A few years ago Great Lakes Distillery set up the state's first distillery in an old dairy building on Holton and Capitol. When owner Guy Rehorst moved his operation to Walker's Point, Scott Buer moved in and launched another Wisconsin first there.
Buer's Bolzano Meats, 3950 N. Holton St., is Wisconsin's first dry cured charcuterie producer.
Buer has a background in organic and natural foods thanks to years at the Outpost, but he has also applied his experience in quality control at GE Medical to Bolzano, which started as a hobby and has grown into a business.
During a recent visit to Bolzano, Buer showed us around and explained how he works.
"The first thing we do is we get in the cuts of meat, and they get covered in salt and spices in big containers. Some of the stuff comes pre-cut if we want it to, then some of the whole hogs come in and a friend and I butcher them. We're inventing some new cuts of meat.
"The meat gets put in different containers (in a temperature controlled space) -- these are the prosciutto, which are basically covered in spices and salt. When the containers are full you can't event see the meat. There are test batches of little small items from the whole hog we're doing; so there's a Hungarian style capicola, a loin and a tenderloin; experimenting to see what works with them.
"The meat gets covered in salt and spices for different durations, and then it gets rinsed off. It's about 60 degrees in the climate-controlled cooler, and it's more about temperature and air flow, so we're slowly pulling moisture out of these. The salt is a preservative, but it also sucks liquid out, so when you're done, you ultimately have wet salt.
"Prosciutto is in here for nine months. Pancetta is the whole belly, and then there is the guanciale, which is the cheeks. They're in here and we have them monitored, and it's a slow process. There's a lot of reactions that go on, it's not simply drying. There's reactions that occur in the meat in the dry curing process that you wouldn't have if you put it in a food dehydrator or something like that.
"These have all been in here for a month, so they still have a long way to go. The speck prosciutto gets cold-smoked, too, which isn't like cooking it, and it's a subtle process."
Buer says that his business, like Rehorst's, is heavily regulated and he spends considerably more time each day dealing with paperwork and documentation than he does working with his product.
"I have to have every formula approved, I have to list every pathogen and how I'm going to control it, and actually go through the whole process with it and get it approved -- even the labels have to be approved."
Buer owns the company with his wife and they did most of the build out of the space themselves, assembling necessary equipment from various sources. The road from Buer hobby to Bolzano business has been a long one he says and one filled with detours that required him to come up with some solutions all his own.
"We moved in in April, and then it wasn't until August when we first stared producing the food and then our first batch was ready end of October. It's was a long slog. In my head I thought it would take a week or two, but we had to setup and buy walk-in coolers and heaters and put them together and drill them into the floor.
"Early on I got in contact with a consultant -- a guy in the meat industry -- and he said that this would cost $3 million to do, and it didn't cost that after I reinvented it. In my head, I didn't have any meat industry experience. By doing the first dry curing, we got to invent our own rules. A lot of it is tricky. Even the packaging and stuff has been -- there are a lot of catalogs from the food industry with packaging that we need, but their minimum order would be millions. So a lot of these things had to be invented on our own. So, part of this is really cheap, DIY kind of stuff, and part of it is custom made stainless steel wraps, and then this refrigeration unit was imported from Italy. So it's a combination. Some things are really expensive and some things are not ... you really have to watch the money."
Buer says that he noticed that while Wisconsin's cheese industry was well represented by shops like the Wisconsin Cheese Mart and Madison's Fromagination, we had little to show in terms of cured meats. He sensed we weren't taking them seriously.
"Going to places that specialize in Wisconsin cheese, the Wisconsin meat would always be like Slim Jims or something like that, or it would be imported or from the West Coast. I know people who are super into wines and different vintages and grapes and stuff but then they still buy this cheap (meat) product from Sam's Club or something.
"They don't get that meats are more complicated than any other foods because it's a living animal, there's a lot more that can go wrong with it, it needs to be raised the right way ... and dry curing this to me is really what small farms can do better than big farms, because I love pulled pork, but once you turn something into pulled pork, it could be chicken at that point, you can't really tell the difference.
"If you tried to do this with really cheap industrial meat it would be really lousy. Things like the marbling, exercise -- the animals that we use don't get antibiotics, and even things like if the animals are out eating clover; that ends up in the meat, like fruity tones in the meat. People are surprised by how complicated dry-cured meat can be.
"Also small farmers have realized that they can't just make the cheapest food because there's always some company that can outdo them, and that's why we've had this renaissance -- farmstead cheese and things like that. After the company opened, we've had even more farmers call and say, ‘Hey, we're raising Tamworths' or large black hogs, or these different breeds.
"I've never been a hog farmer and don't know about raising them, but I love connecting with farmers, because the ones we're working with are really into what they do. The farmers are very interested in it, and what's neat is that when we started using the Wisconsin stuff, and when it's (ready) to sell, our Web site will say where it came from -- the farmer's name, location and phone number.
"It's putting them back in the spotlight. We treat it as a non-commodity item. If something happened to the farmer and he couldn't sell to us, we couldn't just say, ‘We'll go buy Hereford from someone else.' He's not making this cheap generic product. We need him as much or more than he needs us."
Buer says that Wisconsin's foodies have reacted positively to what he's doing at Bolzano. At the moment his meats are at Glorioso's, Rupena's in the Milwaukee Public Market, as well as at Fromagination and Steve's Wine Market in Madison and Nala's Fromagerie in Green Bay.
He also sells at local farm markets -- including the winter market at State Fair Park -- and hopes to be in a few more Milwaukee-area stores soon.
"The reaction has been really good -- the farmers markets have been incredible. Our market isn't the guy who says I'm a big meat eater because he goes to Sam's Club and buys a big package of brats. People ask -- our prosciutto is speck prosciutto so it's spiced and smoked -- so, some people ask if we're going to do this style or that style, and one of the products that I didn't think there'd be a market for was lardo which is backfat, but I've had a few people ask for that.
"I grew up in a family with a lot of heart problems and I've been watching cholesterol since I was 9. I've turned a corner and realized that being afraid of fat isn't helping my health at all. I really stay away from health claims in food; I really think food is more about history and good eating and where you're getting the food from.
"I've been eating schmaltz with apple and onions on toast, and I get my cholesterol checked and it's lower, because you're eating less of it. If you eat a little bit of guanciale, you are full. In Europe where people are eating like this and drinking wine for lunch, people aren't fat and there's no heart disease."
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.