Colby, monterey jack, feta, goat and more. Wisconsinites are no strangers to cheese and its no wonder why the state produces more than 2.5 billion pounds each year, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The process of creating cheese and getting it to your cracker, pairing it with a glass of wine, or even just enjoying the squeak of a good cheese curd follows the same principles, but each maker adds their own craftsmanship to the recipes they churn out.
Ninety percent of the cheese created by Todd Jaskolski, owner and cheesemaker of Caprine Supreme in Black Creek, is goat cheese.
Jaskolski, who is pretty much a solo operation with the exception of the occasional help from family, picks milk up from local family farms and processes cheese four days a week. He also attends the Farmers’ Market on Broadway in Green Bay on Wednesdays and the Downtown Appleton Farm Market on Saturdays.
For Weyauwega Star Dairy, it’s all in the family. Four generations specialize in handcrafted Italian cheese. The company began with Jim Knaus in 1975. His father, grandfather and possibly great-grandfather were cheesemakers, too. Today, Jim’s sons Mike, Daniel and Gerard, along with grandsons work with the business.
The medium-size cheese factory makes about 180,000 pounds of cheese in a week ranging from parmesan — a top seller — to mozzarella, provolone, feta, cheddar, colby, monterey jack and string cheese. Cheese from Weyauwega Star Dairy is available through their shops and also in grocery stores under their label and private labels.
Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese in Kiel on the other hand is producing roughly 90,000 pounds of cheese in a week after gathering milk from 30-35 farms on a daily basis, says Kerry Henning, president and master cheesemaker.
Union Star Dairy in Fremont picks up milk a day ahead of when its needed from three farmers. The cheesemaking process begins early at 5 a.m. for owner and cheesemaker Dave Metzig. By 5:30 a.m., the cheese is thick like yogurt. It is cut with wire knives down to ¼-inch cubes and the whey begins to come out; 90 percent of the mixture is whey. The cubes are then stirred, cooked and heated up.
“At first, we stir it soft and gentle because it’s like a piece of custard and at the end, kind of vigorously,” Metzig explains.
Agitation then occurs and is stopped to rake the cheese into two rows of curd and drain off the whey. A big knife is then used to cut the curds that stick together into a slab. The cheese is then turned upside down and again several more times before it is stacked to expel moisture, which is known as “cheddaring.” The curds are either then left that way or packed into a form to make a block or wheel, Metzig explains.
Since Metzig’s start in the cheese business in 1980 when he and his wife purchased his family’s business, he has grown accustomed to knowing the amount of moisture in each type of cheese.
“You can almost tell by the feel of it,” he shares. There are regulations for each type of cheese.
Union Star makes about 8,000 pounds of cheese — including cheddar, granular cheeses, string cheese, muenster and feta — a week.
Star Dairy works with patron farmers and milk is picked up from most on a steady basis, shares Vice President Mike Knaus. And, while Jaskolski’s milk comes from a different animal, he follows the same pasteurization steps and process it would take to make cheese from cow’s milk.
“The only difference is that goat’s milk is more delicate,” Jaskolski explains. “The biggest thing with goat’s milk is you have to make the cheese when the milk is fresh. Otherwise, you’ll get a real goat flavor.” The coagulation time is longer because it’s more gentle, he adds.
Jaskolski makes about 350 pounds of cheese a week. “There are some days that I have three types of cheeses going. I’ll have the curds, the feta and the brie. It’s like having cookies going in three ovens,” he says.
Fifty percent of Caprine Supreme’s business comes from cheese curds.
“When we got out there, I thought why would we mess with cheese curds, but a lot of people who are lactose intolerant can do goat,” explains Jaskolski.
The other fifty percent of Jaskolski’s business includes feta, cheddar, soft chevre, brie and a jack-style goat cheese. Jaskolski shared that the majority of feta in the marketplace is made from cow’s milk and the enzyme is added to it. “The original feta was made from goat or sheep’s milk,” he explains.
While Jaskolski is still battling the fact that “there are more people who don’t like goat cheese than do,” goats are one of the cleanest animals. “A lot of people just need to get over the stigma of the goat. A lot of people refuse to try it just because it’s the goat,” he says, noting he has a following in Appleton, including students from Lawrence University. “You have to let people know the story. I can only make 100 pounds and the big guys can make 1,000, but it’s handmade.”
“We’ve got loyal customers. Once they’ve got your cheese, and they like it, they’ll stick with you,” Mike adds.
White or orange?
Within the last five years, Henning says more attention has been paid to the color of cheese.
“People are saying if it’s not necessary to the product, why do it?” Henning notes of the rennet and other additives used to create the orange coloring in cheese. “You probably can’t give orange cheddar away in New York City.”
“It doesn’t change the flavor of it one bit,” explains Mike, but yet customers have a distinct opinion over what they prefer. “They grew up eating orange cheese curds. They want orange cheese curds.”
Cheesemakers agree, however, that people taste with their eyes first.
“Eye appeal of food is real important. You’re attracted to the red wax on the outside of gouda,” Metzig adds as an example.
At Henning’s, cheese is dipped in wax to preserve it and put into wooden boxes for storage and shipping.
“Wax was the technology of the day for preserving so we’ve carried that over,” Henning says. “It just looks really nice in the showcase.” Waxing the cheese also allows the moisture to escape and shows off the quality characteristics of the different varieties, he adds.
Cheese made from milk produced by grass-fed cows also carries some distinctive flavors, according to Henning. While the average consumer is very forgiving and likely won’t notice the difference, in spring and fall when grass is more lush, some customers look for cheese due to the slight flavor variations that comes from that time of year.
Ninety-five percent of the cheese Henning’s produces is moving within a few weeks, while the other 5 percent may be aged from roughly 30 days to nine or 10 years before it moves on to the consumer. All of Henning’s cheeses are considered table cheese with some curds purchased to turn into deep-fried cheese curds at restaurants, Henning shared.
Cheese of choice
Jaskolski is in the early stages of developing a raw milk, cheddar-style goat cheese and puts in small batches of new cheeses about twice a month. He likes to add in ingredients like beer and lavendar to other offerings as well.
“Every cheese factory has their recipe. I make parmesan one way and the guy down the road makes it another way,” Mike says of experimenting. “It’s a process that starts over time. It doesn’t happen right away.” About a year ago, Star Dairy began easing into making kosher cheese, as well.
Metzig has become adept to problem solving and working with the knowledge he has at hand.
“Whenever you’re going into a new area, you have to remember that you don’t always know what you’re doing. It is very enjoyable to make a product that people can say if they like it or not,” says Metzig. “Everyday, you’re making this batch the best you can and you start over tomorrow.”
Hatch chiles was an uncharted territory for Henning’s until a few years ago. After being urged to look at the pepper that is only available west of the Mississippi River and some research of the product and process, the company added another pepper cheese to it’s arsenal.
“It’s like us knowing about Old Fashioneds in Wisconsin,” Henning says. “It’s been a real fun flavor to do.”
“Spices can influence a lot of things on the cheese depending on what it is,” Henning adds. “I didn’t understand what fruit would do.” During the process of making cheese, sugar is converted. When fruit is introduced to the mixture, sugar is added back in during fermentation and therefore puts lactic acid back in. The more acid in the cheese, the more crumbly it becomes. It took some trial and error before Henning was happy with the end result when he ventured into fruit cheeses. A cranberry flavor is Henning’s best fruit seller, but they also make cherry and blueberry selections, he says. Fruit flavors have been in production for 5-7 years.
“We’ve been amazed that some cheeses at six months that were thumbs down and end up being really good,” Henning says of aging. “I always call it the ‘Shamrock Shake thing.’ If you do it small, it creates its own buzz.”
In addition to experimenting with new types of cheese, Henning’s also produces wheels of cheddar ranging from 12 pounds to 12,000 pounds in weight. Recently, a store in Ohio ordered a 4,800 pound wheel. The wheels are typically put on display and then cut down to be sold. The majority of wheels requested are 2,000-5,000 pounds in weight, says Henning and every week he’s producing wheels that are 300-500 pounds. As far as Henning is aware, his family’s business is the only large-scale wheelmaker in the state and they’ve been doing it for 30 years.
“We feel like we do need to develop more unique things for the future,” Metzig says. “We do accept that the future changes radically.”
Experimenting with a washed rind cheese once a month, which isn’t currently for sale, is on Metzig’s radar. He has given himself roughly six months to get the product to market.
“This washed rind cheese is particularly hard to do because the shelf life is so short,” he shares of having to keep the environment under control, make the cheese six weeks ahead of when you want to sell it and then only being able to sell it during a four-week window. “Generally, the harder it is to make, the more profitable it is.”
Metzig wants to be realistic, yet efficient while carrying on quality, he says.
“You can’t just be gourmet, high-priced cheese,” he notes. “In the culture and economy these days, there really is room for everybody.”