How Cheese Is Made

by Holly on June 18, 2012

in blogger meet-up,Wisconsin,Wisconsin Cheese

In between quitting my job, two TV appearances and putting beans in things, I took a tour.

But not just any tour, a tour of Wisconsin Cheese!

A group of Wisconsin-based bloggers packed up on a luxury coach bus – complete with delicious pork belly bagel sandwich lunches and afternoon gin cocktails served in water bottles – and spent hours driving through the picturesque rolling green hills of Southern Wisconsin learning all about the cheesemaking process. Wisconsin wins more awards for its cheese than any state OR country, so this is probably the place you want to learn how cheese is made, no?

Chalet Cheese Coop. Hook’s Cheese Company. Uplands Cheese.

Three factories. Two days. One awesome group of people.

Oh yeah…and A LOT of cheese.

And hairnets too! Can’t be having any frizzy wisps of hair caught in a gorgeous block of cheddar blue cheese even if Mama Everythingtarian maintains hair is just protein (a.k.a. totally fine to eat).

Anyways…some people think the first step in cheesemaking begins with quality milk.

WRONG.

Footies.

You need clean feet in the factory to ensure any potential bacteria trudged in the plant doesn’t taint the cheese. Once you’re sanitized on the feet front, then you need high-quality milk. About 10 pounds of it for every pound of cheese you make. The cheesemakers we visited get their milk right from family farms in their area – one even from right across the street.

Then the milk is weighed and since some cheesemakers get their milk from multiple farms, pasteurized or heat-treated to ensure its uniformity. However, because of the growing popularity of raw milk cheeses and the fact many cheesemakers know exactly what farm they’re milk is coming from, not all milk is pasteurized or heat-treated. To each cheesemaker his own, me thinks.

Giant stainless steel vats are filled with the fresh milk and a starter culture is added.

This is where the magic happens.

Starter cultures are essentially good bacteria. They directly determine the taste, flavor, color and texture of the cheese you’re eating. They make manchego cheese taste all buttery and rich. Feta cheese taste tangy and salty. And my personal favorite, gruyere cheese taste nutty and smooth! Let’s all take a moment to thank the starter culture.

From there, rennet, a milk-clotting enzyme, is added to coagulate the milk.

Once the milk thickens and resembles a thick, custard-like mass, the cheese is cut inside the vats by cheesemaking elves (usually the cheesemaker’s assistants). However large or small they cut the curd also has a direct correlation to what cheese will result – softer cheeses require larger curds while hard, more granular cheese require smaller curds.

Strain off the liquid whey and – voila! – you’ve got squeaky delicious curds.

While fresh cheese curds are delicious to eat, we still want cheese!

That’s why the curd is salted and then pressed into metal containers. Variations in the salting and pressing process plays a significant part in determining which one of the more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese made in Wisconsin it will become. It also determines the size as well as the shape of the cheese (wheel or block?). Seriously, way more complicated than you think!

This is stinky, smelly limburger cheese, freshly-pressed and hanging out in a cool room.

Then you wait (cue Jeopardy theme song).

For up to 20 years! Yes, Hook’s Cheese has a 20-YEAR AGED CHEDDAR. I am sure it costs more dollars than my life is worth, which is to say, a very large sum of money. What can I say, I don’t come cheap and neither does the cheese.

Swiss cheese…you have to wait at least 60 days.

Blue cheese…maybe a couple of months or a year, perhaps two.

And Pleasant Ridge Reserve (one of my all-time favorite cheeses)…around a year.

Finally…it’s SAMPLE TIME!!!

Honestly, as much as I loved Cheesemaker Myron and the Chalet Cheese Coop (the ONLY makers of limburger cheese in the United States!), I did not love limburger. Even balanced out with the sweetness of the strawberry jelly! It was still a bit musty and pungent for my taste. Otherwise, I happily devoured every last crumble, curd and slice of cheese set before me that day.

The work of Wisconsin’s cheesemakers is truly amazing. I had NO idea so much work went into making one of my favorite foods. Thank you to Heather, Kristen, Myron, Tony, Andy, Lori, Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the rest of the blogging gang for a bang-up time!

Nothing like hanging out with fellow Wisconsinites, eating cheese and drinking beer on the bus.

I totally don’t blame you if you really want to come visit me now.

In fact, I encourage it.

*Last photo courtesy of Joe Laedtke

{ 22 comments }

Sarah @ Learning to Feed Yourself June 18, 2012 at 9:35 pm

I am so jealous! I actually live in Madison, too. I always say the only reason I ever wish to have a car in Madison is so I can go visit farms!

I also just watched an episode of some show where Andrew Zimmern went to that same plant to try limburger. From the looks of everyone trying the cheese, it looks gross, but I still want to try it!

emily (a nutritionist eats) June 18, 2012 at 10:21 pm

You know how I feel about Wisconsin cheese. I love visiting my parents as they always have a few blocks of Carr Valley on hand. I mean, their company is really great too. ;)

Stacie@ Snaps and Bits June 19, 2012 at 6:39 am

That is so interesting, I had no idea! I buy WIsconsin cheddar at TJs but I’m sure it’s not quite the same. If I ever go to Wisconsin, I’m definitely doing a cheese tour :D

Ally June 19, 2012 at 7:30 am

Thanks…now I’m craving cheese! Although, I sure wish I had some of the cheese from your little field trip…all your pics have my mouth watering. Hmmm – maybe the hubby and I should look into a cheese tour where we live! :)

Emily @ Relishments June 19, 2012 at 7:46 am

One of my goals is to visit all 50 states, but I had no idea what I’d do in Wisconsin. I think I just decided that I’ll go on a cheese tour, when the time comes.

Gillian June 19, 2012 at 8:09 am

Oh man, I’m so jealous. I went to the Roquefort caves as a kid and I’ve been obsessed ever since. Love my stinky blue.

amanda June 19, 2012 at 9:15 am

i love the little attire you had to wear!

Lauren T June 19, 2012 at 9:18 am

It’s so neat that you got to go with some of your fellow bloggers! Sounds like a fun idea! The best part would be getting to try all the delicious cheeses I think! I can’t believe what an in depth process making cheese is!

Charlotte June 19, 2012 at 9:39 am

What?! No Pine River? Brittany is probably shaking her head in shame at you. However, I am pretty jealous. I think my heaven would be a cheese factory where I would have an unlimited supply of sharp cheddar to eat.

Katie @ Soulshine and Sassafras June 19, 2012 at 9:53 am

Oh man, now I’m really regretting polishing off my last bit of chèvre last night! That’s so fascinating, I would love to go do a cheese tour.

Mackenzie June 19, 2012 at 9:56 am

“and putting beans in things..” i adore your life.

joelle (on a pink typewriter) June 19, 2012 at 11:41 am

That looks so fun! I’m not sure we have any cool factories here in DC.. but I bet there’s a farm or 12 around if I drive further into VA (I have like zero sense of geography here, despite living in the area for 2 years)..

Molly @ A Fresh Start For Molly June 19, 2012 at 12:47 pm

My favourite guilty pleasure is poutine (a Canadian dish with fries, curds and gravy) and those cheese curds look perfect!!

Christine @ Savoury Traveller June 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I think I’m ready for my 10 second spot on one those horrifying summer reality dating shows – you’ve now given me a new answer to the ever-cheeeeesy question “What would we do on your dream date?”. I’m in love with this excursion! Cheese stank and footies are sexy to me – one of my alternate dream lives/retirement second career ideas is to own a cheese shop or make cheese or….do something with cheese! It’s such a pungent, quirky little art form!

Karey @ Nutty About Health June 19, 2012 at 2:52 pm

Aaah, you’re making me so homesick for Wisconsin!! In the first 23 years of my life living in the cheese capital of the world, I’ve never once done a cheese tour. I did go to school w/a boy that lived above a cheese factory (his family owned it) if that counts? I’m really craving some fresh WI cheese curds right now… no such thing around here in FL. Boo. Anyway, I really enjoyed the post and your tour experiences. Thanks for a great post Holly!! :)

Julia H. @ Going Gulia June 19, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Mmmmm. Cheeeeese. I’m a big cheese fan (let’s be real..who isn’t?), but I actually HATE blue cheese. I’ve tried to like it, but it just has not worked out. One little crumble of it on a piece of lettuce is enough to gross me out!

Kristen - Anywhere There's An Airport June 19, 2012 at 7:24 pm

And what if I wanted to visit before you wrote this post. We still need to rendezvous on this continent! Those frequent flyer miles are burning a whole in your pocket! :)

Alysha @ Shesontherun June 19, 2012 at 8:47 pm

Wisconsin kicks ass. Anyone else who thinks otherwise doesn’t know what they’re taking about :)

Megan (Braise the Roof) June 20, 2012 at 3:09 pm

I’m so close to WI!! I could’ve passed for a WI blogger! I’ve been to the Mars Cheese Castle and EVERYTHING! No, but seriously that sounds like the best trip ever. You know I love my cheese. :)

Tamar June 20, 2012 at 8:14 pm

So cool! I’ve made queso fresco and cottage cheese, which are both pretty easy, and it feels totally like magic. I’d love to make some more complicated cheeses sometime!

Purely Twins June 22, 2012 at 8:46 pm

oh man! looked like fun!

Andrea@WellnessNotes June 24, 2012 at 8:02 am

I would love to learn how cheese is made and then taste it! I love, love, love cheese. Sounds like a fun trip.

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