Redhead Creamery is run by Alise Sjostrom and her husband Lucas alongside her parents’ dairy farm, Jer-Lindy Farms. It was founded this year with assistance from a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $41,495 — more than $6,000 beyond its initial goal.
The founders of Jer-Lindy Farms are Jerry and Linda Jennissen. They grew up on dairy farms and met at a calf show when they were children.
Many years later, they married. They started their own farm (in Brooten, Minn.) in 1983.
“It is amazing to be on a farm that my parents basically built from scratch,” says Alise.
A dark, cool, Wisconsin autumn night has rolled over you and sounds of dairy cattle can scarcely be heard over the breeze. You contemplate the future while gazing into the clear night sky. A sandwich seems like a pretty good idea, and you’ve got to go somewhere. After all, the bar closed half an hour ago.
Instead of wandering into whatever place is still selling questionable food at this hour, head back to your kitchen for some fast and tasty grub of your own. A fried onion and cheddar sandwich is going to hit the spot just the way post-bar food is supposed to, and do it with a little Wisconsin flair to boot.
Papa Hemingway knew a thing or two about drinking and he wrote of a simple butter and onion sandwich in Big Two-Hearted River. Why not take a good idea and do what Wisconsin does best? Fry your onions in butter, toast up a brat bun, and add cheese. The result is the silver-tongued country cousin to Welsh Rarebit, that classic celebration of cheese (the poor man’s meat in Wales) and toast.
And if this sandwich seems a sophomoric cocktail of leftovers, your mind will change in a hurry when you experience the magical interaction of the butter and onions. To complete this dairy-assisted nirvana, you need only tap into the cheese stockpile in your fridge. Yes, you should have one of those.
Makes 2 sandwiches
½ onion (Vidalia or other sweet preferred) cut into half petals
2 brat buns
Two thick slices of Wisconsin sharp cheddar cheese (aged three years, max), chopped into small cubes
1. Cut the onion into petals and cut the petals in half.
2. Add a good dollop of butter to a frying pan and saute the onions on medium-low until al dente, about 3-4 minutes.
3. Toast the brat bun and butter it, adding a light sprinkle of garlic powder.
4. Just before removing the onions from the pan, add the sharp cheddar briefly to soften, and place everything in the bun.
I love cheese. I grew up in Wisconsin. But apparently, my knowledge about Wisconsin cheese could fill just one hole in a 200-pound wheel of emmentaler. That was one of the many things I learned during my recent three-day, all-cheese-all-the-time tour of southern Wisconsin, courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, with a group of food and cheese journalists, bloggers, authors, and mongers. The tour coincided with the third annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival in Madison, where we had access to 40+ Wisconsin cheesemakers eager to share their expertise — and samples, of course. If you’re interested in a blow-by-blow review of the weekend, come to my house and be prepared to stay for the better part of the day. For those of you with less time, I present my top five takeaways from the trip, excluding the various wedges I smuggled across the border, of course.
1. Cheese mites are real
We visited the cheese cave of Willi Lehner (right), a second-generation cheesemaker whose Bleu Mont Dairy turns out an amazing bandaged cheddar. When Lehner was walking us through his cave in Blue Mounds, he showed a sample of the muslin bandage he uses and mentioned that his is heavier than the kind other cheesemakers use. Why? someone inquired. To keep out the cheese mites.
Yes, apparently, mites are everywhere, including the rind of many cheeses. Some cheeses, like the French mimolette, rely on the cheese mites to burrow holes in the rind while the cheese ages, allowing it to breathe. But Lehner doesn’t want the mites near his precious cheddar, so he uses a thicker bandage and smears it with lard. The lard helps the bandages from drying out too fast — that’s key when the cheese will age for two to three years in a 1,600-square-foot cave with a 12-foot ceiling. Though Lehner has a good handle on the cave’s temperature (it ranges from 48ºF to 58°F year-round) and humidity, he uses time-tested techniques like bandaging to ensure his cheeses age well. We got to sample some two-and-a-half-year cheddar, and its crystallized, caramelly, mite-free bite demonstrated that it’s worth the extra cloth and effort.
2. Cheese prime-time is right now
You might think spring, when cows give birth, would be the best season for milk yields, but look to the opposite side of the year for cows to produce the best milk for cheesemaking, according to Jeff Wideman, a master of cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses who heads Maple Leaf Cheese Cooperative in Monroe. In the warm spring and summer months, cows drink more and eat less, which results in fewer solids (fats and proteins) in their milk. But in October and November, the cooler weather gives the cows a better appetite, and it shows in their milk. Whereas this summer Wideman got 9.4 pounds of cheddar per 100 pounds of milk, this fall he’s getting a pound more cheese from the same quantity of milk. Wisconsinites have another reason besides the start of football season to welcome fall — more cheese for game-day treats.
3. Super-aged cheeses are worth every penny
In the time it takes for Tony Hook, owner of Hook’s Cheese, to produce his coveted 15-year cheddar, he could make anywhere from 60 to 90 batches of your typical mild cheddar. Instead, he chooses to take up valuable space in his facility to test his cheesemaking skills over the course of a decade and a half, softly shepherding a young cheddar to the creamy, almost candy-like confection that retails for up to $60 / pound. If one thing goes wrong along the way — the cheese dries too fast or the flavors go in the wrong direction — that’s years worth of work gone down the drain.
“You can salvage cheese, but you can’t bring it back to age. You can sell it as mild. If worst comes to worst, you can sell it to make processed cheese,” Hook said. “You can insure against fire and recalls, but not aging.”
So while you may initially balk at the price tag, the 15-year cheddar almost seems like a bargain when you consider the gamble it took for Hook to bring it to market. Luckily, such a rich, flavor-filled cheese is one to savor in small doses, so you don’t need to buy an entire pound to be satisfied. Drop your daily latte habit for a week to purchase your chunk of cheddar. It’s the best dairy trade-off you’ll ever experience.
4. Cheese + Scotch = all kinds of awesome
I am not a Scotch drinker in the slightest. My preferences lean toward wine and the girly drinks, but I decided to throw caution to the wind and signed up for the cheese and Scotch pairings seminar offered at the Wisconsin Cheese Originals festival. Gregory Long, a spirits master at Vom Fass and a cheesemonger at Fromagination in Madison, lent his pairing expertise to four Scotches and four Wisconsin cheeses — and proved a few skeptics at my table wrong. Rather than overpowering the cheese, the Scotches provided a complementary tipple when matched with the right slice. The smoother, sherry-aged whiskys, like an 11-year-old Blair Athol, echoed the sweet nuttiness of the Emmi Roth Gran Queso, while Roelli’s Dunbarton Blue, with its earthy, salty bite, stood up to the smoky, tobacco-infused, 12-year Caol Ila.
The relevation, though, belonged to the marriage of a 7-year-old Ardmore with Bleu Mont’s bandaged cheddar (right). The herbal, semi-peated Scotch went head to head with the sharper aged flavor of the cheese, making me want more to drink and to nibble. No Scotch resides in my liquor cabinet now, but if I add a bottle, Ardmore it will be. The cheddar, of course, is a mainstay.
5. Pigs eat better cheese than most people do
At Uplands Cheese Company, where wunderkind cheesemaker Andy Hatch turns out his award-winning Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, we got the season’s first taste of Rush Creek Reserve. The cheese, modeled after the French Vacherin d’Or, develops such a luxurious, liquidy paste that it must be eaten with a spoon. As we rushed to sample of dollop of the young Rush Creek, Hatch took his own taste and deemed it a work in progress. “This batch will be for the pigs,” he noted.
Are you kidding me? Deliver this sumptuous, smoke-tinged cheese to a bunch of pigs? I don’t think they appreciate the craft and care that went into such a prized wheel. Andy, I don’t care if the Rush Creek isn’t top-notch — send it to my newly created Asylum for Wayward Cheeses, where I will lovingly tend to the needs (aka eat them with relish).
It turns out that less-than-perfect cheese is not the only product the pigs at Uplands get to enjoy. The leftover whey also makes it into their troughs, and you can find Uplands’ whey-fed prosciutto at Madison restaurants like L’Etoile. I can’t vouch for it personally, but my best friend / co-blogger Colleen thought it was stellar enough to convince her pork-loving husband to move to Wisconsin from Washington, D.C.
Note: The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board covered all travel, accommodations, and dining expenses for the three-day tour, but all opinions are the writer’s own.
There’s more to Iowa cheese than Maytag Blue. Yes, that raw-milk wonder may be the state’s most coveted, but in the softly rolling hills just miles from the Missouri border, the Musser family is producing cheese worthy of similar acclaim at the Milton Creamery. Their flagship specialty is Prairie Breeze, an award-winning Alpine-style cheddar, made with vegetarian rennet and milk from Amish farms no more than 15 miles from Milton (the bulk comes from within three).
Prairie Breeze accounts for around 3,000 of Milton’s current weekly output of 3,700 pounds of cheese. It’s a dry, sharp cheese, aged at least nine months, with a slight nuttiness and a tangy finish. Bridget Haugh at Lake Wine & Spirits, who sells it for $11.99 a pound, says, “In all the time we’ve been selling it, I think I’ve only had a couple people not like it. And we sell a lot of it.” It is a very accommodating cheese — non-pungent, slightly sweet, creamy, and flavorful.
Rufus and Jane Musser, Mennonites themselves, moved their family to Milton from Pennsylvania in 1992 looking for cheaper land to dairy farm. In the early 2000s, looking for a way to add value to his farm during a stretch of low milk prices, Rufus became set on cheese making, eventually breaking ground on the creamery in 2005. They started by producing cheese curds and commercial-grade cheeses, but soon figured they had to do better to make it a financial success.
“We thought, ‘How are we going to be lucky enough to hit a bullseye in the dark?’” he says, on the perils of entering the specialty cheese market. “People are in the cheese world for their whole life looking for breaks.” He dreamed of emulating a European-style aged cheddar that he felt no one was producing in the Midwest. With a consultant’s help he obtained the right cultures, made preliminary batches, and debuted it at farmers markets. When it was well received, he brought on a new investor, ramped up production, and obtained his first distributor: Classic Provisions in Plymouth.
Trying to get an Iowan, much less a Mennonite, to brag much about their work is next to impossible. Let’s instead allow their laurels to do the talking – Prairie Breeze was tops in the open hard cheese class at the 2009 US Championship Cheese Contest and in the 12-24 month cheddar class at the 2009 American Cheese Society championships. It also scored an impressive best-in-category on cheddar’s home turf at the 2010 World Cheese Awards in London – the only American entry along with 10 British cheddars to medal in the Mature Block Creamery Cheddar class. Musser’s son, head cheesemaker Galen, won that first gold at the age of 17.
“A lot of credit for our success has to go to the families who produce our milk,” says Rufus. The cows are hand-milked and pasture grazed on small family farms. Of course, this old-school process isn’t laboratory sterile. The bucket-under-the-cow method means a certain level of ambient additions to the milk. Rufus draws a parallel with Swiss cheese makers in the mid-20th century, who found that the move to milking machines during the winter excluded the natural bacteria from the milk that was essential to developing the unique characteristics of their cheese. “We’re doing the same thing, in a more controlled process,” he says.
That’s precisely what makes Prairie Breeze such a charming cheese – the flavor expresses the terroir of Southern Iowa and the people who make it. Rufus calls Prairie Breeze “consistent, within a range.” He personally enjoys the Prairie Breeze made from late autumn milk, when the cows have been eating the lush end-of-season grasses.
Milton Creamery is expanding to meet demand. A new aging room, currently under construction, will supplement their current set of refrigerated semi-trailers. It’s a nice mix of old and new world techniques in Milton. Try Prairie Breeze with your favorite Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, or brown ale.
Prairie Breeze can be found in most higher-end grocery stores and co-ops in the Metro.
Among those who closely follow Wisconsin cheesemakers, a few names stand out: Sid Cook, the Mad Genius of Carr Valley. Myron Olson, the Limburger Guy of Chalet Cheese. Joe Widmer, Mr. Old School of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars.
But many talented makers don’t get much press. Among them are Master Cheesemaker David Metzig of Union Star in Zittau, WI. He works in a little artisanal plant with living quarters above the make room, a throwback to the state’s original model of cheesemaking. Beyond making some of the best cheddar in a state famed for the stuff, Metzig makes a string cheese that is unlike anything else bearing the name — light years from the dour stringy lumps that you buy wrapped in plastic, it’s ineffably light and has a lactic purity that makes it taste like fresh milk made solid.
“Jon ages it for six weeks and is selling it now as a fairly young, mild stinky cheese. However, he’s thinking about starting to wash and cure some batches with beer, resulting in a heartier, stinkier cheese. He’s trying to figure out if there’s a market for such a cheese (I vote yes).”
Enjoy some shots of David Metzig and Union Star here, and read the story of the next generation over on Cheese Underground. And if you’re ever passing through the Green Bay area, take a detour to Zittau.
In all of my (brief) time as a cheese monger, it never once happened that a customer walked up to me and asked, “Could you recommend a cheese to pair with this beer?” And it breaks my heart. Hundreds of times: “I’ve got a Cabernet… could you help me?” I could try. “I think this is… umm… a Chardonnay? What cheese goes with an oaked Chardonnay?” For the life of me, I have no idea. I can’t help you. But beer? That’s easy. It’s really more of a question of which beers don’t work.
You think I jest? Follow me: the dairy fat of cheese — that yummy but eventually icky film that coats your mouth — begs for what the wine snobs call spumante, or what the rest of us call carbonation, to come and wash it away. Take a bite, wash it down, and take another. Each bite should taste as good as the last. Sparkling wines often work with a lot of cheeses for this reason. Furthermore, there’s this dangerous teeter-totter game you play with wine and cheese because the flavors are so far apart. You have to get just the right wine, with the perfect fruit and acidity, to balance with the cheese that’s sitting on the other end of a very wobbly plank.
With beer, you rarely have to play that kind of game. See, cheese and beer share flavors more often than cheese and wine. Yeasty? Check. Malty sweetness? Check. Smoky? You can find a beer that’s got it in spades. A little overlap in flavor builds the bridge between the cheese and the beer. Finally, beer and cheese, at least in the serving sizes before gluttony truly takes hold, are both affordable. A serving for one person of even the most expensive, $30 per pound, 10-year cheddar is still only a few bucks.
And beyond all that, the Midwest has some of the finest of both beer and cheese. A few choice pairings:
Without exaggeration, Bent River Camembert from the Alemar Cheese Co. in Mankato is as good as anything available in the US of A. When this soft cow’s milk cheese is ripe and runny, it beats any of the pasteurized French brie or camembert sold here. Seriously. I once told that to a couple who laughed at me. And laugh they should, because they’re wrong as fools. It takes some very blind Euro-worship to not see that the States are producing comparable cheese these days, and Bent River is a prime example.
To enjoy this soft, exquisite cheese, you don’t need to break the bank on some white Bordeaux or get out your Riedel set. Just try a Saison-style beer like Lift Bridge’s Farm Girl. The light fruit — apples, apricots, general summery happy wheat beer flavors — do well with the two-tone texture of this creamy cows milk cheese.
The Bent River almost approaches a triple-crème (think Brillat-Savarin or Delice de Bourgogne) in its decadent richness, but without the general sense that you’re eating a stick of butter. The fruit and wheat in a bottle of Farm Girl from Stillwater’s Lift Bridge Brewery does the trick.
The mouth-puckering hops of Surly’s Furious IPA are normally a red flag for cheese pairing — a flag as red as the beer can it came in. The bitter dryness of hops can be hard to pair with lots of foods. Fortunately, it’s a welcoming flavor for any real-deal aged cheddar like Widmer’s 8-year. The big, hoppy flavor and bold fruit of the Furious make it the perfect partner for the acidity and downright crunch of Widmer’s aged cheddar. The salt, the zing, the crumbling perfection of this golden gem: it was all made for IPA. Hops in pale ales of any sort can be tricky to match with a cheese, but the cheese gods were kind and they made the pairing easy.
Aged cheddar — and it doesn’t get any better than an old Widmer’s cheddar — is ready for the hops. And if your concern in pairing cheese with anything was that you’d look like some sort of dandy, don’t worry. With cheddar and an IPA, from Theresa, Wisconsin and Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, respectively, you’re no dandy. Not that there’s anything wrong with being a dandy.
Finally, and with the most ease, come the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve and Summit’s Great Northern Porter. The Extra Reserve is almost too easy to match. If you haven’t had Pleasant Ridge, you owe it to yourself to give it a try. It’s made in the style of Swiss mountain cheeses like Gruyère, another cow’s milk cheese that gets washed and aged. It’s got clear but not overbearing nutty, caramel flavor that works with a wide variety of beers. It could go just as easily with an amber or a coffee and chocolate-toned porter.
Basically, as long as it’s not wheat or a hophead beer, it’ll play fair with the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve. And the Summit Great Northern Porter plays well — the dark sweetness of the beer spins like a lithe dancer with the cheese like some rural Midwestern, true love, dairy barn prom. They just spin around and around. The Great Northern is on the mellower side for a porter, with a bit of sweetness and just a hint of hops. The chocolate is there, but lurking in the background. This all means the Great Northern will balance with the Pleasant Ridge Extra Reserve’s medium-bodied complexity without overshadowing it.
Think of these suggestions as three doors you can enter. There are no tigers beyond them, just expansive worlds of beer and cheese and beer. And rest assured that other beers work with these cheeses, and other cheeses with these beers.