Recently, when composing a cheese tasting for my family, I took full advantage of the dizzying variety of cheeses available here in the state of Wisconsin. Each of the three cheddar cheese varieties we tasted were “generational cheddars,” cultivated from generations of family history in the cheese-making business, while also embracing innovation.
The state of Wisconsin has a long tradition of cheese production, holding the title as top producing state since 1910. Naturally, there are many multiple-generation families involved in the craft. Joe Widmer is a perfect example of an uninterrupted line of cheese-makers, carrying on the tradition started when his grandfather bought a production plant in Theresa, WI in 1922. Widmer’s Cheese Cellars initially achieved success producing an American original for the predominantly German consumers in the area — true brick cheese. Today, Widmer’s still produces over 360,000 pounds of brick cheese every year, using the same open vats, the same worn bricks as weights, the same wooden racks for aging. The process is unchanged and the product is true to the original, aging from a delicate, subtle cheese to one with a strong, funky aroma, and melting texture. Once an innovation, now a tradition.
Despite the tradition embodied in Widmer’s Brick, today Widmer’s Cheese Cellars sells more of its award winning cheddar than their true American original. Our tasting featured a “6 Year Aged White Cheddar,” which showcases the rich caramel nuttiness of a full-flavored cheddar, finishing with the sharp tang expected in a well-aged cheese. The full, creamy mouthful fades to a long-lingering finish. Handcrafted and carefully aged, the years of careful attention to the cheese making process have been translated into a different variety which more closely reflects current tastes.
Our next variety was Carr Valley Cheese Company’s, “Snow White Goat Cheddar” created by Sid Cook, a fourth generation cheese maker. He bought the Carr Valley factory in 1986 in order to bring his own unique vision to cheese making traditions. He has produced countless American originals, many of them recognized with awards both nationally and internationally. Some Carr Valley cheeses are unique twists on traditional European varieties, such as “Mobay,” a sheep and goat milk version of the old French Morbier. Others represent completely new approaches, such as the cave-aged “Marisa,” or the many blends mixing cow, sheep, and goat milk, an approach Cook has raised to higher levels than anyone else in the state, and perhaps the country.
Rather than simply doing what’s always been done by previous generations, Sid Cook’s vision is leading Carr Valley in creating fresh approaches to classics.
Many of the cheeses from Carr Valley are notable for layers of flavors washing over one another due to different milk content, different finishes such as brine-washing or smoking, or different aging processes, or some combination of all of these approaches. The “Snow White Goat Cheddar” differs from some of the other Sid Cook creations. This cheddar exemplifies how goat milk changes the underlying flavor, with all the funky-earthy-tanginess that implies. Goat milk cheeses are found across the world, in some of the most ancient traditions. But, its use in cheddar-style cheese remains quite uncommon.
Though Cook’s cheese making legacy traces back four generations, he has always been willing to embrace uncommon approaches and unique combinations to create something completely new.
The final variety for our tasting was “The Doe” from Deer Creek Cheese. All the offerings from Deer Creek Cheese are collaborations between The Artisan Cheese Exchange based in Sheboygan, WI and a variety of local producers. Chris and Julie Gentine started The Artisan Cheese Exchange in 2006 to promote and export artisan cheeses. Chris is a third generation member of the family which started Sargento Foods in Plymouth, WI in 1953. Chris began working at Sargento, one of the largest sellers of prepared cheese products in the US, as a 15 year old preparing cheese for production. Later he joined his father’s firm, also in the cheese industry. Then, a few years ago, Chris and his wife, Julie started The Artisan Cheese Exchange to promote Wisconsin Cheeses across the globe, which ultimately led them to produce their own creations in collaboration with local producers.
Based on their past experience in the family business, the Gentines traveled the world collecting and experimenting with different cheddar cultures. An early offering, called “Vat 17”, is a beautifully full, complex, well-crafted cheddar which won national recognition. A more recent offering, “The Doe”, is a Madagascar bourbon vanilla bean infused cheddar. The flavors are soft, lush, creamy, and completely unlike any other cheddar, as the vanilla taste emerges at the end.
Gaining increasing recognition in the world of artisan cheeses, the Gentines are innovating approaches and exploring new markets compared to the more traditional markets of their family heritage. The past family success has created the financial freedom to try new approaches. The family name undoubtedly opens doors for exploration and collaboration. The result is not simply award-winning, artisan produced cheese, but a new avenue for family success.
Exploring traditions, while welcoming modern innovations, is how family-owned businesses can continue to evolve. Each of these cheese-makers is honoring their family roots, while responding to modern tastes. Hand-crafted with well-honed skills, these offerings are an exploration in flavor and a reflection of a long tradition. Whether innovating through adaptation, creativity, or by leveraging family success, these cheese makers carry forward a family tradition of creating something deliciously new.