by Matt Olson, Fresh Purchasing Manager

Recently, I had the opportunity to tour cheese country in Southern Wisconsin with a group of people from other local food co-ops. During the trip we visited a dairy farm, toured half a dozen different creameries, tasted a wide selection of delicious cheeses, and learned about the cheese making process from a variety of Master Cheese Makers. I came away with a more robust understanding of what makes our neighboring state one of the premier cheese making regions in the world.

Wisconsin produces 25 percent of our nation’s cheese, more than any other state. Dairy, the largest segment of Wisconsin’s agricultural sector, contributes $43.4 billion annually to the state’s economy. However, what really sets Wisconsin apart is not the quantity of cheese they produce but its award winning quality and the in-depth knowledge of their certified cheese makers. Wisconsin has the only Master Cheese Maker program in the country. To participate in this program, one must first apprentice with a licensed cheese maker for ten years. The program itself is then a three-year intensive study focused on cheese science and cheese making specific to different styles. Cheese makers are able to become certified in up to two cheese varieties at once. Many often return throughout their careers to become certified in making other varieties as well.

One of our first tour visits was to Edelweiss Creamery where we met Bruce Workman who holds 12 master certificates, more than any other Master Cheese Maker in the state. His son is currently apprenticing under him in order to carry on the family business. Bruce’s certificates range from cheddar to specialty Swiss to Gouda. His delicious Aged Raw Milk Gouda is currently available on our shelves. We also visited Emmi Roth where we saw stacks upon stacks of their Grand Cru Surchoix, a 2016 world cheese champion, and a robot that flips them daily. The cheeses must be flipped occasionally during the aging process in order to maintain their round shape. Roth’s Grand Cru, Vintage Van Gogh, and Buttermilk Blue Affinee are currently available for sale at the co-op. Rounding out the tour, we saw how feta is made at Klondike Creamery and visited Roelli – a small scale cheese maker that we are considering partnering with in the future.

Attending this wonderfully educational tour gave me new appreciation for the artistry and science that goes into artisanal cheese making and insight into how the cheese makers benefit their local community. Oftentimes, they combine deliveries with each other to minimize costs, bounce innovative ideas off of one another, and participate in cheese competitions at places like the World Cheese Championship and local county fairs. These small family farms (96 percent of all Wisconsin dairy farms are family-owned!) contribute a significant amount to the local economy by making and selling a variety of delicious cheeses. I left feeling grateful not only for new knowledge gained, but also for new connections made. Forming direct connections with the people who produce our local food is of the utmost importance at Mississippi Market. I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet local dairy farmers and cheese makers while hearing their stories and sampling many delicious cheeses!