Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Big Ed's

It's official: I have the greatest job in the world. I get to taste great cheese, talk to the people who make it, and then tell you more than you ever wanted to know about each one.

I was reminded just how fabulous my life is this past weekend, as I was talking with Gerry and Elise Heimerl of Saxon Homestead Creamery. The co-owners of this single farm creamery in Cleveland, Wis., were in Fromagination, tasting their latest and greatest cheeses: Green Fields and Big Ed's.

Green Fields continues to be an excellent cheese -- it pairs well with a good stout beer and is one of those cheeses that, like a nice guy, you can take home to mom and she'll approvingly nod her head, smile, and fix him a sandwich.

And then there's Big Ed's. The last time I had this cheese was in May. It was pretty good. My daughter even liked it, and believe me, that's a credible endorsement.

However, Big Ed's is now worthy of being named an official stop short cheese -- it's got a big, bold flavor that brings you to a complete halt. It's like bringing home a bandanna-wrapped, tattooed biker dude and watching your mother's jaw drop when you jump off the back of his motorcycle.

Gerry & Elise tell me their Big Ed's is now 10 months old. However, they only have about 30 wheels of left. In good news, they are making more. The less good news is it takes 10 months to taste this amazing.

Fear not, this is one cheese worth waiting for. You can bet Big Ed would be proud.

Friday, August 22, 2008

WI Cheesemakers on NPR

If you're interesting in learning more about the hazards and challenges of farmstead cheesemaking, tune in TODAY at 3 p.m. CST on National Public Radio.

Host Jean Feraca, of Here on Earth, Radio Without Borders, will interview Felix Thalhammer of Capri Cheesery and Mary Falk of LoveTree farm.

NPR is billing the show this way: "One has a bum knee, another fell in a fence pole hole, a third is struggling with Lymes disease. They are all artisan cheese-makers, some of Wisconsin's finest. Join us for the hazards and challenges of farmstead cheese-making."

Sounds like a good interview!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

More Milk = More Cheese

A new report issued by the National Agricultural Statistics Service shows Wisconsin milk production totaled 2.10 billion pounds in July, up 7 million pounds from July 2007. During the past couple of years, Wisconsin's milk production has slowly and steadily increased, which is good news for our cheese plants -- more milk means more cheese.

As of August 1 ,2008, Wisconsin had 13,635 licensed milk cow herds, more than any other state in the nation. However, even though we have more farms, we have less milk cows than California and other states are ramping up their dairy farm production.

Reports show that California and Wisconsin continue to be the top two producers of milk, but, for the first time, this past month Idaho passed New York for third place. The number of milk cows in New York had remained steady over the past year, while Idaho added 40,000 cows. The additional cows combined with a higher milk per cow helped push Idaho’s total production past New York into third place.

See this chart for an interesting comparison of milk production around the country -- it shows up-and-coming dairy powerhouse states such as Texas and New Mexico are producing as much as 18 percent more milk than they did a year ago.

What does this mean for Wisconsin? Well, commodity cheese production will probably continue to move and be outsourced to the West -- but it won't be in California. No new cheese plants have been sited in the land of happy cows since 2002, largely because of strict environmental standards.

So where are the big plants going? Look at the chart where milk production is increasing -- Texas and New Mexico. Some of the biggest cheese plants in the nation are located in these two states -- pumping out millions of pounds of mozzarella cheese for pizza and commodity cheddar.

That's why it's more important than ever to support Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheese makers. We continue to be the nation's leader in cheese production. We have some big plants in Wisconsin that help with these numbers, but we have something else that no other state has: a huge diversity in the number and size of cheese plants dotted around the state -- 124 in total.

Of these 124 plants, 83 are crafting at least one type of specialty cheese - and that number is only going to increase. In fact, since 2004, 34 new dairy plants have opened in America's Dairyland and 54 more have expanded. The majority of these plants are small, value-added and farmstead operations -- dairy farmers cutting out the middle man and stabilizing farm income by diversifying their operations.

And, while these new plants and expansions can't compare in size with the mega dairy plants of Texas, New Mexico and even California, there is no comparison between the quantity and quality of Wisconsin artisan and specialty cheeses and those made elsewhere -- nearly 50 percent of all specialty cheese made in this country is made in Wisconsin.

If you're planning a visit to Wisconsin in the near future, or if you live here and are looking for a good day trip, request a Traveler's Guide to America's Dairyland from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. There are hundreds of cheese plants and retail stores just waiting for you to visit.

On Wisconsin!

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Bekkums: Wisconsin Success Story

Sometimes, good things DO happen to good people. Hallelujah.

Case in point: Al & Sarah Bekkum, who started their own business, Nordic Creamery, about a year ago in rural Westby, have undergone the typical challenges and setbacks that any start-up faces. But today they are preparing to partner with distributors for Midwestern and national distribution for their award winning goat and mixed milk cheeses.

I couldn't be happier for them. Al & Sarah are the proud parents of six children - five boys and a baby girl. For 20 years, Al worked as a cheesemaker at plants in Wisconsin and Ohio, winning many awards during his tenure. But a year ago, Al & Sarah got the itch to start their own business. They wanted to create an avenue for their growing family to continue in the dairy industry if they so wished.

It looks like their wishes are coming true.

Just off winning a coveted first-place Best of Class blue ribbon at the 25th annual American Cheese Society annual competition in Chicago for his Capriko, an artisan cheese made from a perfect blend of goat and cow’s milk, and after capturing a silver medal for the same cheese at the World Championship Cheese Awards in March 2008, Al & Sarah will soon sign agreements for their cheeses go be distributed in the Midwest and hopefully nationwide.

Here's what will soon be coming to a store near you:

  • Capriko -- as mentioned above, this cheese is crafted as a firm cheese in a 10-pound wheel and cellar-aged to achieve its smooth rind and sweet nutty flavor.

  • Feddost -- this signature cheese -- an American Original that is a blend of goat and cow milk created by Al -- is handcrafted with a curd infusion of cumin and cloves, a Norwegian flavor tradition. Formed in 10-pound wheels, it is also cellar-aged.

  • Mountain Jack -- a pasteurized goat's milk semi-soft cheese

  • Cheddars -- Al makes a pasteurized goat's milk cheddar in the traditional style and sells it as mild, aged and smoked.
Al makes all his Nordic Creamery cheeses at Bob Wills' Cedar Grove Cheese plant in Plain, Wis. He uses high quality milk from small family farms and travels from his farm near Westby to Plain to craft the cheeses.

And, in exciting news, by spring, the Bekkums hope to expand into making specialty butters, such as goat's milk butter and mixed-milk butter, with a long-term goal of building their own farmstead dairy plant on their farm in Vernon County in the next few years.

I hope you join me in congratulating the Bekkums by buying their cheese the next time you see Nordic Creamery varieties in a store near you.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Incubator Cheesemaker Bob Wills

Now that the Green Bay Packers Former Quarterback and Future Hall of Famer Brett Favre drama has FINALLY ended (thank you, God), hopefully we Wisconsites can go back to focusing on what really matters: cheese.

And I know just the cheesemaker to make us refocus on this delightful subject: Cedar Grove Cheese's Bob Wills.

Not only is Bob always coming up with new cheeses -- just wait until I tell you about his new "layer cheeses" - he is also notorious for quietly launching many a champion cheese for many a cheesemaker. I was talking with him after the American Cheese Society competition in Chicago and found out that nine cheeses made at his plant won ACS awards this year. However, only four of them carry his own Cedar Grove Cheese brand.

Why? Because Bob is a Master Cheesemaker who graciously opens his plant to about a half dozen other Wisconsin cheesemakers who use it during downtime to make their own award-winning cheeses, and he also crafts cheeses for several cooperatives and farmsteads.

In fact, Bob is renowned in the Wisconsin cheesemaker world for mentoring dozens of up and comers, and has launched many an award-winner. Here's a partial list of some of the cheesemakers Bob has worked with over the years:

  • Uplands Cheese -- Pleasant Ridge Reserve won ACS Best of Show in 2001 & 2005. Cheesemaker Mike Gingrich made this cheese at Bob's plant for the first three years.

  • Bleu Mont Dairy -- rock star cheesemaker Willi Lehner makes several of his award-winning cheeses at Bob's plant and won two awards this year at ACS.

  • Nordic Creamery -- Al Bekkum makes his cheeses at Bob's plant and won a blue ribbon in his first showing this year at ACS.

  • Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative -- Bob makes cheese for this cooperative, winning three awards this year at ACS.

  • Otter Creek Organic Farm -- Bob makes seasonal organic cheddars for this farmstead company, which won a ribbon in their first showing at last year's ACS.

  • Sugar River Cheeses - Bob makes cheeses for this company and won a second-place ribbon at the 2006 ACS.

  • Next Generation Dairy - Bob makes these organic, raw milk cheeses.
Bob also mentors many a cheesemaker who goes on to build or run their own operation. Diana Murphy, of Dreamfarm, won a second place for her cheese at this year's ACS. Bob mentored her at his plant three/four years ago. And sometimes, cheesemakers who started out with Bob take their talents around the nation. For example, Dane Huebner, who worked at Cedar Grove for several years, was hired last year as the Lead Cheesemaker at Flat Creek Lodge in Georgia and took home a blue ribbon this year at ACS for his work there (congrats Dane).

In short, Bob Wills is the epitome of how one cheesemaker -- a former lawyer, who married into the cheesemaking world, no less -- has opened his cheese plant to the Wisconsin community and created a vast array of award winning cheeses and mentored many a cheesemaker who has gone on to very good things.

He invents amazing cheeses, and once in awhile, even keeps them for himself. Case in point: Cedar Grove Cheese's new line of beautiful and very tasty "Layer Cheeses." Each cheese carries a layer of ingredients through the center of the wheel, surrounded on both sides by either organic cheddar or butterkase.

Included in this line is the amazing Cumin & Cloves in Organic Cheddar, which captured a blue ribbon at this year's ACS. Rounding it out is the Cracked Fennel in Organic Cheddar, Fenugreek in Butterkaese (extra creamy - yum), Rosemary in Organic Cheddar, and my all time favorite: Naturally Smoked Cheddar with Smoked Salmon & Dill (which took second at ACS this year).

Basically, I could go on and on about Bob, but frankly I don't have enough room to write about all the things he's doing, including his famous and unique way to treat wastewater through his Living Machine as well as his new affinage facility that uses energy from a nearby whey chilling unit. Big sigh. Bob does it all, and he does it well. Thanks, Bob! Wisconsin appreciates you.

Monday, August 04, 2008

All Hail St. Felix

I don't know too many cheesemakers who name cheeses after themselves, but then again, I don't know too many cheesemakers like Felix Thalhammer.

For those of you who live close enough to Madison, Wis., and attend the Dane County Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings around the Capital Square, you know Felix (pictured to the right of my friend, Norm Monsen) as the short Swiss guy at the Capri Cheesery stand who wears a t-shirt saying, "Dude, where's my cheese?" For the rest of you, here's a brief introduction before we get to the real story.

Felix, who with his family, lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere near Blue River, Wis., began making goat's milk cheeses in the mid 90s. It all started innocently enough when his son, Leif, was born and couldn't digest cow's milk. So Felix and his wife bought a few goats. Soon they had more milk than they needed. You can guess how the story goes from here ... drawing upon his Swiss cheesemaking roots (he also trained as an office product mechanic in Switzerland before moving to the U.S.), Felix began making cheese with 20 gallons of milk in a rigged-up soup kettle over his stove. Soon, he began sharing his feta cheese with family and friends.

Turns out Felix is a pretty good cheesemaker and soon he had more cheese than he could give away. So in 2000, he made a business plan, got his cheesemakers license and "started seriously making cheese." Today, he makes a whole line of goat's milk cheeses, including: Feta -- French, Bulgarian, Greek, Marinated and Mediterranean -- Felix does them all. Feta has been the mainstay of Felix's business since he started.

Then there is Felix's line of "Bear" cheeses. Bear cheeses are made with traditional Muenster techniques. The fresh young version of the cheese is very mild, great for those of you who have only recently come to enjoy goat cheeses. For more advanced tasters, Felix has successfully apple-smoked the same cheese (Smoky Bear™) and produced a washed rind version called Washed Bear™.

He's also making a stick bear cheese, which is a traditional muenster with an orange skin and made with goat milk. Since it comes in a stick shape, he calls it "Stick Bear™." Felix's new muenster made with cow milk is called "Moo Bear™." And for the record, "Yes, it's hard to milk the bear."

And finally, we come to where I started: St. Felix. This American Original is an inventive combination between Havarti and Gouda created by Felix. He uses only raw milk for full flavor. The milk is inoculated, cut, washed and pressed into Gouda molds from Denmark. These cheeses are then dry salted for two days and cured on cedar boards. They are washed every day for two weeks, then every other day, schmeared with additional culture during the first two weeks, turned, and kept at high humidity until they find a happy home. This whole process takes two to three years.

Early versions of this cheese are ready now, and it has been named St. Felix™ cheese, not to be confused with the actual St. Felix. And Felix is making a mixed milk -- half goat, half cow milk -- washed rind cheese, called St. Pauline™. It's aged for four to eight months and it has notes of Limburger cheese.

I asked Felix how it came to be that he named this particular cheese after himself, and even inserted Saint before it, no less. Turns out Felix has a pretty simple answer: "Nobody's going to elevate me to sainthood, so I have to do it myself." Fair enough.

Seriously though, Felix says he comes up with different names so he has stories to share with his clientele. "Customers always like something to smile about, so I figure why not make them laugh with cheese?"

Nobody's joking when they eat this cheese, however, as St. Felix is as nice as an aged goat's cheese as I've had in a long time. I highly recommend it. If you can't find it in a store near you, ask them to consider carrying it. Yum.