Superhero Cheesemaker

Edible Culture Summer 2011 Issue

Superhero Cheesemaker

By Jeanne Carpenter | Photo By Jim Klousia 0

Despite what you see in the movies, modern superheroes don’t always wear tights and a cape. Sometimes they wear hairnets.

Ask just about any up-and-coming cheesemaker or dairy producer looking to add value to their farm and they’ll tell you about a superhero who changed their lives. It won’t be Superman or Batman or the Green Lantern. It will be a cheesemaker named Bob Wills who runs a little cheese factory in Plain called Cedar Grove Cheese.

During the past decade, Wills has helped at least a dozen beginning cheesemakers and dairy farmers launch their own cheese brands, including arguably the most famous cheese to ever come from Wisconsin: Pleasant Ridge Reserve of Uplands Cheese. Founder Mike Gingrich produced his award-winning Beaufort-style cheese the first four years at Cedar Grove before building his ownfarmstead cheese plant near Dodgeville in 2004.

However, Pleasant Ridge Reserve isn’t the only award-winner to come out of Cedar Grove. Sure, it may have won an unprecedented Triple Best in Show at the 2010 American Cheese Society competition in Seattle, but of the 98 awards captured by Wisconsin cheesemakers at the prestigious competition, seven were won by cheesemakers mentored by Wills, or by cheeses currently made at Cedar Grove.

Wills, a Master Cheesemaker in his own right (Wisconsin is the only state to both license its cheesemakers and offer an advance certification program), decided 11 years ago to open his specialty cheese plant to farmers interested in having a custom product made from their milk and to up-and-coming cheesemakers looking to rent a cheese vat to experiment with new recipes. The move was a risky and unprecedented one. Because of stiff competition, strict environmental standards and confidentially issues, very few cheese plants across the nation open their facilities to other cheesemakers. In Wisconsin, Wills is one of a handful of cheese plants that rents out space to other cheesemakers.

No one knows that better than Gingrich. Back in 2000, he decided to experiment with making a seasonal, alpine-style cheese from the milk of his pasture-grazed cows.

The initial investment of building a farmstead plant with an unproven product was intimidating, so instead, he approached area cheesemakers to see if any would be willing to rent out their plant for a few hours a week. Wills was the only cheesemaker to say yes.

“I can’t imagine how we could have gotten started in this business without Bob’s cooperation,” Gingrich says. “For the first four years we made Pleasant Ridge Reserve at Cedar Grove, we doubled our production every year and put all of our profits back into the business so we could keep growing. There’s no way we could have done that if we had a mortgage to pay.”

Wills, in his modest way, downplays the impact he’s had on start-up cheesemakers such as Gingrich, and instead, focuses on the bigger picture: “I’m interested in finding ways to empower farmers and partner with others to better market and distribute Wisconsin cheese. Ultimately, life is about people. It’s about relationships and helping people change the way they look at their food.”

Lately, those relationships have resulted in a surge in demand from dairy farmers looking to add value to their farms by hiring Wills to craft specialty cheeses specifically for them. One example is the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative. The farmer-owned group pools its milk and ships it to Cedar Grove, where Wills crafts two awardwinning cheeses: Dante, an aged, full sheep’s milk cheese with a buttery, nutty flavor; and Mona, a mixed milk cheese made from sheep’s and cow’s milk and aged to produce an appealing, robust flavor. The cheeses consistently win ribbons at national and world competitions. Wills also crafts a seasonal line of organic cheddars for Otter Creek Organic Farm in Avoca, a grass-based cheese for Goodman’s Northwood Farm in Wonewoc, an organic cheddar for the McCluskey Shillelagh Glen Farms in Hill Point, a Gouda-style cheese for Koepke Farms in Oconomowoc, and Hispanic-style cheeses for Noble-View Dairy in Kansasville. In addition, he produces fresh mozzarella for a neighboring water buffalo farmer, one of only three in the nation.

His newest venture is a little something called Clock Shadow Creamery and is scheduled to open in March 2012 in downtown Milwaukee. He’s partnering with a developer to lease the first floor of a new $7.2 million, four-story building in the Walker’s Point area. The creamery will feature public viewing areas and produce primarily fresh cheeses, including fresh mozzarella, quark and cheese curds—the types of cheeses not readily available to urban dwellers. The creamery will serve as an incubator for future cheesemakers, offering an apprenticeship program, where Wills plans to launch the next generation of cheesemakers from the inner city.

“The goal is help set up future cheesemakers for their own careers,” Wills says. “Ideally, I’ll find a young cheesemaker to run the Clock Shadow Creamery and it will be his or her factory in five years.” Wills adds that if the Clock Shadow Creamery model is successful, he may replicate it in other places. “It seems like a good way to help young people interested in building a career in the dairy industry who don’t come from a third or fourth generation cheesemaking family. We’ve got to find a way to connect those kids to cheesemaking.”

It’s statements like that—said off the cuff and from the heart—that makes one wonder if perhaps Bob Wills isn’t secretly a cheesemaker superhero. Perhaps he does have a pair of tights and cape in his closet after all.

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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