Chalet Cheese Co-op: The one and only
Myron Olson was born on an Argyle dairy farm, and after his dad sold the cows, began working part time while in high school, wrapping cheese in a nearby cheese factory.
After graduating from UW-Plattevile with an ag economics/ag technology degree in 1974, he returned to work full time at that same cheese factory: Chalet Cheese Co-op.
And he never left. Since 1992, he has been manager of the dairy producer-owned cooperative that makes Swiss, Baby Swiss, brick and Limburger cheese.
This small, specialty cheese factory, located a few miles north of Monroe in Green County, traces its beginning to 1885 — just 17 years after the first commercial cheese factory in the county was established.
Therein lies a story.
130 years making cheese
In 1885, five dairy farmers in the township Monroe organized a cooperative to make Limburger cheese from their milk and named it the Blieler-Gibbons Factory. In 1910, the name was changed to the Wyss Factory (the factory was located on the farm of John Wyss, the longtime co-op secretary).
In 1947, the co-op members formed a joint venture with Kraft Foods, which was the primary buyer of the Limburger produced at the Wyss factory, to build a new cheese factory close by. A year later, the new factory opened, and Olson described it as “the most modern Limburger factory in the U.S.” Albert Deppeler was the head cheesemaker and manager. In 1951, the name was again changed, to Chalet Cheese Co-op.
A new manager
Deppeler left the factory in 1992 (after 44 years) and was replaced by Myron Olson, who had gotten his cheesemaker license in 1972 after taking UW-Madison cheesemaking classes (at Richland Center) and had served as the co-op’s cheesemaker for 20 years.
In his 25 years as manager, Olson has led Chalet Cheese to nationwide fame as a consistent winner of top awards at national and world cheese contests (first, third and fifth on Baby Swiss at the 2016 World Cheese Contest) and as the only manufacturer of Limburger cheese in the U.S.
Olson is a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker in Baby Swiss, brick and Limburger cheeses.
“At that time, I had to get a special state license to make Limburger cheese,” Olson said. “It was called a master cheesemaker license long before the current and nationally-known Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program was initiated.”
Note: The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program is administered by the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison and is paid for by Wisconsin dairy producers. The program, now in its 22nd year, is the only one of its kind outside of Europe. It’s a rigorous, three-year course of study and practical apprenticeships open to veteran Wisconsin cheesemakers with a minimum of 10 years experience in quality-assured plants. They must have been making those specific varieties for at least five years.
Over 70 Wisconsin cheesemakers have completed the program since its inception in 1994 and only certified master cheesemakers are eligible to use the Master's Mark® on their products.
In 2004, the farmer members of Chalet Cheese purchased the well-known Deppeler Cheese Factory south of Monroe in order to gain added cheese-making capacity.
It’s the Limburger
Although Chalet Cheese Co-op has long been know for its high-quality Swiss, Baby Swiss and brick cheeses, its fame comes from its Limburger cheese.
Limburger cheese originated in the province of Limburg in what is now Belgium in the 19th century and was first made in the U.S. in 1851 in the Mohawk Valley of New York. In the early days of cheesemaking in Green County, Limburger was a popular cheese.
In 1949, there were 11 plants making Limburger. Today and for many years, there is but one: Chalet Cheese.
Chalet Cheese Co-op has 19 farmer members (120,000 pounds of milk daily), all located in Green County. “Many of our members have been bring their milk to Chalet for decades, and we have no turnover,” Olson said. “However, we are now facing the challenge of cheese production capacity.
"Our producers are expanding their dairy herds as sons and daughters take over the farms and cows are giving more milk. Both of our plants — Chalet and Deppeler — are near capacity. Our board of directors (Brian Bauman of Juda is president) is studying the issue.
Chalet Cheese is one of about a half dozen producer-owned dairy cooperatives in Green County. Although they are similar in that the farmers own the buildings and provide the milk, they reoperated in different fashions. Olson explained that at Chalet, the farmers provide the building and products to make cheese, and he is responsible for the labor, technology and sales.
Olson also explained that while farmers are paid well for their milk, they also share in financial profits made during the year.
“Farmers are paid in cash for 40 percent of the profits, 60 percent in stock that is redeemed on a seven-year basis,” he explained. “It means that each year we start anew financially.”
Olson also pointed out that milk itself is ever-changing, resulting in changes in the cheese-making process.
“For one thing, the silage is different today,” he said. “The fermentation of the corn in the big white bags seems to make a different feed, resulting in a different milk, and we have to adjust the starter we use to make cheese.”
Swiss and Brick too
Although Chalet Cheese Co-op, as the nation’s only producer of Limburger cheese, is often publicized (and joked about), Swiss, Baby Swiss and brick make up 85 percent of the cheese made at the factory.
“Limburger sales are mainly from Wisconsin to New York and in Florida.” Olson said.
According to cheese-eating experts, the best way to enjoy this cheese is the traditional way: a thick slice of Limburger and a thick slice of raw onion, layered between two slices of dark rye bread — best served with an icy cold bock beer.
Most of the cheese made at Chalet Cheese Co-op is sold to distributors and packaging companies, although the factory does sell its own brands: the Swiss and Baby Swiss has the Deppeler label and the Limburger and brick is sold under the Country Castle name.
The cheese shop at the factory, about 5 miles north of Monroe on County N, is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Only 12 today
Since the first commercial cheese factory was built in Green County in 1868, of the 340 cheese factories that have operated there, only 12 remain today.
A visit to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center in Monroe is a “must” if you are interested in the history of cheese and the people who built the industry. Their website at www.nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org will get you ready for a visit. You might even be able to buy a copy of the 104-page “Cheese Country - A History of the Dairy and Cheese Industry in Green County.”
Local history is indeed educational, interesting and fascinating. Get with it!
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.