Willi Lehner is a semi-legend in the constellation of Wisconsin cheesemakers – a guy who innovates and takes chances to see what he can create. His operation near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, is well-known for a particular cheese that has grabbed national attention, Bleu Mont Dairy’s Bandaged Cheddar.
He is also easily recognized at the large Dane County Farmers Market in Madison, where he sells his wares in person, along with several other cheesemakers among the produce vendors, bakers and others.
The Bandaged Cheddar creates considerably more wholesale business for Bleu Mont. Therefore, Lehner said, it requires a very high level of consistency for that market.
Recently, Lehner put out a call for assistance with a “larding party” for those who wanted to help create the Bandaged Cheddar that Bleu Mont Dairy is most famous for. It’s a messy process that produces some highly regarded cheese. Some 600 wheels of that cheddar are wrapped in cloth soaked in hot lard, in order to protect the cheese as it ages.
In four to six months the lard is gone, eaten by the molds that carry out the aging process for the cheese. Without the lard, the cheese mites that arrive and begin to attack and eat the molds would instead turn the cheeses to dust, Lehner said. During a tour of his aging cave, he introduced an employee whose job that day was to vacuum up cheese mites from the racks of cheese…a long, painstaking assignment.
Another Bleu Mont Dairy creation, Grana, is a parmesan-style hard cheese that is made in small batches and, consequently, hard to get. The word “grana” referred to a class of hard, aged Italian grating cheeses, and it taken from its granular texture – “grana” means grain in Italian.
Lehner says his Grana must be aged in a warmer, drier environment than his Bandaged Cheddar. “We have so many people that want it,” Lehner said, adding that Bleu Mont made 35 wheels of Grana in June. Fromagination’s inventory manager, Jeff, is one of those people.
“Willi is truly a trailblazer in Wisconsin. He breaks conventional wisdom and charts his own destiny. He has been described as a mad scientist of Wisconsin, or ‘mad scientist of cheese’ because of his love of experimentation. His bandaged cheddar is world-class and due to the aging process and his passion, his bandaged cheddar in in a class on it’s own. Once a customer tastes that cheddar, the cheese sells itself. When the history books are written, I am sure they will include Willi as a Wisconsin rock star of cheesemaking,” said Ken Monteleone, owner of Fromagination.
A 2008 article in Madison’s Isthmus weekly called Lehner a “cave man,” not for his hair but for the project he took on one year before.
An Aging Cave for Bleu Mont
In 2007, Lehner embarked on construction of the aging cave on his property that yields such great cheese these days. A “huge endeavor,” Lehner says that was expensive and time-consuming but “from a business perspective, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
It required 110 yards of concrete, excavation of a hillside and a lot of money. But today, Lehner says he has virtually no energy costs from the cave because it is a “super-insulated” building. With solar panels on his property and another building with a “green roof,” Lehner’s interest in an environmentally friendly business approach is well-demonstrated at his facility.
When the cave was inaugurated 12 years ago, Lehner put mold spores in a blender, mixed them up, and spritzed the cave with that mixture. The cave has now taken on its own “terroir,” providing a mix of molds that gives Bleu Mont’s cheeses a specific aroma and taste. He wants to maintain that.
“There is a succession of molds that happen,” Lehner said. “It’s like every six weeks there’s a new batch of molds.”
Asked if Bleu Mont ever tries to clear the cave of mold spores, Lehner shakes his head.
” I don’t want to try to influence the microflora in there. It’s pretty good. I don’t want to change what’s working.”
Finally, he mentions a very important element that many people may ignore when thinking about how great cheese is created: time.
“It’s patience,” says Lehner when asked how to get to great cheese. “Okay, we’re just going to wait. Usually…the hard cheddars, I don’t even take a core sample until they’re ten months old.”
He does pay attention to other issues, however, asking any visitors to remove their shoes and wear rubber sandals that are later cleaned, and erradicating condensation, which can lead to water-borne lysteria infection in some cheese facilities.
“I try to keep my space really, really clean and organized,” Lehner said.
Cheesemaking has changed in his time in the industry, Lehner said, due to higher general safety standards and more and more testing for antibiotics in milk.
Lehner has also mentored other budding cheesemakers, and allow them to use his cave.
The Cheesemaker’s Preferences
When asked what cheese-related foods excite him, Lehner eschews mixing cheese with other things.
“I eat cheese with wine and beer,” he said. He prefers a double IPA with his Bandaged Cheddar, and a Petit Sirah with others.
Lehner’s favorite cheeses are L’Etivaz, a raw cow milk Swiss cheese, and Piave, an Italian hard cheese. He also hails his neighbor cheesemaker’s creation, Rush Creek Reserve, from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
Part of his praise for Uplands comes from its practices that have led to creation of a cheese terroir that few cheesemakers can match.
“They’re taking it to a whole ‘nother level,” he said of Uplands’ rotational grazing of dairy cattle on pasture forage specifically planted to affect the flavors in the raw milk they produce.
So what truly excites Lehner now when it comes to making cheese is a particular source of all great cheese – milk – particularly raw cow milk from cows feeding on clean pasture grasses.
“When I can get really exceptional milk…I drop everything,” Lehner said. “That inspires me.”
The key is to get grass-fed cow milk, but there is less and less of that available, he said.
“If that milk is raw, those enzymes stay intact,” Lehner said, and they make flavors in the cheese that pasteurized milk just cannot match.
Digging Into Cheese Creation
One of Bleu Mont’s cheeses that was born of a “great milk” moment was Alpine Renegade, a hard Alpine-style cheese that he made at Cedar Grove Cheese (Plain, Wisconsin) in 2000, and also sold at the Dane County Farmers Market.
Bleu Mont makes cheese twice a year, in May-June and again in September-October, due to milk supplies.
According to Lehner, cheesemaking is “a profession” in Switzerland, one that requires a three-year apprenticeship. He speaks with authority, due to his first-generation immigrant status.
“Mom and dad emigrated here back in the early 1950s. Dad ran a cheese factory in Barneveld,” Lehner said. Lehner got his start in cheesemaking with his father later in Mount Horeb, in a building that is now the Grumpy Troll bar and restaurant. The photos of his father making cheese are still on the wall there.
His daughter lives in Switzerland, where both she and her father hold citizenship, due to their ancestry. Soon his daughter will come to Wisconsin for a visit and work as an apprentice at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville to see if she likes the cheesemaking business.
In addition to cheesemaking, there’s another aspect of Lehner’s life that might indicate an interest in Swiss culture. He is an avid skier who goes to Jackson Hole, Wyoming annually to pursue that passion. He smiled and mentioned that he has a season pass for the upcoming ski season there.