Wisconsin cheese spreads are holiday classics
NEWTON - Transforming cheese from sliceable to spreadable doesn't require Christmas magic — or an old silk hat, for that matter. It takes a German bowl chopper originally designed for making sausage.
Well, that, and a warehouse full of aged cheddar.
And having more than 50 years of experience doesn't hurt.
The Pine River Pre-Pack Inc. facility is wedged between a two-lane country road and Wisconsin 42 just south of Manitowoc. From its nondescript building, the company pumps out 5 million pounds of cheese spread annually.
Contracted to make cheese spread under many labels, there's a chance you're spreading a snowflake Ritz with a Pine River Pre-Pack produced cheese, even if their name isn't on the label.
It's been the family business since the early 1960s, though the the family roots in cheesemaking go much deeper. The company's president, Phil Lindemann, remembers running around inside the family-owned facility at 6 years old with his dad, who founded the business. These days, Phil's wife Mary and daughter Brittany Requejo handle marketing duties, from working booths at trade shows to managing social media accounts.
They're all on a mission to spread the good cheer of cold pack cheese as more than a holiday treat.
The art of creamy consistency
When it comes to cold pack, Phil says there's a careful balance when blending and mixing ingredients, including cream and whey, to create a perfectly balanced spread.
"Too far it will get soupy, if you go the other way it will get firm," says Phil. "There's a lot of important things to get that creamy texture we're looking for."
Of course it starts with getting the right balance of cheddar. Some young. Some aged.
Use just young cheese like mild cheddar, says Phil, and it is harder it is to break down and will be rubbery. Older cheddar will almost melt between your fingers, but it lacks the structure of younger cheese.
It's all cheddar made to specific moisture, fat and pH levels, says Phil, for aging.
Cheddar arrives in 40 pound blocks at the Newton facility where it will age. Whole blocks of cheddar without the addition of trim, says Phil, have been used in Pine River Pre-Pack cold pack cheese since the '80s.
With the right blend of aged cheddars, the mixing process begins in large stainless steel bowls with mechanical arms attached to configuration of blades that were originally designed in Germany for grinding pork and seasonings into sausage, modified to be USDA dairy-certified.
Because the only heat in the cold pack cheese making process comes from the friction of the blades cutting through the cheese, butter and other ingredients, the machines need to meet stricter standards.
Mixing is done under the watchful eye of a Pine River Pre-Pack employee in an environmentally controlled room. Mixing and packaging happen in a production facility built in 2011 that's geothermally heated and air conditioned. In 2016, Pine River Pre-Pack earned level three Safe Quality Food designation — the highest level attainable.
Once the 600-pound batch of cheese spread reaches the right consistency, it gets poured into a vat that pumps it through a tube up and out of the mixing room to the automated cup filler.
The family roots of Pine River Pre-Pack stretch back to the turn of the 20th century when Gustav Lindemann. left the family farm to earn a dairy certificate in 1895 from the University of Wisconsin.
For dairy history buffs, it should be noted that Gustav studied under Stephen M. Babcock, inventor of the revolutionary Babcock test that was an easy and inexpensive method to determine the butterfat percentage of milk that helped cheesemakers churn out better and more consistent dairy products.
In 1907, after working as a cheesemaker at a Denmark factory, Gustav co-founded Northern Wisconsin Produce Co. in Manitowoc. Rather than making cheese, Northern Wisconsin Produce warehoused and distributed cheese, which it still does to this day.
Skip ahead six decades and one of Gustav's grandsons, Philip C., decides to incorporate Pine River Pre-Pack in 1964 as a standalone business.
At its inception, Pine River Pre-Pack didn't simply warehouse and ship cheese, it cut blocks into specific weights and packaged them. That left the Lindemanns with perfectly edible pieces of cheese, known as trim, that couldn't be packaged for resale.
Philip C. started making cold pack cheese from the trim. Phil says his father's cheese spread quickly became popular and soon they were ordering whole blocks of cheese to supplement trim to produce enough cold pack to keep up with demand. By 1990, Pine River Pre-Pack was exclusively using whole blocks of cheese, thanks in part to one particular business decision in the early '80s.
Strike up the b(r)and
If you're old enough to remember selling cheese spreads as a fundraiser for band or choir in 1980-something, you may have done more than raise money for band camp, uniforms or sheet music. You may have had a hand in Pine River Pre-Pack's expansion.
It started with a cold call from an Ohio-based company in 1983 that wanted Pine River Pre-Pack to supply cheese spreads for kids to sell as school fundraisers across the United States. Proud of the reputation he'd built for the quality of his cold pack cheese, says Mary, Phil's dad was concerned that being in a fundraising catalog, people would associate Pine River Pre-Pack cheese as a lower quality item.
Phil convinced his dad to give it a try.
"That was a huge part of our growth," says Phil.
Not only did Pine River Pre-Pack gain a national presence, says Mary, but being part of the fundraising business generated enough sales that it helped pay for their automated cup filler and a bowl chopper.
While band led the charge in fundraising sales in the early days, Pine River Pre-Pack cheeses still find their way into fundraising efforts. Some of the cheeses that were popular in 1983 remain popular today. Plus a few new flavors.
All the yummy flavors
Pine River's base formula of cheddar blends, whey, cream, etc ... was last tweaked in 1990.
"My dad was involved," says Phil. "I don't believe we will change it much any more."
The mix-ins? That's another matter.
It all started with port wine, because it was the one everyone else made.
Smoked cheddar was probably the second, says Phil, then sharp cheddar.
"Smoked cheddar didn't really follow through like you may think it would, but back in the day — when I was a little guy — smoky was our biggest flavor."
Another popular flavor from the early days was caraway seed. Other retired flavors include pink champagne, pizza pepperoni, and salami.
Though another defunct flavor spreads a smile on Phil's face.
"The craziest one was wild rice. We won a contest with it."
They had to boil the rice and the finished cheese spread almost looked gray, "but it was pretty good. We never made it in huge quantities."
Swiss almond, another longstanding favorite, was an early addition to the lineup and a flavor that's still popular.
Because Swiss cheese is blended with cheddar — cheddar is used in all spreads because it creates the best texture — its flavor isn't as strong as if it were sliced off a block. Phil thinks people who may not like traditional Swiss like the spread because of that blend.
More recently, cheeses like Asiago, bleu, brick and pepper jack have become part of Pine River Pre-Pack's offerings.
"The growth of artisan cheeses in general has infiltrated into the cheese spread world," says Mary.
From 2013-17, Asiago, bleu, brick, and Swiss and almond have earned gold at the United States and World Championship Cheese Contests. The aged brick — sold under the Widmer's Cheese Cellars label is made with brick cheese from the Theresa cheesemaker — was among the top 20 finalists in the Best of Show running at this year's United States Championship Cheese Contest.
Widmer's is hardly the only cheesemaker Pine River Pre-Pack works with. The company is contracted to make cold pack cheese under many labels. Not all of them are big names. Wisconsin wineries have asked for a cheese made with their wine to be sold in their gift shops.
Recently Pine River Pre-Pack made a small batch of beer cheese made with an amber ale from SwitchGear Brewing.
We usually don't have to think of a new flavor, says Phil, people ask us to make flavors for them.
Pine River Pre-Pack makes 16 flavors under its own label and are developing four clean label (no preservatives, artificial flavors or artificial colors) versions of popular spreads. For instance, the port wine uses beet juice to form the classic swirl of red color.
There's a full range of heat from jalapeno to hot habanero to ghost pepper.
Ghost pepper is so hot, says Mary, they keep the tub cover on when at trade shows to keep people from inadvertently getting blasted by heat. Having tried a wasabi-sized smear on a cracker, I have to say she's not wrong.
Bacon, garden vegetable and toasted onion are other flavored options from Pine River Pre-Pack.
If you're looking for something unique, there is pimento. Phil says it's popular in the southeast.
To New Year's Eve and beyond
My interest in Pine River Pre-Pack started from a personal observation. I can't go from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day without attending at least one party or family gathering that doesn't have a cheese spread as part of the food spread.
The Lindemanns said I wasn't wrong in assuming the holidays are the biggest sales season, but they're hoping to change that. Or as Mary puts it, "break beyond the cracker."
Included in the media packet is a sheet with more than 20 ways to incorporate cheese spread into meal planning all year. Here's where a multitude of flavors pays off.
Mary's suggestions include:
- Swirl a dollop of horseradish spread into a bloody mary for extra kick.
- Stir smokey bacon cheese into scrambled eggs.
- Melt jalapeno or hot habanero in a bowl as instant dip.
- Mix spicy beer cheese in tomato soup.
- Add a pat of chunky bleu on a burger.
- Top salmon with a spoonful of Swiss almond.
Not that there's anything wrong with keeping it simple and just opening a cup.
Mary says when serving cheese spread at home, she like to have different types of breads and more types of crackers than just Ritz.
Let it come to room temperature, says Phil, to maximize flavor.
"People like that at the end of the evening. When it gets a little softer and they're just digging in with the cracker."