Shift switch: Cheesemaker for a day
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Like you, I live in Wisconsin and I love cheese. And I'm something of a foodie, so I'm always eager to look behind the scenes at cheese factories, wineries and other places where culinary magic happens.
So, I was happy that Kris and Mark Heise – and owner Mark Rolison – let me be cheesemaker – more accurately, cheesemaker's assistant – for a day at Beechwood Cheese in Beechwood, about 10 minutes northeast of Kewaskum.
Driving the country roads to Beechwood was like motoring through paradise, with lush green fields, shallow valleys, gently rolling low rises and pastures dotted with cows.
Beechwood Cheese was founded in 1894 by James and Daniel O'Connel who bought their brother John's cheese factories and combined them at the present location. In 1933, then-owner Walter Linder built the current building and in 11 years later the DeLand Cheese Co. bought the business and put Mark's dad Norbert in charge.
Norbert – who sold his Cheddar, Colby, Brick and Muenster to Borden – was the first to make Monterey Jack in Wisconsin and was the first to test frozen starter cultures, too. When Mark and Kris bought the place in '79, they added the retail shop and created a range of flavored natural cheeses. About seven years ago, they sold the company to Rolison but continue to run it. Beechwood has been featured on an episode of the Food Network's "Road Tasted."
Kris and Mark couldn't be friendlier, welcoming me warmly on a beautiful June morning. I suspect working for them is a pretty good situation to be in.
When I arrived Kris gave me a hair net, a Beechwood T-shirt and directed me to the sterilizing sink to render me clean enough to work with the cheese. Meanwhile, Mark and his assistant Brandon Zolp were tossing Cheddar slabs, preparing to shred them into curds.
At 3 a.m. Mark fired up the boiler to pasteurize the milk. The milk was then heated in a tank and frozen starter culture was added. That, says Kris, is what tells the milk that big changes are coming when the rennet is added.
Also, the natural coloring is added to the milk to give the Cheddar its familiar orange color. The color is added to the milk, rather than the curds, to make sure that it is evenly distributed.
Within 20 minutes the rennet gives the heated milk the consistency of Jell-O, melding together tiny curds called fines. It continues to be heated to cook off some of the moisture and then it is sliced with long-handled slicers.
Cheddar slabs are the result. And this is where I came in. We tossed the slabs into a big open-top tank to get them ready for shredding into bigger "curds" – like the ones you buy in the store. The slabs aren't very heavy, but they're not light and you've got to bend at the middle to pick them up. So, right away, I realized that cheesemakers not only work long hours, but they work hard, too.
Next, we fed the slabs into a shredder, and the curds covered the bottom of the tank, which is pitched toward the middle to allow more whey to come off. The whey is fed into a machine that separates the cream from the water. The former is sent to a local ice cream maker and the water is recycled for a variety of uses, including for animal feed.
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