Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Uplands Cheese Named Amercan Artisan of 2016

The accolades for Wisconsin artisan cheeses just keep rolling in this year. First, Roth's Grand Cru Surchoix from Monroe won the World Championship Cheese Contest in March. Then Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg won the American Cheese Society's Best in Show in July with Little Mountain. And this week, Martha Stewart named Uplands Cheese one of her 10 American Makers of 2016. Talk about the magical trifecta of cheesy goodness.

The cheesemaking crew at Uplands Cheese with Pleasant Ridge Reserve.

Uplands cheesemaker Andy Hatch picked up the award last week in New York, shaking hands and talking shop with movers and shakers from around the world. Each year for the past five years, Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living magazine have selected 10 artisans for their entrepreneurial passion and contributions to their communities in the fields of food, style, design, and technology.

“I’d like to thank Martha Stewart and the editors of Martha Stewart Living for not only valuing the quality of our cheese, but also for recognizing that our success can serve as an example to other family farms looking to add value to their milk. I spent years as a cheesemaking apprentice in Europe, and there's nowhere I'd rather make cheese than in southern Wisconsin. We have everything we need right here to make world-class cheese," Andy said.

As you all know, Uplands is best-known for Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an alpine-style cheese made in the spring, summer and fall months when cows are out on fresh pasture. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is the most-awarded cheese in American history and the only cheese to have won both the American Cheese Society’s and U.S. Cheese Championship’s Best of Show.

Cheesemaker Andy Hatch
Of course, this time of year, Hatch and the rock star cheesemaking team are finishing up making Rush Creek Reserve, a soft-ripened cheese wrapped in spruce bark that has developed a cult following since its 2010 debut. The cheese, only available mid-November through January, sells out almost immediately after its release. Beginning November 14, Rush Creek Reserve will be available online direct from Uplands Cheese or at specialty cheese retailers nationwide.

Side note: I'm driving to Uplands on Nov. 14 and picking up the first 30 cases we'll be selling at Metcalfe's Markets in Madison and Milwaukee. I feel like it's the perfect way to break in my new car, because really, which is better, a new car scent, or the aroma of washed rind cheese?

Congratulations to the full list of 2016 Martha Stewart American Made Honorees:


•    21c Museum Hotels – Louisville, KY
•    Eagle Street Rooftop Farm – Brooklyn, NY
•    Girls Who Code – New York City
•    Harry’s Berries – Oxnard, CA
•    Loki Fish Company – Seattle, WA
•    M&S Schmalberg – New York City
•    NYCitySlab – Yonkers, New York
•    Stony Creek Colors – Nashville, TN
•    Sweetgreen – Washington, DC
•    Uplands Cheese – Dodgeville, WI

And special congrats to Andy and his team at Uplands Cheese. Thank you for making exceptional cheese, and more importantly, thank you for being good people. Wisconsin adores you.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Studying a Wisconsin Icon: the Cheese Curd

There are few things that define Wisconsin better than fresh, squeaky cheese curds. And while I'm a firm believer that everyone should just visit or move to Wisconsin to enjoy curds while they're fresh, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison knows that's not possible. That's why CDR staff are studying cheese curds in order to find a way to extend the squeak.

In a paper published today, authors Dr. Mark Johnson and Pat Polowsky explain why fresh curds squeak: when eating a fresh curd, our teeth compress the curd's protein network, making it resist and then rebound as our teeth pass through it. The rebound is what generates vibrations and causes the squeak.

Alas, fresh curds only squeak a day or two, as time breaks down the cheese's calcium phosphate, and curds lose their ability to resist and rebound. But that's where Mark and Pat come in: through trial and error, they've discovered new ways to prolong the squeak of fresh curd (hint: it involves your freezer). To read the results of their study, visit the Dairy Pipeline, pages 4-5. Then try and replicate at home - warning - this may require the consumption of a large amount of cheese curds. Darn.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Willow Creek Creamery Debuts Red Willow

Red Willow cheese by
Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig
Growing up over Union Star cheese factory near Fremont, Wisconsin, Jon Metzig started helping out in the family cheese plant at seven years old. During his senior year of high school, he missed a week of classes to take a cheese making course at the University of Wisconsin, went on to take the state cheesemaker license test, passed, and became one of the youngest licensed cheesemakers in Wisconsin.

But he honestly never thought he'd be a career cheesemaker.

"I was more interested in agriculture - the dairy farm side," Jon says. "But in the spring semester of my freshman year at UW-River Falls, I took Food Science 101 and learned there was a lot more to cheesemaking than bagging curds. The microbiology and chemistry of it all intrigued me."

Fast forward to today, and 32-year-old Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig is one of the state's emerging artisan cheese makers. He just debuted Red Willow, a stinky washed-rind, small-format wheel made in the style of a Trappist Cheese. Made in 1/2-pound to 3/4-pound rounds, Red Willow is aged 20-25 days and washed in salt and brevibacterium linens to give it a lovely pinkish red color (and its signature odor), mixed with a Scottish Ale from Fox River Brewing Company in Appleton, which gives it a yeasty finish. The cheese is pleasantly savory and meaty, but not overly strong. I'd call it a gateway stinky cheese - the kind that wins people over who might think washed rind cheeses aren't for them.

The cheese gets its name from its red color, plus the fact Jon is making it at the family's second cheese factory, Willow Creek Creamery, near Berlin, Wisconsin. This is the second washed-rind cheese to Jon's name - the first being St. Jeanne, named after his grandmother. That cheese is firmer, made in larger, six-pound wheels, and not washed in beer.

"I've been making both cheeses off and on for two or three years, and finally decided the key to consistency was making it in a smaller format," Jon said. "It also helped that cheesemaker Bill Anderson made cheese at Willow Creek for awhile, and I was able to bounce ideas off him." Jon says he also asked cheesemakers Chris Roelli and Andy Hatch for advice on aging, and both were open and helpful with getting him started.

Over the years, Jon has gained experience in making several different types of cheese. He still spends about half his time at the Union Star plant, making small-batch Cheddar, Colby, Muenster, String Cheese, Monterey Jack and Feta. After graduating college with a degree in Agriculture Business, he worked almost three years as a mozzarella cheesemaker at Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese near Waterloo, Wisconsin. He also spent six weeks making Gubbeen with Tom and Giana Ferguson near West Cork, Ireland. While overseas, he also toured several cheese factories in Europe.

Today, Jon is a certified master cheesemaker in Cheddar and Colby, while his father, Dave, is a certified master cheesemaker in Cheddar. The pair are just two of 59 active master cheesemakers in Wisconsin. The father and son are currently in the midst of a succession plan, with Dave retiring in five years, although Jon expects him to still come in every day. "I don't know if he will ever fully retire," Jon says with a smile.

Red Willow Cheese by Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Jon Metzig

Monday, September 19, 2016

Montchevre in Belmont Goes Non-GMO

Because baby goats are cute.
You'd think with my hometown of Belmont, Wisconsin being only an hour away, I'd get back home more often. However, the closest I usually get is Mineral Point, where we meet my parents most Sunday nights at the Midway Tavern for homemade pizza and five games of Euchre (we have a running score of who wins each game - women vs. men - written in pencil on the bottom of the Green Bay Packers poster on the wall).

But last week, with an invitation from fourth generation French cheesemaker Jean Rossard to visit the ever-expanding Montchevre goat cheese factory in Belmont, I made the trip to my hometown. With a population of 986 people, this thriving metropolis has gained exactly 160 people since I left home in 1994, and I'm pretty sure they all work at Montchevre.

That's because Montchevre employs 250 people. In a small town, that's a big deal. And when you combine that number with another 200+ working at the Lactalis President Brie factory just down the street, French-style cheese has eclipsed Belmont's one-time claim to fame of being the state's first capital. Heck, even the village's homes are powered by methane gas from Montchevre's anaerobic digester - the first digester installed at a goat cheese factory in America.

Touring a cheese factory these days is complicated. With increased regulations and sanitary requirements from the Food Safety Modernization Act, most won't let you in at all. But Jean got me suited up in a full-body jumpsuit, booties to cover my shoes, a full head hairnet with openings for my eyes and mouth, and a long white jacket. I looked like I was ready to go cook a meal on the moon. And no, I'm not posting a picture. Let's just say the outfit was not slimming.

As one of the largest goat cheese factories in America, Montchevre makes an astounding number of different types of goat cheese, all in the same facility, and it does it very well. Jean and Arnaud Solandt founded Montchevre in 1989 in Preston, Wisconsin. In 1995, they moved operations to Belmont and took over the old Besnier America factory on the southeast side of town. When the pair started, the Belmont factory was a rather outdated 30,000 sq. ft, historic cheese factory. Today it is a 110,000 sq. ft. modernized wonder and takes up nearly an entire city block.

The "Welcome Cheese Geek" cheese platter full of Montchevre cheeses,
including from left: 10 flavors of chevre, mini brie and goat cheddar.
In the beginning, Montchevre produced three different cheeses; Le Cabrie, Chèvre in Blue and Chevriotte—all of which are still in production today. Since then, Rossard and Solandt have added more than 50 different cheeses to their family, including a full line of non-GMO fresh chevre logs in a variety of flavors ranging from cranberrry/cinnamon to tomato basil to garlic and herb.

Montchevre is the first goat cheese manufacturer in the United States to produce non-GMO chevre, and Jean acknowledges it took his team nearly a year to make it happen. All feed for animals certified non-GMO must be sourced from non-GMO seeds, which sounds A LOT easier than it really is. Montchevre worked with heritage seed companies and feed mills to source non-GMO seeds, provide seeds for farmers to grow, and then worked with feed mills to separately process harvested non-GMO crops into protein pellets (soy-based with minerals) that goats are fed at milking time. (Eighty percent of a goat's diet is alfalfa hay, which must also be grown from non-GMO seeds).

A few varieties of the new non-GMO Montchevre goat
cheese 4-ounce logs.
All of Montchevre's non-GMO milk is currently produced by a group of farmers in central Iowa. The milk is trucked and processed separately at the Belmont cheese factory. The Iowan farmers are part of a vast network of 360 farms Montchevre supports in the Midwest. That means 360 farms depend on Montchevre for their livelihood, and that's a responsibility Jean Rossard does not take lightly. He visits farms regularly, and the company employs three full-time field employees to work directly with goat dairy farmers to troubleshoot problems and solve challenges.

The current pay price for goat's milk in Wisconsin is about $38/cwt (100 pounds of milk). That price is holding steady because of a constant growth in demand for cheese. In comparison, the current pay price for Class III cow's milk (milk processed into cheese) is $16.34/cwt. It takes about 10 goats to equal the milk output of one cow, hence the higher pay price for goat's milk.

Goat dairy farmers Elaine and Dennis Schaaf graciously pose with a cheese
geek who peppered them with questions for a good hour.
Dennis and Elaine Schaaf are dairy goat farmers who ship their milk to Montchevre. The pair farm near Mineral Point and got into the dairy goat business nine years ago. Before taking on goats, the couple milked cows for 30 years. "Physically, there's no comparison in milking a cow versus a goat," Dennis says. "A cow steps on your foot, you're going to hurt in the morning or take a trip to an emergency room. A goat steps on your foot and you just shoo it off."

The Schaafs have successfully converted their former cow barn into a goat milking parlor, and just this summer, built a new open-air free stall goat barn, where goats are free to roam large, open pens filled with fresh straw bedding. Free choice alfalfa hay and fresh water are always available. Goats also have access to pasture, but Dennis says they hardly ever go outside.

"Goats don't like sun and they don't like water. That means if it's raining, they stay inside. If the sun's out, they stay inside. About the only time you'll see them in the pasture is at night when it's not raining."

The Schaafs milk 240 goats twice a day, and are breeding 350 goats this fall in anticipation of expanding next year. Goats milk seasonally, so the Schaafs generally have a break from milking in December and January, but are trying to shorten that window by breeding females year-round. This helps Montchevre maintain a more consistent flow of milk to make into cheese year-round. The Schaafs' herd is made up of a cross of Saanen, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds of goats.

In a young industry, Dennis and Elaine have milked goats long enough to serve as mentors to up-and-coming dairy goat farmers. They say three farmers in their area have switched from milking cows to milking goats just this year, with one farm turning operations over to their child to become the first second generation goat dairy farm in Wisconsin.

Milk is picked up about every three days from the goat dairy farms and hauled to Montchevre, where three shifts of employees make cheese 363 days a year around the clock. The demand for goat cheese is ever increasing in a nation where eating goat cheese is a relatively new phenomenon. "We're already planning another expansion," Jean says. "Our goal is to process 100 million pounds of milk this year, and we're well on our way to meeting that goal."

My favorite picture from my day spent with the talented Montchevre crew, pictured from left: Cheesemaker and co-founder Jean Rossard, Milk Supply Manager Cody Taft, Packaging Manager Jeff Amenda and Quality Control Manager Craig Howell. Jean bought us lunch at downtown Belmont's McCarville's My Turn Pub, which coincidentally, used to be called the Heins Pool Hall (my maiden name is Heins) and where I a) grew up playing cards with my dad after chores were done and b) hosted my wedding reception with my husband, Uriah. Sometimes life comes full circle.