Monday, July 31, 2006

Wisconsin Farmers Union

A farmers union that took the leap three years ago to add value to their organization by launching a specialty cheese business is once again in the headlines - this time for its Blue Cheese.

Wisconsin Farmers Union Specialty Cheese Company nabbed a blue ribbon at the American Cheese Society annual competition for its Montforte Blue in the blue mold category. This is on the heels of the company’s Gorgonzola being chosen as the world’s best at the 2006 World Championship Cheese Contest in March (largely considered to be the Olympics of cheese).

How does a company win two major awards with two different cheeses after only three years on the market? A simple answer: by hiring people who take pride and passion in their work. Master Cheesemaker Doug Peterson and plant manager Tim Pehl head the WFU's specialty cheese operation in Montfort, Wisconsin, located about 55 miles west of Madison. If you ever have the chance, stop in at their factory store. You can even watch them take fresh milk and craft it in old world tradition into their signature Montforte™ Blue Cheese and Gorgonzola Cheese.

In the specialty cheese business, it's not enough to make good cheese - our nation is extremely fortunate to have - quite literally - thousands of cheesemakers making high-quality products every day. The difference between making a good product and the ability to stamp a blue ribbon on your label after winning major awards is in the people running the cheese vats. Wisconsin Farmers Union's plant in Montfort sets the bar for quality. The world is just now noticing.

Monday, July 24, 2006

ACS Winners

I've finally awakened from my self-induced cheese coma after attempting to try all 941 cheeses at the 2006 American Cheese Society annual conference in Portland, Oregon. What a show - if you ever have a chance to attend the Saturday night Festival of Cheese if it comes to your state, it's well worth the $50 ticket. You'll get to taste some of the best cheeses made in the U.S. and meet the men and women who make them.

In good news, our Wisconsin cheesemakers dominated the awards ceremony podium, taking 16 blue ribbons and capturing one-quarter of all the awards. Several of Wisconsin's newest cheesemakers took the ACS awards podium for the first time, such as Tom Torkelson of Natural Valley Cheese - a veteran cheesemaker but new to the Wisconsin artisan dairy world. Tom went home with four ribbons - a second place for his Twin Bluff Select and third place for Lindina, both original goat's milk cheeses, as well as a third place for his Goat's Milk Feta and a second place for his Redstone Robust, a washed rind goat's milk cheese.

Other artisans winning big included the all-around favorite Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese, who staggered home under the weight of 19 - yes 19 - ribbons for his American originals, including my favorites Cave Aged Mellage and Cocoa Cardona.

It was also great to see our artisans nearly sweeping the many different cheddar categories - and all winning for significantly different cheeses. Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point took first in the aged category for its 10-year cheddar. Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy went home with a first place for his Lil Wils Bandaged Cheddar in the cow's milk category and Mount Sterling Cheese Cooperative took first in the goat's milk category for their Raw Goat Milk Mild Cheddar. So basically, Wisconsin rules when it comes to artisan cheddars (but this is not new news).

What is new news is that Fence Line LLC, a brand new Wisconsin company making its cheeses at Burnett Dairy Cooperative in northern Wisconsin, took first in the Italian Type Cheeses category for its Fence Line Lightly Aged Provolone, beating a strong array of heavy hitters in this category. Owner Brian Nelson was on hand to also collect a third place for his Fence Line Winter Sun, a cow's milk American original.

And although Wisconsin has taken the coveted ACS Best of Show award seven of the last 10 years, the 2006 award went to Cabot Creamery in Montpelier, Vermont for its amazing Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. Not only does this cheddar taste amazing, it is remarkedly beautiful. However, with the number of new Wisconsin cheesemakers taking awards at this year's contest, I have no doubt we'll see more Best of Show awards in our future.

Monday, July 17, 2006

On the Road Again

Couldn't fit in all the news about our artisans in Sheboygan County on the last post, so wanted to tell you about Henning's Cheese in Kiel, Wisconsin.

As you drive through the northern reaches of Sheboygan County, you'll start to watch farm after farm roll by. This area was settled by waves of German, Dutch and Irish immigrants in the mid-19th century. They worked the land, raising crops that started with wheat and then turned to dairying. Cheesemaking reigns in this area, with the very first two Wisconsin cheesemakers hailing from within 30 miles of each other.

By 1875, Sheboygan County had 45 cheese factories producing over 2 million pounds of cheese. One of the oldest factories still remaining is
Henning's Cheese in Kiel. As their sign denotes, this is a place where you can get Cheddar -- GREAT Cheddar, that is. Henning's Cheese is a 4th generation cheese plant known for their mammoth cheddar wheels, cheddar gems, natural aged cheddars... (all pictured above) and of course cheddar cheese curds. Cheesemaker Kerry Henning has also won awards for his Colby.

If you find your way to this out-of-the-way plant, know that it will be well worth your journey. And be sure to check out their "Cooked Cheese" (aka "Koch Kase") and ask about their "Old German," a stinky cheese they keep in back!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

On the Road - Sheboygan County

If you're looking for a one-day road trip to talk with a couple of Wisconsin's leading dairy grazers, head to Sheboygan County. Grassway Organics Farm Store, located on a winding, scenic patch of country road just outside of New Holstein, Wisconsin is where you'll find dairy farmers Kay and Wayne Craig rotationally grazing about 100 Holsteins and Jerseys, producing amazing milk from cows who have access to impressive pastures.

Kay and Wayne are passionate about the health and nutrition benefits of grass-fed livestock -- both to cows, as well as us humans who eat their products. If you ever have time to spend with these folks or one of their employees, you'll find farmers who are willing to talk. These are farmers who wholeheartedly believe in what they do, and they believe in educating their customers about their products just as much (and even before) selling them their products.

And great products they have... when you stop in, be sure to try some of their fresh, grass-fed milk -- although you'll have to purchase a $10 farm-share in order to do so. In Wisconsin, it's not legal to sell raw milk directly to consumers, so Grassway works with consumers who want access to raw milk by offering them a "farm share," which makes them part owners of the farm and thus personally liable for the milk they drink. In addition to the dairy products, Grassway Organics offers a full line of natural and organic foods and household products, so if you live in the area, feel free to stop by and stock up on provisions... and they're always looking for other local and/or artisan products to feature.

Speaking of education, Grassway Organics has a few upcoming classes on cheesemaking taught by a local farmhouse cheesemaker. On July 23 they are teaching a class on butter, kefir and yogurt-making. And on July 30, they will make hard cheeses. For more information on dates and topics, call Grassway at 920-894-4201.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Grazier Cooperative

A small group of Wisconsin dairy graziers have joined forces to create a new cooperative to craft specialty, grass-based cheese from the milk of their rotationally-grazed dairy herds.

The new Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative combines the craftsmanship of Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery (pictured at far right) and the milk of grass-fed cows from the local family dairy farms of Dan and Shelly Truttman, Bill and Roz Gausman, and Bert and Trish Paris (all pictured left to right along with Jeff Wideman, Maple Leaf Cheese - who will be doing marketing for the group).

One of the goals of the new cooperative is to offer great-tasting cheese different than anything else currently on the market. Dan Truttman, who farms near New Glarus, predicts consumers will be able to see and taste the difference that grass-based milk offers.

The graziers have been dreaming of offering their quality product to consumers for several years. Bert Paris told me the group is extremely excited to have a quality cheesemaker wanting to make their grass-based milk into cheese. For those of you in the know - Bruce Workman is the only cheesemaker in the United States making 180-pound big wheel Swiss - the group hopes that some of those wheels will be made - in time - from grass-based milk.

This small but plucky group of innovative farmers is a good example of how more and more dairy farmers continue to find innovative ways to respond to industry demands. With more consumers seeking signature cheeses with bolder flavors, I predict grass-based cheeses are next on the horizon to help meet that demand.