My journey to becoming a licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker did not begin intentionally. As I was preparing for my freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I began looking for an on-campus student job. While scrolling through the job list, I quickly stopped when I saw a job available to work in the Babcock Hall Dairy Pant. Ladies and gentleman, I thought I had struck gold. Babcock Hall is the on-campus dairy plant, most known for its iconic ice cream, and my initial thought was free samples during work- score! I couldn’t wait to get started making (and eating) ice cream. However, when it came to my first day, I was assigned to the cheese section of the plant. Turns out, this assignment was meant to be.
I spent the next three years working in the Babcock plant, making cheese with Master Cheesemaker Gary Grossen. It was truly a blessing to learn all I know about from a Wisconsin cheesemaking legend. Gary grew up making cheese with his parents at Prairie Hill Cheese Factory in Green County. Today, Gary has Master Cheesemaker certifications in brick, muenster, cheddar, Havarti and gouda.
Each day, we would make one batch of cheese. This process begins with the intake of milk. As Gary often reminded me, high-quality cheese always begins with high-quality milk. First, the milk is clarified (removing any impurities), standardized (adjusting fat and protein content to desired levels), and pasteurized (killing any pathogens present). Then, the cheesemaking process begins with the addition of a starter culture. The role of the starter culture is to break down lactose (sugar) in the milk into lactic acid. This process will drop the pH, and essential step in cheesemaking. After that, rennet is added to clot (thicken) the milk. This will cause the milk to become a gel. Next up, the gel-like curds and whey are cut with wire knives, and heated.
The curds are then ready to separate from the whey. Once the curds are separated, they may be salted. Whether or not they are salted at this part of the make-process depends of the type of cheese being made. Next, the curds will be put in to a form or a hoop and pressed together. From here, cheese that was not already salted may sit in a brine (salt and water) tank. In general, after cheeses are pressed, they are ready to be packaged and cured (aged). When the cheese is ready for the store shelf, it will be opened up, cut into retail-size pieces, and re-sealed.
With several years of cheesemaking experience under my belt, my final step to become a Wisconsin licensed cheesemaker was to pass an exam. The exam tests an applicant's knowledge of cheesemaking and related matters. Questions covered laws related to cheesemaking, the fundamentals of cheesemaking, relevant arithmetical problems related to dairy plant operations, and practical working knowledge of grading milk, cream and dairy ingredients.
After passing the exam last week, I officially became a licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker!
I am forever grateful for my experience at Babcock, Gary’s guidance, and everyone who helped me along the way to achieving this goal. Here’s to staying cheesy!