Wisconsin's master cheesemaker program shows quality and commitment

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
A worker puts Brick cheese curds into forms to make at the Widmer's Cheese Cellars on June 27, 2016 in Theresa, Wisconsin.

With Wisconsin holding the distinction of "America's Dairyland," the task of becoming a licensed master cheesemaker is one of the most challenging processes in the nation's dairy industry. However, its graduates say the hard work is worth the value added to Wisconsin cheese.

Master cheesemakers Pam Hodgson, of Sartori Cheese, and Chris Renard, of Renard's Cheese, as well as program coordinator Andy Johnson at the Center for Dairy Research, were guests on Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin's podcast "The Dairy Signal."

Hodgson said cheesemaking was not originally on her radar, but after going to Madison to study dairy science and follow her parents in becoming a dairy farmer, she took a job at a cheese plant and immediately fell in love with the process. She became a licensed cheesemaker in 1996 and received her master certification in 2005 in fontina, later getting recertified in Parmesan and asiago.

Pam Hodgson

"The nights and weekends and all the extra time that it takes to become a master ... for me, it was a labor of love, because I love cheesemaking," Hodgson said. "To be a master, I think if you're serious about what you're doing, you want to be recognized as the best. You want to be recognized for what you've accomplished."

It took her 40 hours to write her 28-page final exam as well as a two-year apprenticeship to earn her master cheesemaker certification. Hodgson said it's a good thing, too, because you want people to demonstrate mastery if they're looking to be a master cheesemaker.

Hodgson said Sartori has started their own classes, such as Cheese 101, where they teach new Sartori cheesemakers their unique way of making cheese. That process takes "extra steps" to ensure a higher quality than just any cheese. She added she's looking forward to watching the next generation of master cheesemakers leave their own mark on the cheese industry.

"One of the things I'm trying to do is teach the team at Sartori everything that I know. Well, the team is also going to learn things along the way and they're going to bring their experiences in," Hodgson said. "So if I do this next stage of my career correctly, the next generation will know more than I do and they'll be better cheesemakers than I am. That's very humbling, but really, that's what it should be."

Johnson said the master cheesemaker program is celebrating its 27th year this year and so far has 91 graduates, with six candidates for this year's class. It takes about three years to graduate and every student must have their cheesemaking license for at least 10 years, though Johnson said many have it for 15 or 20 years when they start the program. The program is largely funded by Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin as well as the dairy checkoff program.

"They have to hold down their day jobs," Johnson said. "In addition to their day jobs, they have to find time to work through the program. It definitely speaks to the commitment of those cheesemakers as hardworking cheesemakers. Once you're accepted into the program, it takes about three years to graduate. That's a lot of product sampling and education through short courses."

The program has taken a lot of inspiration from Europe's cheese scene, as the Center for Dairy Research initially based the program on similar programs there. Plus, the CDR is always looking for recipes to bring back from Europe to try here and even modify them or create entirely original ones with a European inspiration.

Johnson said the people running the master cheesemaker program are always prioritizing the future of the dairy industry by following consumer markets, expanding into export markets and straying away from commodity cheeses in favor of value-added specialty cheeses.

Andy Johnson

"We're always thinking of the future in terms of innovative products and where dairy is going," Johnson said. "We adapt through that, whether that's product development or short courses being pertinent and timely. (We want to) make sure we're number one in cheese and number one in dairy."

Renard, a third-generation cheesemaker, became a licensed cheesemaker in 1995 and received his master certification in 2014 in mozzarella and cheddar. His family has owned Renard's Cheese since 1960, and after going to college for business and marketing and starting a career elsewhere, Renard decided to come back to the family business. He and his wife started running the whole thing in 2014.

"I went into the classes thinking I knew a lot about cheese. Man, was I wrong. I had a lot to learn," Renard said. "Since I returned back in 2014 with my master's certificates, we started our own apprenticeship program here. Our cheesemakers all work with me on the floor, they've been learning. Our plant manager has done a great job of teaching. We basically started our own little school here to teach cheesemakers and bring them up."

Renard's does lots of hands-on work, rather than just pushing buttons, he added. Renard said it's important to recognize the hard work and raw passion that goes into making cheese, and it's just as important to recognize Wisconsin's dairy farmers for making it possible. The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association also helps with marketing the Wisconsin brand.

The CDR is invaluable when it comes to knowledge and ideas, Renard said. He explained that he always runs a new idea by CDR staff before putting the time and money into its development because they put him on a path to success, minimizing his chances of failure. He said it's not just milk in a vat, but something to experiment with and grow.

Third generation owners Chris and Ann Renard are joined by company founder Howard Renard who - while retired - enjoys coming to the plant and keeping abreast of the changes.

"There's a lot of staff there that you can bounce ideas off of. If I have a customer come in with something they want to try, I will run it by CDR first just to see if it's going to work," Renard said. "Those guys can get you on the right path sooner so there's less chance to fail. They are there to support us so we do not have to struggle."

Hodgson said she believes Wisconsin is the best place to be a cheesemaker because of the dairy farm families that produce world-class milk. She said Sartori has begun to hand-finish cheeses, like soaking the wheels in whiskey or wine, or rubbing them with olive oil, rosemary or cracked black pepper to infuse more flavor. These flavors are meant to complement the cheese and bring out its deepest flavors.

"We're cheesemakers first, and we will look for inspiration from anywhere around the world. The real key on there is inspiration," Hodgson said. "We're not interested in imitating or knocking off somebody else's cheese. We want to be inspired and we want to create our own American originals."

The master cheesemaker program not only helps Wisconsin stay high-ranking for its cheeses by adding value, but it also adds more value to the companies who employ those masters, Johnson said. He remarked that he loves to hear from past graduates about how the program affected them.

"It's really a program that impacts the value ... elevating the cheese brand in Wisconsin, helping out the dairy farmer across the country," Johnson said. "It's been great to hear stories – Pam and Chris, hearing their stories again – and how impactful the master cheesemaker program is for them and for their companies."