On the western edge of a wide, open valley in Green County, cheesemakers at the Edelweiss Creamery regularly catch spectacular sunrises through the wide bank of windows in the plant each morning as they’re nearing the end of their shift. Starting his “day” at midnight, Bruce Workman, Master Cheesemaker, and the creamery represent another outstanding accomplishment for agricultural regeneration in Wisconsin. Embodying a life’s work, Bruce and his wife Kathleen, an educator, purchased the outdated, albeit historic, cheese factory in 2003. After removing and replacing every non-structural part of the interior over the next six months, Bruce and his veteran, seasoned staff began making cheese in their “new” creamery in August of 2004.
Bruce’s long career in cheese making began while he was still in high school in rural Monticello. Transplanted there when his family moved from Madison’s west side in the early 1980s, Bruce was unfamiliar with small town living and hard-pressed to find a job in the city that only now claims 1,100 residents. “A job opened up at the local [cheese] co-op. A before-school job; 4:30 in the morning ‘til 7:30am, then scramble to get to school...and when I got out at 2:30 in the afternoon I went back and cleaned up.”
After starting work with the co-op, there was a short year of trying other professions before finding his way back to cheese. During his long career, Bruce earned his first Master Cheesemaker certification and critical praise for his award-winning cheeses while working for some of the bigger, Monroe-based cheesemakers. Building on those successes, Bruce and a partner eventually bought and ran the cheese factory in the same building that he started his career in. However, an extreme downturn in milk prices forced Bruce and his partner to sell their interest in that company, eventually freeing them up to invest in the Edelweiss Creamery.
Integral with the early successes of Edelweiss Creamery was the cooperative partnership they struck in 2006 with the Edelweiss Graziers Co-op, the farmers currently supplying all of the milk for Edelweiss Creamery’s production. The family-owned farms in the Graziers cooperative share a commitment to a minimum of 60 percent grass intake for their cows, one-and-a-half acres of land per cow for grazing, no silage feed and rotation to fresh grasses every 12 hours.
Key to both groups, Jeff Wideman and Shirley Knox of Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe, introduced the established Graziers Co-op to the Workmans, and then became partners in the new cooperative. In providing marketing services for the cheeses, Bruce expressed his extreme gratitude for their partnership with Shirley and Jeff, “It takes one of those hats off your head. It focuses me on what I like to do, and I like to make cheese, bottom line. It’s what I’ve done all of my life. My job here is to make a value-added product for my farmers.”
Bruce said of the framework used to form the new cooperative in 2006, “We went back to the old style of cooperative—the farmers bought the land; they bought the building; they own my waste-water field; I own all the equipment, so now we have a mutual agreement. I get paid a percentage off the top to make the cheese, and I’m strictly a processor of the milk. It’s an all around good fit.”
Bruce explained what he looks for in the milk he uses for his cheese, including his 2008 American Cheese Society first-place winner in the Emmentaler category, “If I’m looking for something that I want the true flavor profiles of the milk to come through, like my grass cheddars, my Emmentaler (which I’m making a little more of now), I like that flavor profile where the grassy tones come through. In Europe, all their [milk] is pastured for the Emmentaler. There’s no silage milk at all. In the winter [the cows] get sugar beets, they get the energy off of it, but it’s not silage.
“I’d call it a renaissance,” Bruce added, “because when I started making cheese, everybody was a grazier, nobody locked all their cows in the barn all day long. That came about because everybody wanted to expand their herd size and when you do that you have to get the pastures to get the grains and you know, bigger is not always better. With these big guys, they’re all in debt, but when I look at my graziers, they’ve got a great lifestyle.”
Fusing the latest milk-handling technology and equipment with time-honored tools and recipes, the factory is currently processing 60,000-70,000 pounds of milk, five days per week, to make their cheeses, of which Bruce says, “is way under capacity.” Originally built in 1915, the former Krahnenbuhl cheese factory was stripped clean, then retrofitted with the entire contents of one of Switzerland’s cheese schools which had closed. Overseeing the packing and shipping himself, Bruce imported everything from sinks to kettles including a dominating vat, capable of holding 15,000 pounds of milk. Bruce commented as we examined the relic, “[It] gives me a really nice mix so that I can do certain cheeses. Certain cheeses need to have copper oxide and that helps with the flavor profile.” When remodeling the facility, Bruce says he planned for a total capacity of 100,000 pounds of milk per day, but is following a conservative five-year plan before reaching maximum capacity.
Another two stainless steel vats, each able to hold up to 13,000 pounds of milk are also on-line with the creamery’s computerized and pneumatic milk-handling system. Bruce demonstrated the touch-screen panel for directing milk through each of the areas of the creamery, thereby creating greater efficiencies and avoiding errors in handling the raw milk delivered daily to their silos.
As one might expect, the state synonymous with cheese also has a stringent licensing and regulatory process. Although the production of cheese in Wisconsin has been regulated since 1872, it was not until 1994 when the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, launched the State’s own Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program to ensure that any cheese representing our state meets the standards of identity and that the maker is qualified. The three-year course administered through the University of Wisconsin is the first and only one of this caliber outside of Europe for advanced Master Cheesemaker certification. Bruce, who serves on the Board, has himself been through the program four times and amassed certification on eight types of cheeses, including Gruyere, Swiss, Cheddar, Havarti and Raclette. Still adding to his repertoire, Bruce says once he’s completed his current course for Brick and Munster cheeses, he’ll have enough of his preferred Alpine styles to keep him busy for the rest of his career.
Edelweiss Creamery’s traditional and authentic 180 pound wheel of Emmentaler, a hard Swiss cheese (standard for fondue) is characterized as a brined cheese with a soft, nutty, slightly salty flavor. But in the cheese industry, it’s not enough just to be good, you must also be judged, namely by the American Cheese Society. Bruce explained, “You always compete; if you don’t compete you never know how you’re doing. I’ve taken some firsts, which for me was just, a huge, huge thank you. That’s a tough crowd to please.” It was at this point when Bruce appeared to be at a loss for words for the first time since we’d started talking, then he added, “To win that one is good.”