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Making cheese: From a Swiss wheel to hot pepper

May 21, 2014 | 0 comments

Cheese eaters of a certain age — probably 50 years or older — and cheese lovers of all ages who know a bit about cheese history will remember when Monroe was indeed the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the World." At the time, the Swiss cheese referred to was in the form of huge near 200-pound wheels.

Today, the city and surrounding Green county is still so proclaimed, even though there is but one maker of the traditional big Emmentaler (called Swiss in this country) cheese wheels in all of the U.S.

Can you believe?

Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello (11 miles from Monroe but still in Green county) is the only cheese factory (of the former hundreds in Wisconsin) that still makes the 180-pound wheels of Swiss cheese in the traditional copper kettle?

Also, only one of Wisconsin's 58 Master Cheesemakers has a certification in Emmentaler, and that is Bruce Workman, the owner of Edelweiss Creamery.

A bit of history

The tradition of making Swiss cheese in the big wheels began in the middle ages when the Swiss government taxed cheesemakers on the number of pieces they produced rather than the total weight.

Swiss cheese in this country is generally understood as cheese with large holes in it, these include Emmentaler, Jarlsburg and Gruyere — all are cheeses that came to America with the many German and Swiss immigrants and their cheesemaking skills.

About 50 years ago, the advent of plastic packaging, which keeps moisture in but allows carbon dioxide to escape, made it possible to produce rindless Swiss cheese in blocks. Rindless block Swiss was developed for better yield in foodservice, retailers appreciate the ease of cutting and packaging, and it has taken over the Swiss market.

In addition to the rindless Swiss, baby Swiss and lacy Swiss with smaller holes and a sweeter taste are readily available to cheese lovers. However cheese from a 180-pound Emmentaler is the "best" in the eyes and tastes of many. 

Eleven times a "Master"

Bruce Workman is the "king" of Wisconsin's 58 Master Cheesemakers with certification in 11 cheese varieties in the elite Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program that was established in 1994. This joint partnership of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board is the most formalized, advanced cheesemaking training program in the nation and is the only one of its kind outside of Europe.

The program is open to veteran Wisconsin cheesemakers with a minimum of 10 years experience in Quality Assured plants. Candidates can seek certification for up to two cheese varieties each time they enter the three-year program. They must have been making those specific varieties for at least five years.

Son of a minister

Longtime cheesemaker Workman was born in Bryan, TX, the son of a minister who served at Texas A&M, Iowa State and UW-Madison before moving to a congregation in Monticello. 

As a teenager, he worked on farms until one day, after running out of gas, he was given a ride by a cheesemaker at Monticello Northside Swiss Cheese Co-op.

"He offered me a job," Workman said. "I worked there for nine years, and then with fellow cheesemaker Bob Durtschi, bought out the cheesemaker, and we ran the factory for another nine years." (As with many dairy cooperatives in Green county, the farmers owned the land and building; the cheesemaker owned the equipment and made and sold the cheese.)

After 18 years at the Monticello cheese factory, the dairy cooperative was closed, and Workman found himself working in construction for a year.

His desire to return to cheesemaking led him back to the cheese industry, first to Roy's Dairy in Monroe, then to Avonmore Dairy in Kent, Illinois, and finally to Roth Kase USA in Monroe. There he was the lead cheesemaker, and in 1999, he received his first Master Cheesemaker certifications in Gruyère and baby Swiss.

On his own

In 2003, Workman purchased the former Washington Town Hall Dairy, a former farmers co-op that originally made limburger and later Swiss. The factory had a history dating back to the 1800s and was last operated as Prima Kasa Cheese but had been vacant for a time.

"I wanted to get back in my own business," Workman said. "In three months, we tore the building apart and put it back together and began making cheese on April 2, 2004, as Edelweiss Creamery."

Actually, much of the equipment had been taken from there to Fair Oaks Dairy in Indiana, and they bought it and brought it back, Workman said. "Interestingly, after they closed their cheese plant (it's now a yogurt plant), we make all the cheese for that big farm and tourist attraction with their recipe and their milk."

Today, the Edelweiss Creamery is making cheese from some 75,000 pounds of milk a day, up from a third of that amount 10 years ago. "Harvarti is our biggest cheese in terms of pounds," he said. "But, we make over twenty different cheese varieties."

Back to the big wheels

No doubt the pride and joy cheese variety that Workman makes at this historic cheese factory is the Emmentaler (Swiss) in the big 180-pound wheels.

In order to make this extraordinary cheese — none was being made in the U.S. at the time — he imported a cheese factory from Switzerland to get the right equipment. This included the copper-lined kettle that easily holds the 8,500 pounds of milk used to make four 180-pound Swiss wheels at a time.

The equipment is a bit more modern and automated than that used by the 200 or more small cheesemakers producing Swiss cheese in Green county during the early part of the 20th century. In those days, the important lifting and turning of the wheels was by people power.

The copper kettle is critical for making real Swiss cheese, Workman said. You need it to get the desired rich, nutty flavor. He also explained that the eyes on copper kettle Emmentaler are big — the size of a quarter.

Cheese tastes have changed in recent years, and the cheesemakers and marketers have responded. "Peppers, dill and other strong flavors are increasing in popularity," Workman said. "Everyone seems to be looking for new tastes in cheese, and we are providing them.

"Edelweiss Creamery has now been making both old and new cheeses for ten years. We have 12 employees, including my son Jeff , a microbiology/chemistry graduate of UW-Oshkosh.

Yes, you buy a piece of history

"We market through Maple Leaf Sales at Monroe and our website Edelweiss.com," Workman said. "Yes, you can buy a piece of a traditional Emmentaler Swiss wheel on our website from the only factory in the nation that makes it."

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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