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Our Annual Cheese Compendium

It’s that time of year again! Time to look back over all the struggles and triumphs we’ve faced bringing you the very best cheeses Wisconsin has to offer. It is also a time to look ahead to the challenges we will meet for the future aswe continue to improve our service and expand our selection.

2013 was the first year that Willy Street Co-op had the privilege of being represented at the annual American Cheese Society conference held here at the Monona Terrace back at the beginning of August. Patrick and I had the opportunity to work and train next to cheese professionals from across the country. We got to share the concerns of our customers about GMO labeling and safe food handling practices with the larger cheese community, where these concerns are seen as central to our moving forward as a national industry. We were delighted to see that our emphasis upon high quality small-batch artisan cheesemakers and upon sustainable production is widespread throughout the industry, and that these are also core values and goals of the ACS generally. We absorbed an immense amount of knowledge during those three days, but also became aware of the many hurdles we face as we try to make our department the very best that it can be. We’re confident the new information, skills, and connections we brought back with us from the conference will not only greatly improve our abilities to serve you better, but will ultimately improve the Co-op as an organization.

What projects did we begin this year to serve you better?
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), was signed into law by President Obama on January 4th, 2011. In light of the implementation of the FSMA, as well as the unfortunate outbreak of listeriosis presumably traced back to one of our local cheese producers and the subsequent recall, we proactively underwent an audit of our food safety practices with the cooperation of local health department officials. We have refined and strengthened our already firm commitment to these standards and practices.

We are currently working on an improved and simplified shelf signage system which will help you quickly identify through clear icons which characteristics you are looking for from specific cheeses. We will have icons indicating ruminant type, origin, organic status, heat-treatment, and grazier practices for each cheese that we carry. This will allow you more independence and confidence when you are shopping in our department, and will also continue our goal of keeping you as greatly informed as possible about our wonderful products.

Nutritional information is also a high priority for the very near future. We are actively compiling accurate and up-to-date nutritional information for each of our cheeses. From this we are assembling a guide that you will be able to access easily to discover any relevant facts about fat content, salt content, calories, etc. We hope to ultimately have this available on our website, but soon a convenient flip book will be readily accessible in the cheese department.

Of course, we are also continuing to build strong, rich connections with our incredible local cheesemakers and their distributors. Our focus in the Willy Street Co-op Cheese Department will always be on local, small-batch, sustainable cheeses. At the American Cheese Society conference we were dazzled to see how greatly our national cheese industry has excelled at creating the very highest quality products, and we can safely say that American cheeses can stand side by side now with the very finest imports available. Wisconsin cheeses are at the vanguard of this exciting trend. We keep searching for delicious new creations, as well as supporting the already amazing products and producers that we carry. When we add a new product to our shelves be assured that we apply the highest standards when choosing them, whether local, regional, national, or imported.

We want to again remind you of these remarkable Wisconsonites in particular; the faces behind the food you value and savor. Each one is a consummate artist who has made great sacrifices and put all of their creative energy into fashioning these unforgettable edible treasures. When you buy local treasures like these you are making a choice about our collective future, inviting into your lives the possibility of a healthier earth and at the same time supporting the highest standards of craftsmanship that our state has to offer. Take a moment to learn more about our beloved local cheese artisans, and remember to search out their products the next time you visit our department.

Cedar Grove
Our steadfast partners through many years, the people at Cedar Grove are responsible for crafting almost all of our basic commodity cheeses. The Cedar Grove plant is nestled in the lovely rolling hill country in the south central part of the state near Plain, Wisconsin. They have been a family-owned and -operated plant since 1878. The always-friendly, unassuming owner, Bob Wills, has been a tireless promoter and champion of Wisconsin artisan cheeses, offering his facility as a place to apprentice new cheesemakers as well as giving many great local artisans the ability to create their products. Bob personally started to push against using hormone-laden milk in cheese production, and it is largely due to his passion about this that our case offerings are now virtually hormone-free. He advocates aggressively for sustainability, and his plant is an ongoing laboratory in creating new sustainable practices. This year we brought in their award-winning, deliciously creamy Butterkaese, and their Fleance and Banquo sheep milk cheeses. We now carry 24 varieties of cheese from Cedar Grove, including the incredible Clock Shadow Creamery Quark, made at their new facility in Milwaukee.

Bleu Mont
Willi Lehner is one of the most unforgettable figures in the local movement to create finely crafted artisan cheeses. Smart, energetic, and supremely confident in his intuitions as a cheesemaker and the final exciting results of his experimentation, Willi built his own affinage cave in the beautiful Blue Mounds region to finely control the temperature and humidity while also throwing in the inspired element of chance from the local wild microflora. Willi’s father was a master cheesemaker in Switzerland, and he continues to carry on this proud tradition. He buys his milk from small family farms, including Uplands, insuring his cheeses are made with only the highest-quality milk. Willi utilizes the production facilities of several small local cheese plants, including Cedar Grove, to craft his magnificent cheeses; which he then takes back to his cave for careful aging. Here they develop the wonderful flavor and complexity that makes his creations famous. This year Willi’s incredible bandage-wrapped, cave-aged Cheddar won Third Place Best in Show at the American Cheese Society’s annual competition. His cheddar resembles in texture and flavor the great English farmhouse cheddars with their distinct earthy character. Two other cheeses, his Alpine Renegade and a glorious Grana with amazing depth and nuttiness also took in prizes, but they were quickly bought up before we could get our hands on them. Willi tells us that these may come available next year, and we will certainly bring them in as soon as we possibly can.

Uplands Cheese
Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude decided to combine their family dairy farms in 1994 to have greater control of the quality of the outstanding milk they produced from their wonderful grass-fed cows. They subsequently decided to try a hand at artisan cheesemaking. Mike apprenticed with Bob Wills at Cedar Grove, and in 2004 the families built a cheese plant on their property. The result is a Wisconsin masterpiece, Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a cheese crafted in the traditional style of French Beaufort or Swiss Gruyere, but with the subtle nuances of the upland region’s terroir and a meticulous craftsmanship that create an American original. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is one of the very finest cheeses produced in this country and one of the few American artisan cheeses to find a market overseasin England. If you haven’t experienced the extra-aged version, then you’re in for a treat!

Andy Hatch, cheesemaker since 2008 and new co-owner of Uplands, is continuing the Gingrich’s and Patenaude’s commitment to expressing their extraordinary milk. Andy got his degree at the UW in Dairy Science and went on to study cheesemaking in Europe, before returning to Wisconsin and apprenticing with Bruce Workman and Gary Grossen to earn his cheesemaker’s license in 2007. Three years ago, about this time, Andy introduced his marvelous Rush Creek Reserve, a soft-ripened cheese inspired by French Vacherin Mont D’Or. He created it to take full advantage of the autumnal change in the Uplands cows’ diets. Rush Creek Reserve is a very delicate, raw milk cheese with remarkable depth and the unmistakable flavor found in traditionally crafted soft-ripened cheeses with their delicious heady beefiness. This fantastic cheese will be in limited availability until late December. When he’s not flipping tiny cheeses every two hours, cutting curd, packing boxes, or answering our calls and emails, Andy also moonlights as the mandolin player in an Americana band, Point Five.

Cesar’s Cheese
So, let’s say you’re craving some cheese. You want it fresh, milky, bright, salty and so good that you will not want to share. Cesar Luis makes that cheese. His Oaxacan-style string cheese is the Mexican mozzarella—hand-stretched to achieve the optimum texture. Cesar himself is a tough-looking, muscular dude (you would be, too, if you stretched cheese all day), who is quietly passionate about making great cheese. He and his wife Heydi and their two children make cheese at the Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, WI. In addition to the best string cheese ever, they also make a superb fresh mozzarella (our fave mozz), perfectly crumbly queso fresco, a young Manchego-style called La Pinta, and the biggest cheese curds you’ll likely ever meet. Cesar is also a really talented photographer, and often provides us with amazing photos of his cheese and cheesemaking. We really love having the relationship we have with Cesar and we are really proud to carry his cheese.

Roelli Cheese
Chris Roelli looks like a pretty serious guy when you first meet him. It’s easy to be intimidated by this imposing figure, a decorated cheese-maker, distinguished in a state full of decorated cheesemakers. Start talking to him about his little Dunbarton Blues, his sticks of Red Rock, or his new curing building, and he’s all smiles and enthusiasm. That’s the Chris we know and love, and we love his cheese. If you haven’t tried Dunbarton Blue, akin to the old English cheddars with just a titch of blue, or his Red Rock, iconoclastic in its hybridization where new world technique meets old-world affinage, then we invite you to our counter for a sample! Also on the scene is Chris’s new Alpine-style, Little Mountain, which he says is nigh onto an Appenzeller, but with a Wisconsin terroir twist. This baby is available in limited amounts this winter, and will hopefully be in full production next spring.

Saxon Homestead Creamery
Saxon Creamery is situated on the wind-swept shores of Lake Michigan in Cleveland, WI. The names of their cheeses elicit images of the lush, grassy land that the Klessig and Heimerl families devote their days to cultivating: GreenFields, a firm washed-rind cheese that’s like a dry Jack that got funky with a true Münster, Pastures Cheddar, creamy and robust, and Glacial Lakes, densely textured with a Swissy bite and a truly unique finish. They are also known for their Saxony, an Alpine-style cheese that is Gruyere’s younger cousin, Big Ed’s Gouda, a creamy and complex pasture-based cheese, and the Snowfields, a buttery, fat-forward powerhouse with a sweet, fruity finish that is crafted from their winter milkings, when the girls are on silage and hay. If you ever have the privilege of seeing Saxon Creamery at an event or demoing at a store like ours, you’re likely to run into the ebullient Jerry Heimerl, Saxon’s biggest champion, promoter and all-around super knowledgeable guy. Jerry is committed to these cheeses and to the farm retaining its traditional roots. You may also run into Jeff Mattes, newer with Saxon. Don’t be deceived by his demure character though—this gent is a master cheesemaker and Grader and is formerly of the outstanding Sartori Cheese Company. His newest creation at Saxon, the Asiago Fresca, has the sock-in-the-jaw of a provolone tempered by a smooth, dense texture and whole milk. Many of their cheeses are pasture-based, some are made with raw milk. Saxon Creamery really truly may have a cheese for anyone, and we doubt that they’re going to stop there.

LaClare Farms
Established in 1978 in Chilton, Wisconsin, the LaClare Family Farm was started by Larry and Clara Hedrich. What started out as a hobby when their children were young has now turned into a thriving business. In 2008 batches of the unforgettable raw goat milk cheese that would become Evalon were first made by their daughter Katie. In 2011 LaClare Farms Evalon was chosen Best in Show at the U.S. Cheese Championships. We have been carrying the Evalon for two years now, and we look forward to what LaClare has in store for us next. Katie, her mom and pop, her brother Greg, her sister Jessica and her sister Anna are now in the process of bringing a brand new facility on line that the family has built in Pipe, WI. It boasts ample room for their 450 goats, plenty of curing space for cheeses old and in development, and Katie’s favorite—two cheese vats just for her. She has spent the last four years making cheese at other plants, and finally, LaClare and Katie have a place to call home. They hope to begin production in earnest there any day now, especially now that Katie, formerly Hedrich, now Fuhrmann, is newly returned from her honeymoon. Congratulations to Katie and all the family! Be on the lookout for some new cheeses in the case in the coming months from LaClare—these can’t be missed!

Otter Creek
The Zimmer family of Otter Creek Organic Dairy are committed to the philosophy and practice of sustainable agricultural techniques and humane animal husbandry, and the family was named the 2008 Organic Farmers of the Year. Gary is internationally known for his approach to “biological farming” using a soil-based approach to animal health. This assures that their milk, from grazed dairy herds, is of the healthiest, highest quality. Cedar Grove lends their facilities for the creation of five wonderful organic cheddars. These are some of our very favorites in the case. Four different seasonal varieties reflect in their rich, multi-faceted flavors the ever-changing flowers and grasses of Otter Creek’s pastures; and the fifth, their Pesto Cheddar, is seasoned deliciously with basil-infused oil from artisan Mark Olson’s Renaissance Farms.

Diana and James Murphy own a beautiful little farm in the hilly countryside just east of Madison between Black Earth and Cross Plains. Several years back they decided to buy some dairy goats, and soon found they had plenty of milk to start making cheese. Diana did an apprenticeship at Cedar Grove and obtained her cheese-making license in 2004. During the construction of their creamery, Diana worked side by side as well with goat cheesemaster Anne Topham at Fantome Farm. Diana amazes us with her constant soft-spoken generosity, kindness, and dedication to her craft. The frequent appearances of members of the Murphy clan, bringing in their lovely fresh cheeses, always make us smile. Diana and James produce one of the most deliciously creamy soft goat cheeses in the state, an amazingly bright, tart feta, and an absolutely luscious soft-ripened cheese called Roseblossom, which we find quite comparable to the famous Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog we carried until recently. Since their herd of twenty-four goats is grazed, and their cheeses are very fresh, they provide us with outstanding product only seasonally, so make sure to buy it while it’s available.

Farmer Johns’
We continue to sell the delicious cheeses produced from the milk of John Dougherty, a third generation dairy farmer in Southwestern Wisconsin near Governor Dodge State Park. John’s family has been milking cows since the early 1900s. In 1989, the family decided to begin marketing the cheeses made from their milk through the Scenic Central Cooperative. Farmer John has been a popular fixture at the Eastside Farmers’ Market for many years now, and we’re delighted to carry his terrific Italian-style cheeses. Always jocular and easy-going, John regularly stops in the stores hand-delivering his products; his delightfully spirited mother, Phyllis, frequently takes our orders. We carry his asiago, his Parmesan, provonella, a cheese made combining the techniques used in crafting mozzarella and provolone; and his smoked gouda. Willy West now carries his wonderful cheese curds on the weekends as well.

Carr Valley
Sid Cook began working with his father making cheese before he was a teenager. He earned his cheese-making license when he was just sixteen. Cheesemaking is a tradition on both his mother’s and his father’s sides of the family. Sid bought Carr Valley Cheese Company located in La Valle, Wisconsin, in 1986, and started producing original high quality hand-crafted cheeses. He has experimented with many different techniques and different milks to create a huge variety of specialty cheeses. Sid’s factory helps us out frequently when we experience lean periods with some of our better-selling commodity cheeses as well. We currently carry eleven styles of some of his finest, award-winning creations, including Sweet Vanilla Cardona, a goat’s milk cheese perfect as a dessert pairing with seasonal fruits.

A fixture at the Dane County Farmer’s Market, the effervescent and enthusiast Felix Thalhammer has been making and selling high quality goat cheeses for several years now. Residents of the small community of Blue River, Wisconsin, he and his wife Catherine decided to go into the business of dairy farming back in the nineties. Felix did his apprenticeship, got his license and then built his creamery in 2001. Initially he used milk from his own goats, but with increasing demand he has had to expand and uses goat milk from several local family farms. We have several wonderful creations from Felix: the lovely Stick Bear goat’s milk muenster at East, as well as his Fromage Blanc and St Dorian, a full-bodied aged sheep’s milk cheese with some of the character of both gouda and Swiss, at West. His cow’s milk Moo Bear Muenster graces both our shelves, a delightfully creamy, classic Wisconsin original that is hugely popular and a terrific melter. And when it’s available, we’re especially fond of his bright, full flavored sheep/goat Greek-style feta.

Hidden Springs
In the Driftless region of Wisconsin just southeast of La Crosse, lies the pasture land of Brenda and Dean Jensen’s dairy sheep farm. Brenda had long had a dream of starting a dairy farm, and left a corporate career to pursue her passion. The Jensens are committed to using traditional farming and cheesemaking techniques with a respect for their land and their animals. Brenda workshard at a craft that is often quite challenging, but she never loses her sense of humor, her smile, nor her infectious upbeat energy. Hidden Springs Creamery produces some of the tastiest sheep cheeses in the state, and has already won several awards and positive media recognition for their high quality. Hidden Springs Sheep Milk Feta was chosen as one of the top five Wisconsin cheeses by Jeanne Carpenter on her blog CheeseUnderground in 2010. It is a smooth and creamy delight, with a wonderful tart flavor. We carry eleven different varieties of Hidden Springs cheese, including her classic creation, Ocooch Mountain, and the lovely complex mixed milk award-winning Meadow Melody, both of which she won awards for at this year’s ACS Competition. Her delicious Bohemian Blue is one of our very favorite local blue cheeses; think of it as a slightly mellower version of the classic French blue, Roquefort.

Tony and Julie Hook have been in the cheese making business since 1976. Their factory, located in Mineral Point, Wisconsin, produces a wide selection of fine crafted cheeses, but their specialties are robust blues and long-aged full flavored cheddars. We carry eight different varieties of Hook’s cheese, including their new, ACS Competition award-winner, a mixed milk blue with surprising complexity with a funny name, Ewe Calf to be Kidding Me, as well as the oldest cheddar currently available, Hook’s Fifteen Year Cheddar, a bracingly sharp masterpiece. Though the extraordinary Fifteen Year graces our shelves only for a limited time during the holiday season, their unforgettably sharp Ten Year Cheddar is in our case year round.

Roth Kase
In 2010 Roth Kase partnered with Emmi Cheese from Switzerland to expand their market. The fine products of Emmi Roth that we carry are still made right here in Monroe, WI, with wonderful Wisconsin milk. The Roth family has been making fine cheeses in Switzerland since 1863. In 1991, Roth family descendants Fermo Jaekle and his cousins Felix and Ulrich Roth saw a business opportunity in the similar terroir and culture of Green County, Wisconsin. An existing cheese plant in Monroe was acquired and re-fitted to accommodate the crafting of high quality European style cheeses that Americans have increasingly sought after. They started producing Gruyere, which hadn’t been made in the states for many years. Roth set up an apprenticeship program in which American and Swiss cheese makers spend time mastering techniques in both countries. We now have available the stellar Surchoix extra-aged Grand Cru Gruyere, perhaps one of Roth’s very finest cheese, as well as their also magnificent younger Grand Cru Gruyere. Their subsidiary brand, Sole, produces our Queso Quesadilla, Queso Asadero, Gran Queso, and our recently acquired Queso Cotija cheeses—wonderfully flavorful inspirations based upon classic Latin cheeses.

Formerly a part of Edelweiss Graziers Cooperative, Bert Paris changed the name of his outstanding graziered cheese making operation to Pastureland Cooperative. The name was purchased from a another small grass-fed cheese cooperative in Minnesota. Says Bert, the friendly and ever innovative farmer and Co-op president, “We loved the name and felt it was a better match for our values and vision for the co-op.” We carry their outstanding aged Peace of Pasture Gouda under the Pastureland brand, and will soon be carrying a denser, tangier variation that he has been crafting.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative
One more great bastion of Monroe, Wisconsin, is Chalet Cheese Cooperative. The only crafter of the legendary Limburger in the United States, Chalet also produces stellar Swiss-style cheeses in keeping with the region’s dominant Swiss heritage. Cheesemaker Myron Olson received his license to produce Limburger in 1972, and also hand-crafts the award-winning Deppeler lineof Swiss cheeses. In addition to the Limburger, we carry the Deppeler Baby Swiss, and Deppeler’s 18 Month-Aged Swiss—new to our cases this year, and one of the most intense puckeringly sharp aged Swisses we have ever tasted.

Three generations of Joe Widmer’s family have been fine-crafting cheeses at their small plant in the quiet little town of Theresa, Wisconsin, on the outskirts of the Horicon Marsh. Joe’s grandfather John is the man who first started producing that Wisconsin original, Brick cheese on a large scale; and at the factory they still use the original bricks to press this unique creation. Joe is an affable, good-natured champion of his craft, always willing to come to our stores to put a face to those great cheeses of his family’s; and there’s a new Widmer, his ever-present son, learning the craft now. Joe Widmer’s amazing aged cheddars, as well as his inimitable brick cheeses, have been anchoring stalwarts in our case for many years now. The Six Year Cheddar is one of Wisconsin’s very finest with its magnificent deep complex sharpness, and classic crumbly texture.

Holland’s Family Farms
Rolf and Marieke Penterman are first generation dairy farmers who moved from the Netherlands in 2002. They own a cheesemaking facility in Thorp, Wisconsin, that uses their own cow’s milk to craft some of the tastiest goudas we have ever had the fortune to sample. Marieke has perhaps one of the biggest personalities in a business full of big personalities; every time one of her cheeses wins yet another award, she graces the stage with a wildly enthusiastic dance routine! Marieke produced her first cheeses in 2006, and she has been going strong ever since. All of the Penterman’s goudas are produced using only their own farmstead, finest unpasteurized milk. We currently carry seven different varieties: a bright, buttery 2-4 month young Gouda; a fenugreek-flavored; a cumin-flavored; a smoked; a mustard melange; an unforgettably delicious, caramel-y; repeatedly award-winning 6 to 9 month aged gouda; and Marieke’s unique Wisconsin original, the Marieke Golden as well—bright and buttery flavored, it is a uniquely delicious creation of their own. These are some of our very favorite Wisconsin cheeses.

Nordic Creamery
Al Bekkum started his career in cheesemaking after being laid off from a construction job one fall twenty years ago, and he has been passionately producing cheese ever since. Al and his wife, Sarah founded Nordic Creamery three years ago in the Driftless region near Westby, Wisconsin. They craft many remarkable cheeses, and we carry their wonderful Capriko, a cow/goat milk blend with a smooth sweet, nutty flavor, which was chosen in 2011 by Wisconsin Cheese Originals as one of their top twenty cheeses of Wisconsin.

Alemar Cheese
Keith Adams became obsessed, as many of our great local cheesemakers did, with crafting an enduring legacy in new American cheese traditions. In Keith’s case, this meant creating a truly magnificent Camembert from high quality organic cow’s milk. He uses Cedar Summit Farm milk, Minnesota’s only 100% grass-fed dairy. Although not strictly local—Keith produces his one-of-a-kind cheese in Mankato, Minnesota—Bent River Camembert is a masterpiece, and carries on in the same tradition of small batch, artisan cheeses that our customers demand. Keith still has plans to roll out a new beer-washed cheese inspired by the classic French Reblochon. Keep your eyes out for this one; we’re sure to bring it in as soon as it’s available.

Located in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Renard’s Cheese has been family-owned and -operated since 1961. Three generations of the Renard family have been making fine quality Wisconsin cheese with flavor and character that comes only from proper aging and curing. Their cheeses have been the recipients of numerous regional, national, and international awards over the years. We currently carry their outstandingly delicious, and surprisingly affordable two-year bandage-wrapped white cheddar. We also carry Renard’s Black Peppercorn Cheddar with a distinctive peppery bite; and their striking Morel and Leek flavored Monterey Jack.

Cheese gift boxes
The holidays are near at hand, and this year Patrick tinkered a bit with our cheese gift boxes to create three exceptionally special offerings for your holiday gift-giving needs. We will also be having our yearly December cheese sampling events in the coming weeks, so make sure you don’t miss them! They are a great opportunity to taste spectacularly delicious local cheeses and to meet some of the wonderful people involved in their creation. Remember, when you are thinking about finding something special for your loved ones, how important it is to support these local artists who put their heart and soul into making Wisconsin cheeses some of the great culinary treasures of our country.

And look out for big changes ahead for the Willy East Cheese department. The remodel is now underway, and in the coming months our department will be getting a complete makeover. We will be expanding both our offerings and our service to make this an even greater cheese destination than before.