Graduating class of master cheesemakers dedicated to their craft

Center for Dairy Research and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin
Wisconsin has more than 90 master cheesemakers that devoted around three years to achieve that certification and have earned the right to use the Master Mark® on their products.

Whether they followed in their father or grandfather's footsteps or learned the cheesemaking business from the ground up, the 28th graduating class of the Wisconsin Cheesemaker® program has one thing in common: their love of cheese and their devotion to the industry.

This year’s class is one of the largest in recent years, with three new and three returning Master cheesemakers, noted the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW).

“I want to congratulate both the returning and new Master Cheesemakers,” said Andy Johnson, coordinator of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program. “I am proud and excited to continuing working with this impressive group. The new Masters are a fine addition to the program and will help carry on the tradition of passion and quality cheesemaking that the program embodies.”

To be eligible for the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program, cheesemakers must be licensed Wisconsin cheesemakers for at least 10 years. Before applicants are accepted into the program, they are required to complete CDR’s Advanced Cheese Technology, Short Course and one other workshop of their choice.

In addition, applicants undergo a plant visit where they lead a walk-through of their facility and must pass an oral exam. Once they are accepted into the program, participants complete a list of courses and an intensive exam.

Before they can graduate as a Master cheesemaker, the cheeses they are being certified in are graded for flavor, composition and microbial analysis—this is done three times.

All said, it takes about three years to complete, and, in the end, once successful, the cheesemaker earns the honor and respect of becoming a Master cheesemaker as well as the right to use the Master Mark® on their products.

More than 90 cheesemakers have earned the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker in dozens of varieties of cheeses. Many Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers have earned multiple certifications in different cheese types/styles. 

New Master Cheesemakers

Charles Henn, master cheesemaker of cheddar cheese at Agropur, Weyauwega, has learned his craft from experiences home and abroad.

Charles Henn, Agropur, Weyauwega, Certified Master: Cheddar

Cheese has taken Charles Henn around the world. It all started when, as a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Henn got a cheesemaking job in the university’s dairy plant.

“I went to college thinking I was going to be a veterinarian. When I first applied to vet schools after my junior year in college, I got denied. My college advisor tried to cheer me up and he told me I’d probably make more money as a cheesemaker than as a vet,” Henn said with a laugh.

As part of the university dairy plant job, an alumnus from China brought Henn and other college cheesemakers to China where they spent three weeks on a Tibetan plateau making Halloumi cheese from Yak’s milk.

“I had a pretty unique college experience and that was all because of cheese,” he said.

After graduating, Henn went to work at Belgioioso where he made cheeses like Mascarpone and Ricotta for more than 10 years. Henn now works at the Agropur plant in Weyauwega where he makes Cheddar. This year, Henn joins the ranks of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers with a certification in Cheddar.

“Cheddar’s always been my favorite cheese,” he said. “I enjoy eating curds too, but I really enjoy a good sharp Cheddar.”

Becoming a Master Cheesemaker has been a goal of Henn’s. “I first heard about the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program in 2003 when I got my cheesemakers license. I always thought it would be neat to become one.”

“I really enjoyed going to the classes,” Henn said. “I learned a lot going down to CDR. Spending time in class was enjoyable, it was just a really good learning experience.”

Looking ahead, Henn said he would be interested in earning a Master Cheesemaker certification in Feta cheese. The Agropur plant in Weyauwega, where Henn works, makes a lot of Feta.

“I don’t have any experience in Feta, but I told the plant manager I’d be willing to put the time in to become a master in Feta. I never knew how Feta was made or really even ate any before I got here.”

Looking back, it’s probably safe to say that things worked out for the better for Henn. Although he initially hoped to be a veterinarian back when he was in college, he says he likes his career as a cheesemaker.

“I really enjoy the difficulty of cheesemaking,” he said. “There’s a lot of work in finding out how to fix the problems and that’s what I enjoy – the difficulty of it and the variety of issues that you’ll have.”

Proud to follow in his family's legacy in the dairy industry is Ken Kane of Sartori, Plymouth, who is a certified master cheesemaker of Romano and Parmesan cheeses.

Ken Kane, Sartori, Plymouth, Certified Master: Romano and Parmesan

It seems to be destiny that Ken Kane became a cheesemaker. He was named after his grandfather who owned a dairy farm and was a cheesemaker in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

“My grandfather would milk the cows in the morning, bring the milk into the plant and make cheese,” Kane said. “My dad always loved it when my grandfather brought home fresh curd from the plant.”

However, it wasn’t until Kane was a couple of years into his own career at Sartori that his dad told him about his family’s history and legacy in the dairy industry. “It’s a pretty cool experience to bring it full circle, to get his name, and to be a cheesemaker as well,” he said.

Kane started his career in 2005 at the Sartori plant in Plymouth, Wisconsin where he initially worked in food sanitation. Over the years, he said he worked about every job in the plant, eventually landing on cheesemaker.

“I started working with the cheesemakers,” Kane said, “They showed me the ropes and eventually I moved into a cheesemaking role and began my apprenticeship to gain my cheesemakers license.”

Right away, he fell in love with the work. “The creative process of cheesemaking really drew me in,” he said. “I love creating something day in and day out that starts out as a singular product and is completely transformed through the cheesemaking process.”

As soon as he learned about the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program, he knew he wanted to be one.

“That was really my true north and everything that I did was about trying to get to that point,” Kane said. “I started to develop different cheeses and broaden my scope of what cheese really was. It was really interesting and motivating to work toward the Master program.”

He added that he was fortunate to have good mentors like Master Cheesemaker Mark Gustafson, “We really get into the art and science of cheesemaking. It is a great challenge every day.”

This year, Kane has achieved his goal of becoming a Master Cheesemaker with certifications in Parmesan and Romano.

“I learned how to make cheese by making Parmesan and Romano cheese,” he said. “So, it was really near and dear to my heart to obtain certifications in those two cheeses.”

Kane said it’s special to be part of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program because of how the program elevates Wisconsin cheesemaking.

“It really showcases what Wisconsin is all about,” he said. “It’s about our craft and our dedication to the land, our farmers and our product.”

Shawn Sadler of AMPI, Broadhead, is a certified master cheesemaker of Brick and Butterkäse cheeses.

Shawn Sadler, AMPI, Jim Falls, Certified Master: Cheddar and Monterey

Over the course of his 25-year career, Shawn Sadler has gone from literally sweeping the floors to running the place. Sadler, who is currently the Cheese Plant Superintendent at the Associated Milk Producers, Inc. (AMPI) location in Jim Falls, Wisconsin, started working at the plant right out of high school.

“My dad had worked here for most of his career and I thought it seemed like a good place to work,” Sadler said. “I just started working on the floor, doing cleanup and helping with various other jobs.”

Eventually, Sadler found his way into cheesemaking and got his license. It wasn’t long until the plant supervisor asked Sadler if he’d be interested in a foreman role. At this time, Sadler started taking short courses at CDR and learning more about cheesemaking. Then the plant supervisor job opened, Sadler was encouraged to apply, and he has been in that role for about four years.

Through it all, Sadler said that he has learned to love the cheesemaking process and the interesting challenges that go with the job.

“It seems like you’re always learning something new,” he said. “Every time you think you have cheese figured out there’s always something else to learn. I’m always trying to tweak something. We don’t standardize our milk here, so we’re always trying to tweak things through the seasons.”

Now, Sadler joins the ranks of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers with certifications in Monterey Jack and Cheddar. Sadler picked those cheeses because his plant makes a lot of Cheddar and Pepper Jack (Monterey Jack is the base for Pepper Jack).

Overall, he said the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program was a great experience.

“I think it’s a very good program and I learned a lot completing it,” he said. “Anyone interested in learning more in the cheesemaking industry should take the program.”

One part of the program that he liked was the opportunity to network with other cheesemakers, “Getting connected with other cheesemakers was really helpful. Being able to talk to other people in the industry in other plants; that’s phenomenal.”

Looking ahead, Sadler said he’s heard that Pepper Jack may get a Standard of Identity in the United States Code of Federal Regulations, which would most likely mean it would be an eligible cheese for the Master program. “I would definitely be interested in that.”

Returning Master Cheesemakers

Advice given to him at the age of 16 kept Jamie Fahrney in the cheesemaking craft.  Fahrney of Chalet Cheese Cooperative, Monroe, is a certified master cheesemaker of  Limburger and Swiss cheeses.

Jamie Fahrney, Chalet Cheese Cooperative, Monroe, Certified Master: Limburger and Swiss

Jamie Fahrney started working at Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe Wisconsin when he was 16.

“After my first day, I went home and told my mother, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this cheesemaking stuff, it’s pretty tough work.’ Then my dad came home, and he told me, ‘You’re staying right where you’re at.’ I’ve been here ever since.”

Fahrney has been at Chalet Cheese Cooperative for about 44 years. He started working full time at the historic cheese plant after graduating high school in 1980 and earned his cheesemakers license in 1985. Chalet Cheese cooperative was founded in 1885 and is one of the oldest cheese cooperatives in the nation. It’s also one of the most well-known because of a certain cheese that it produces – Limburger.

“We’re famous for our Limburger because we’re the only ones in the United States making it,” Fahrney said. “However, Swiss and Baby Swiss is our main business.”

This year, Fahrney earns Master certifications in Limburger and Swiss. He also holds certifications in Brick and Baby Swiss.

“My favorite cheese is that old time Swiss – those 200-pound wheels of Swiss,” Fahrney said. “I still remember as a kid going into the local Swiss plant. My dad bought some Swiss and I think it wasn’t two days gone by and I had that piece of cheese eaten myself. It’s like candy to me.”

Fahrney’s connection to Wisconsin cheesemaking history and culture is remarkable. He was hired by Albert Deppeler, who is known for the development of Baby Swiss. And Fahrney was mentored by Master Cheesemaker Myron Olson.

Fahrney continues a traditional approach to cheesemaking at Chalet Cheese Cooperative, “Our plant still uses the hands-on approach — we think it is the best way. We don’t have the push button vats where you’re not even involved in it.”

As Fahrney said, Chalet Cheese Cooperative’s claim to fame is its Limburger. However, he added that their Limburger production has declined in recent years,

“The younger crowd today doesn’t care as much for that full-flavored cheese.”

The cheese is, of course, well known for its strong aroma and flavor.

“Limburger gets the bad connotations with the jokes about it and what not. It’s unfortunate but unfortunately they’re all true too,” Fahrney said with a laugh.

Still, Fahrney doesn’t think Limburger is going to go away anytime soon, “There’s always going to people who like a full-flavored cheese.”

Matt Henze

Matt Henze, Decatur Dairy, Broadhead, Certified Master: Brick and Butterkäse

Like a lot of Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers, Matt Henze fell in love with cheesemaking right from the start.

“It all started when I graduated high school and needed a job,” Henze said. “A buddy was working at Decatur Dairy and he got me a job. I just fell in love with it.”

At Decatur Dairy, Henze found a good mentor in Steve Stettler, a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker with certifications in seven cheeses.

“I started in the pack room and I overheard Steve talking about training someone else on how to make cheese,” Henze remembers. “And I asked Steve, ‘What do I got to do to make cheese?’ And he said, ‘Be here tonight.’ So, I came in and it started from there. Steve taught me everything.”

Henze added, “I’m very fortunate that I had Steve be the one to teach me. It’s a great honor. Like I said, I learned everything from him.”

Henze has now been making cheese for almost 20 years. In 2018, he earned Master certifications in Muenster and Havarti. This year, he adds Brick and Butterkäse. He said he picked those cheeses because they make a lot of Brick and Butterkäse at Decatur Dairy.

Overall, Henze said that he has enjoyed the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program.

“I think it’s a great program for people to learn everything about cheese – the steps, the process,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity for somebody that loves rewarded for all the hard work they put into it.”

Looking back, Henze said he is fortunate that he landed that job at Decatur Dairy.

“The best part is creating something that people enjoy,” he said. “I think we get compliments every day. We have a cheese store here at Decatur Dairy and hearing the feedback from everyone enjoying our product; that’s what I enjoy the most.”

Gerard Knaus has an impressive eight master cheesemaker certifications. The Weyauwega Star Dairy, Weyauwega, most recently was certified for Monterey Jack and Muenster cheeses.

Gerard Knaus, Weyauwega Star Dairy, Weyauwega, Certified Master: Monterey Jack and Muenster

Gerard Knaus comes from a long tradition of cheesemaking. His family has been making cheese for four generations, “Now I have nieces and nephews in it and it’s just great to see them carrying on the family business.”

Knaus was still in high school when he started making cheese, “I remember it started with sampling and testing milk with my dad and then one day he said, ‘Let’s go in the plant and make some cheese.’ And it started from there.”

Now Knaus has been making cheese for about 42 years and he said he still likes the challenge of cheesemaking and the drive to make a good quality product.

“It’s always an adventure,” he said. “You always try to do things to make it better so that it’s the absolute perfect way that you want it. It’s an art.”

This year, Knaus earns Master certifications in Monterey Jack and Muenster. In total, he has an impressive eight Master Cheesemaker certifications. Knaus is especially proud to add Muenster to his list of Master cheeses, “It’s a really nice cheese and you can put it anywhere and people love it. It has a nice flavor to it, it’s creamy. It’s some of the best.”

As mentioned, Knaus is a veteran of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® program and he credits current and former CDR and University of Wisconsin staff like Marianne Smukowski, John Jaeggi, Mark Johnson, Bob Bradley, and Bill Wendorff for the success of the program and for the great education in the CDR Short Courses.

“They wanted you to do the best you can,” Knaus said. “They did whatever they could to teach you. It wasn’t just, ‘Here’s a book and read it.’ No, they came in and were very thorough with everything they did.”

As for the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program itself, Knaus said it helps elevate Wisconsin cheese and cheesemakers, “The Master program; no one else has something else like it.” He also adds that he encourages younger cheesemakers to apply for the program.

Knaus also said that the Master program isn’t just about earning a medal; it’s about getting real knowledge that you can use every day in the plant. He is very passionate about making the best possible cheese.

“You got to make sure you do it right,” Knaus said. “Get quality milk in, get your yields right. Talk to your farmers, make friends with them and make sure they know this is what we’re trying to achieve.”

That same attitude applies in the plant, “There no such thing as good enough to us. It’s going to be perfect and it’s not just me, it’s everyone from start to finish. We want to make the best cheese we can.”