Colby: the Comeback Kid
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Jim Klousia 1
In Wisconsin, after Cheddar, Colby is the most common cheese bought by the block. On any given day, this simple cheese is likely found in any one of your neighbors’ refrigerators, ready for a sandwich or snack.
But sometimes the simplest cheeses are the ones that vanish the fastest, and in Colby, Wisconsin, the city’s namesake cheese has all but disappeared. You might find a package for sale in the corner convenience store, but the former Colby factory west of town is nothing more than a run-down building with boarded up windows. Colby cheese left Colby long ago, and true Colby—made by hand with attention to detail—is disappearing as well.
Today, of the 127 cheese plants in Wisconsin, 44 factories officially make Colby. Fourteen of those factories identify their Colby as “specialty.” That means they follow the traditional practice of washing the curd during the make process, resulting in a higher moisture content and a springier texture than, say, mild Cheddar. But less than half of those specialty makers craft what your Grandpa would consider true Colby: a slightly aged, lightly pressed curd with a milky, nutty flavor.
So what happened to traditional Colby? And is there a way to get it back?
The story begins with a big book called The Code of Federal Regulations. This code dictates how cheese can be made, and Section 133.118 describes the requirements for making Colby.
Many Americans confuse Colby with mild Cheddar, and with good reason. The key difference between the two is that during the Colby-making process, after the curd mass is cut and stirred, part of the whey is drained off, and the curd is cooled by adding water. This is different from Cheddar, where cheesemakers do not add water or rinse the curd. Then for traditional Colby, the curd is completely drained of the added water, salted, stirred, further drained, and lightly pressed into forms, instead of being allowed to knit together like Cheddar.
As a result of the light pressing and washed curd, traditional Colby boasts a curdy texture with “mechanical openings,” or pin-prick openings, and the flavor is slightly sweet with a salty, milky flavor.
All Colby was made according to the Code of Federal Regulations until the 1990s, when, because of lobbying by “Big Dairy,” the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture changed the state’s standard of identity for Colby, adding one phrase that would forever change the nature of this cheese: "Wisconsin certified premium grade AA Colby shall be reasonably firm. The cheese may have evenly distributed small mechanical openings or a closed body" (emphasis added).
The addition of four words—“or a closed body”—led to significant changes in how Wisconsin manufacturers made Colby. Because mechanical openings were no longer required, many processors simply began making a cheese that resembled mild Cheddar but labeled it as Colby.
But it wasn’t just the change in state statutes that doomed Colby in Wisconsin, says John Jaeggi, a third-generation, licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker with 30 years of experience. Jaeggi is responsible for the coordination and execution of cheese trials at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Jaeggi notes that modern starter cultures—enzymes added to milk to begin the ripening process—today work faster. “Older cultures were slower, single strains, resulting in slower make times. These slower cultures tended to make for a sweeter cheese," Jaeggi says.
Another change is the curd wash. Many large manufacturers now do a curd rinse after rapidly dropping the pH of the curd. Old-time Colby makers used to slowly drain whey to the curd line while the curd was still at a higher pH, Jaeggi says. Then water was added to drop the curd temperature, and after 15 minutes, the water was drained and the curd was salted. Larger plants don’t want to take that much time to make a vat of cheese.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, hoop sizes determining the shape, size and pressing ability of Colby are much different today. Traditional Colby was made in a “longhorn” shape, lightly pressed in 13-pound horns and then waxed for sale. Today, many cheese plants make Colby in 640-pound monster blocks, cut the blocks into smaller bars, and then seal these retail-sized bars immediately in plastic, often closing any mechanical openings that might have survived the process.
It’s almost as if traditional Colby doesn’t stand a chance in a world where bigger, faster and cheaper rule the marketplace. But thanks to a handful of Wisconsin cheesemakers, Colby may be making a comeback.
One company still making Colby in the traditional manner is Hook's Cheese in Mineral Point. Back in 1982, cheesemaker Julie Hook captured the World Championship Cheese Contest with her Colby, and her husband (and fellow cheesemaker), Tony, says they haven't changed the recipe since.
“We can't keep up with demand,” Tony says. “Usually, we sell Colby at four to six weeks because that's when I think it's at its peak, but sometimes we sell it even younger because people seem to like it so much.”
Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa and the Gile family’s Carr Cheese Factory in Cuba City also make traditional Colby. But it’s a newcomer who’s making the biggest splash: Deer Creek Robin, surprise winner of the Colby category at the 2015 Wisconsin State Fair Contest, beating even the old-time Colby-makers with a score of 99.225 out of a perfect 100.
Deer Creek Robin, named for Wisconsin's state bird, is a partnership between cheesemaker Kerry Henning at Henning's Cheese in Kiel, and cheese grader Chris Gentine of the Artisan Cheese Exchange in Sheboygan. Like many old-timers, Gentine has been on a quest to find true Colby, so he worked with Henning to create a young Colby with a firm, open and curdy body. Made in 12-pound wheels, bandaged with linen and dipped in wax, the cheese is just hitting the marketplace now, and its nutty, milky flavor is proving popular with customers.
“If you stop and think about it, we’re really just one generation away from losing our traditional cheeses,” Gentine says. “It’s nice to see some of the younger cheesemakers stepping up to stop the gap.”