s shop doors.

The Widmers bought a cheese factory in Greenwood, Wisconsin in 1918, then moved to Theresa in 1922, and operated under the name Riverside Cheese Factory. Widmer’s staff of 23 employees celebrated its centennial last year.

Widmer’s Aged Brick is carried by specialty shops like Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Fromagination in Madison.  Fromagination staffers visited Widmer’s in Theresa in mid-March this year.

While Widmer’s makes several kinds of classic Wisconsin cheeses, including Cheddar and Colby – which  like brick, was also born in Wisconsin – the Brick cheese is probably more interesting to visitors.  Widmer prefers making Brick cheese, but it’s a more sensitive process.

On a tour of the factory, replete with hairnets and safety booties, Fromagination cheesemongers got to see those bricks that provide weight to press the Brick cheese into form. After that, nothing like the dry aging caves a Cheesehead might see for Gouda, Cheddar or alpine cheese, the rectangles of Brick cheese are put in a veritable steam room to age.

Aged Brick cheese is a “cousin” to Limburger, probably the most famous stinky cheese in the United States, which is made in smaller pieces at higher moisture, Widmer said.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe, Wisconsin, is the only other producer that makes aged Brick, Widmer said.  Chalet also makes the only Limburger cheese made in the United States.

He himself prefers stinky cheeses, and a good 10-year-old Cheddar.

“I’m a washed-rind guy,” Widmer said, later adding, “Natural cheese will mold because there’s no chemicals in it…just like a good bakery bread.”

On the other hand, Widmer’s also produces Colby, a “stirred curd” cheese, Widmer said. It’s a mild cheese meant to stay mild – one that Fromagination cheesemongers may offer to parents with children who don’t share the love for stinky cheeses.

A cheesemaker has to be licensed for 10 years in Wisconsin before earning a Master Cheesemaker designation. Joe Widmer became a Master Cheesemaker in the mid-1990s, in the second group that graduated in 1998.

Now he’s begun to pass the brick, so to speak, to his son, Joey, who’s been licensed to make cheese for only 7 years, and wants to become a Master Cheesemaker, too.

“Semi-retired,” says Joe Widmer, when asked about his status at the factory.  “It’s like, they only call you when they need you,” he said with a laugh. “Sometimes you gotta step back and let other people do what they want.”

Joey Widmer, Widmer’s vice president for operations, said that the company is still striving to innovate, despite its historic surroundings. Widmer’s has started working on a new cheese, a butterkase, which is a higher moisture, semi-soft cheese, cooked with hot water.

So how does a small, family-owned cheese company decide to float a new product?  Joey Widmer says it first has to look at any uniqueness the cheese may bring to the market.  Is there a scarcity of it?

“We have to like it,” he said, “and get opinions from family and friends”.

Anything they can do to diversify the Widmer’s product line can also make a new product attractive, Joey Widmer added. Next, they send samples to distributors, and may take a case of the new cheese to certain stores.

Widmer’s now sells cheese spreads, a product it collaborated on with Pine River Pre-Pack, and recently won recognition for its Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar cheese. It’s a “basic homestead Cheddar” with alpine-style cheese cultures added, according to Widmer. Its mild Brick cheese is used by Roundy’s Supermarkets in its “artisan mac ‘n cheese.”

Widmer’s also operates a retail store in the front of its factory open Monday to Friday, and customers can watch cheese being made there from 7 to 10:30 a.m. Recently, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, business was up and down, and the factory had lots of employees test positive and be out.

“It was real hard on us,” Widmer said. “We lost a lot of money.”

But Widmer’s online business went up during that time. It was like “a stuck-in-the-house sale,” he said.

Now Widmer’s is still shipping cheese to select markets and distributorships around the country. That includes places like southern California and Detroit.

“They only have three cheese shops in West Hollywood, so the movie stars are eating our cheese,” Joey Widmer said, with a laugh. He added that Dtown Pizzeria in Detroit uses Widmer’s mild Brick for its distinct Detroit-style pizzas. Not bad for a small outfit in rural Wisconsin.

What sets Widmer’s apart from other producers?  First, as evidenced by the images on the wall in their office, it’s a fourth generation family business, that makes its products by hand. And, Widmer’s sources its milk from only three suppliers within a 15-mile radius of its factory.

“Tell ‘em we’re really authentic and traditional,” Joe Widmer said.


by Kyle Richmond

Share this post