Edible Culture Spring 2012 Issue

Meet the Masters of Green County Cheese

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Becca Dilley 0

One tends to underestimate just how big a giant wheel of Emmentaler is until—if you’re like me—you try and fit one into the back of your car.

Bruce Workman, Master Cheesemaker at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, knows exactly how big—and how heavy—a “Big Wheel Swiss” is, and he’s smart enough to know a loading dock and two strong men are instrumental to transporting it from an aging warehouse into the trunk of a Honda Accord. That’s because he’s the only cheesemaker left in America crafting 180-pound wheels of Old World Emmentaler, and he’s got the biceps to prove it.

One photo shoot and a strained back later, I had a lot more respect for this jumbo cheese and for the man who spends 14 hours a day making it in an original Swiss copper vat he imported from Europe.

“There used to be 200 little cheese plants in Green County, all producing authentic copper-kettle Swiss,” Workman says. “Over the years, as cheesemaking became industrialized and companies worked to reduce their labor costs, it was abandoned. I’ve set out to bring it back.”

As one of ten Master Cheesemakers who call Green County home, Workman is considered by many one of the state’s most innovative cheese geniuses. He’s certified as a Master in nine—yes, nine—different cheese varieties and routinely wins national and international cheese contests with his gouda, havarti and muenster. In a region where the number of dairy cows rivals the number of people, Workman is one of the reasons Green County is considered Wisconsin’s epicenter of cheesemaking.

When you’re talking about the cheesemakers of Green County, three words immediately come to mind: innovation, craftsmanship and tradition. Cheesemaking goes back more than 150 years in this region of Southwest Wisconsin, where Holstein and Brown Swiss cows eat grass sprouting from the region’s sweet soils and limestonefiltered water. In fact, grass in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin where Green County is located is considered to be some of the best grass in the Midwest for cheesemaking. In what could easily pass for a Budweiser commercial with Clydesdale horses frolicking in the background, the cheesemakers in Green County have a saying: “Have patience. In time, grass becomes milk, and milk becomes cheese. And if you’re lucky, it becomes Green County cheese.” This “cheesy” saying happens to be true: cheese made in Green County is routinely judged as some of America’s best.

Indeed, Green County is routinely touted as Wisconsin’s cheesemaking hub. In fact, 100 years ago—in the days of metal milk cans, horse-drawn wagons and cheesemakers who could lift twice their own weight—this 585-square-mile region was home to a cheese plant on nearly every four-corner crossroads. Today, more than a dozen dairy processing plants call Green County home, many still owned by farmer cooperatives and operated by third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers, all handcrafting award-winning cheese year after year.

Looking for the best of Green County cheeses? These plants offer retail outlets, often staffed by cheerful gray-haired ladies who take a break from packaging to ring up your order with a pencil and paper.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative

At the only cheese plant in the nation still making limburger—the stinky cheese that Americans love to hate—Master Cheesemakers Myron Olson and Jamie Fahrney also craft baby Swiss, brick and German-style brick, all in open vats and by hand. Located near the middle-of-nowhere, use your GPS to find this historic cheese factory. Otherwise, like me, you may end up at the Monroe Municipal Airport wondering where you took a wrong turn.

Address: N4858 Cty. N, Monroe.
Hours: Monday – Friday, 7 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m.–10 a.m.

Chula Vista Cheese Company

Master Cheesemaker Jim Meives and his team specialize in Hispanic cheeses, crafting more than 40,000 pounds per day of their signature “Chihuahua” cheese, a Hispanic melting cheese that tastes somewhere between mild cheddar and mozzarella.

Address: 2923 Mayer Rd, Monroe.
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Decatur Dairy

Third generation cheesemaker Steve Stettler, a Master in brick, farmer’s, havarti, muenster and Swiss cheeses, makes some of the best specialty cheeses in Green County. His signature mustache and deep drawl characterize him as the cowboy cheesemaker of the Midwest.

Address: W1668 Cty. F, Brodhead.
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Emmi Roth Kase & Alp and Dell

Known for its cellar-aged gruyere, Emmi Roth USA also makes fontina, havarti, edam, gouda, raclette, rofumo, and butter kase. The modern and spacious retail outlet links to a cheesemaking viewing hallway and timeline of the company’s history in the United States.

Address: 627 2nd St, Monroe.
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Maple Leaf Cheese Sales

Master Cheesemakers Jeff Wideman and Paul Reigle make edam, gouda, cheddar, flavored jacks, queso blanco, cheddar blue and yogurt cheese.

Address: W2616 Hwy. 11/81, Juda.
Hours: Monday – Friday, 8 a.m. – 6 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Silver-Lewis Cheese Cooperative 

Just as close to the middle of nowhere as Chalet Cheese, Silver-Lewis is worth the hunt. Owners Josh and Carla Erickson specialize in brick, muenster and flavored jacks, with the retail store located just steps outside the cheesemaking room. If you’re ready for a look back in cheesemaking time, rev up the DeLorean and head back to the future at Silver-Lewis.

Address: W3075 Cty. EE, Monticello.
Hours: Monday – Friday, 6 a.m. – 1 p.m.; Saturday 7 a.m. – 11:30 am.

Jeanne Carpenter is a former farm girl turned cheese geek, writing and talking about cheese for a living. As the specialty cheese manager at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison, she works with Wisconsin cheesemakers to bring new products to market. Her motto is "Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese."

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