Thursday, October 16, 2014

Coffee: It Does A Body Good

A cup of coffee is the great social equalizer of the world. Two people can be from completely different places in the stratosphere of life, but when you sit down and share a cup of coffee, life becomes a little simpler.

I didn’t start drinking coffee until age 32. Growing up, my parents both drank coffee, black and strong, pouring the first cup before the break of dawn from an old electric percolator with a glass top, which as far as I can tell, basically boiled the shit out of it until it was done. That was 30 years ago. Back then, there were exactly two kinds of coffee in the grocery aisle: Folgers in the red can and Maxwell House in the blue can. My parents bought whichever one was on sale.

When I was younger, old people drank coffee. Young people drank Pepsi. It wasn’t until I was hired at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture that I became a coffee drinker, and it wasn’t by choice.

Six months after being hired to oversee local food programs, the Wisconsin Department of Ag received federal funding to help Wisconsin cheese factories transition from low-profit commodity cheese to higher profit specialty cheese, and to help dairy farmers build on-farm “value-added” dairy plants. I was re-assigned from local foods to a three-person dairy team and charged with visiting cheese plants and dairy farmers to help spread the word that we had grant money and expertise to help interested cheesemakers and dairy farmers start crafting value-added products.

Here’s how it worked: Jim Cisler drove, Norm Monsen navigated, and I threw up out the window because I kept getting carsick.

It turns out that visiting cheese plants as a representative of a government agency – that, by the way - also regulates and inspects these same cheese plants – is not particularly easy. Whenever we walked in the door, we were usually greeted with a look of disdain, a sigh of frustration and a sarcastic remark of “I suppose you’re from the government, and you’re here to help me.”

However, being Midwestern, we were always offered a cup of coffee and a few minutes to sit down and talk, usually in an office or break room, or if it was on a dairy farm, at the kitchen table. It was here that we would make a little small talk, share info about grant money available, leave our business cards and leave before they thought about kicking us out.

I can remember the first road trip clearly. We walked into a cheese plant to a round of heavy sighs from the owners and were politely offered coffee. Naturally, I declined because I didn’t drink coffee. We made some small talk, made our sales pitch, shook hands, and left. We then repeated this sequence at stop number two.

By cheese factory number three, something changed. Before I opened the cheese factory door, Norm gently put his hand on my shoulder and told me, this time I was going to drink the coffee. I told him I didn’t drink coffee. He said it didn’t matter. We were entering these folks’ place of business, taking up their time, and we had the extra strike against us that we were from the government. “Just drink the coffee,” he said.

So at the third factory, when offered a cup of coffee, I smiled, said thank you, accepted the coffee and then stared at it until the cheesemaker asked whether I took cream and sugar. After an emphatic yes, I then poured in as much cream and sugar as humanly possible and pretended to like it. Norm smiled. The meeting went more smoothly than the last two. I began to understand that the simple act of accepting a cup of coffee, sitting down, and sharing a conversation, put everyone a little more at ease. Sheer genius.

Fifty cheese factories later, I was down to just cream. Ten years later, I can drink it black if I have to, but I prefer a little cream, and I drink at least two cups every day. I’ve even become somewhat of a coffee snob, buying coffee from local roasters when I can and treating myself to a latte now and then.

More importantly, I’ve learned that if you have a request of someone – whether it be knowledge, an introduction, or business – asking someone out for a cup of coffee is a pretty hard invitation to which to say no. Once you’re drinking coffee, sitting across from each other and having a conversation, the playing field tends to flatten.  I've done a lot of business over a cup of coffee. I’ve made a lot of friends over a cup of coffee. I’ve had a lot of good ideas over a cup of coffee. It seems to do both a body and soul good. Thanks, Norm.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

CheeseTopia: Bringing Artisan Cheese to the Heart of the City

It's official: you can book April 12, 2015 on your calendars for the First Annual CheeseTopia, a new one-day cheese festival I'll be planning each year for the next three years. Year one will be at the Pritzlaff Building, a renovated warehouse in the Historic Third Ward of downtown Milwaukee, Year two will be in Chicago, and Year 3 in Minneapolis.

After retiring the annual Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival in 2013, I still wanted to do an event to highlight our amazing artisan cheesemakers, but I knew I wanted it to be something different.

CheeseTopia aims to bring the best of Midwest artisan and farmstead cheese to the heart of the city by offering up to 700 attendees the opportunity to sample and purchase cheese from more than 50 cheesemakers from the Great Lakes Region, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. The festival will be open from Noon to 4 p.m. on a Sunday and offer a fun open marketplace atmosphere with cheese samples and a cash bar.

I'll also be asking several favors from long-time cheese industry friends to help me build two large edible displays of cheese to compliment the hundreds of cheese samples available from cheesemakers. While many artisans will sell their products, farmer's market style, those who don't will have an opportunity to have them available for purchase from Larry's Market, which will set up a beautiful table of cheeses for sale at the event. Thank you Steve Ehlers and Patty Peterson!

In addition, several breakout seminars will take place in separate meeting spaces inside the Pritzlaff Building, which was constructed in 1875 and just recently renovated. More than 20,000 square feet of floor space will be filled with cheesemaker tables surrounded by carved wooden beams, industrial age columns, Victorian era arched windows and gritty cream city brick. This is a building you truly need to step inside and appreciate.

Tickets will likely cost $25 and will go on sale after the first of the year. As always, faithful members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals will have first chance to purchase entry and sign up for seminars, which I expect may sell out before the event is opened to the public.

Thank you in advance for supporting our artisan and farmstead cheesemakers and I look forward to seeing you all in April in Milwaukee!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Bon Bree Brick Comes Back From the Brink

Several years ago, when I was a guest on Wisconsin Public Radio talking cheese with Larry Meiller, a caller asked me (on live air) if I knew anything about Bon Bree Brick. I had to admit that I didn't, and soon thereafter, the phone lines lit up with callers sharing fond memories of Bon Bree, an old family favorite once made in Mapleton, Wisconsin.

Well, today, Bon Bree Brick is back, baby. The current issue of the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) Dairy Pipeline (if you don't subscribe to their free e-newsletter, sign up here), profiles several extinct cheeses brought back from the brink of long lost legend, including the infamous Bon Bree.

Up until the mid 1980s, Bon Bree Brick, a Brick cheese with a unique name, was well-known for its firm, mozzarella-like texture and creamy taste. It was crafted by a cheese factory in Mapleton, but when the plant closed in the mid '80s, the cheese disappeared from the market.

Luckily for all of us, Lloyd Williams, a dairy farmer in Delafield, loved the cheese so much he decided to bring it back to life with the help of Mapleton cheesemaker Terry Shaw and the now-closed Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC). Williams met with Shaw, who manufactured Bon Bree at the original facility, and Shaw provided Williams with a few Bon Bree recipes. Additionally - and this is crucial - Shaw gave Williams some of the original mother cultures that once produced Bon Bree in Mapleton.

After more than 16 batches and a few years of trying to re-create Bon Bree with the expert help from the Center for Dairy Research, Williams Homestead Creamery began selling Bon Bree under its trademarked name last year. Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee now manufactures the cheese, which is made solely from the pasture-fed cow's milk produced on Williams' farm near Waukesha. In just the last year, Bon Bree has grown into three new varieties: dill, chive and caraway, and is available in more than 30 grocery stores throughout Wisconsin, including Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison.

"After three years we have an identical product - except ours is all natural, so we do not dye it yellow like the early cheese was. People don't miss that," Williams says.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

2015 American Artisan Cheese Class Schedule Announced

Hey there cheese peeps! If you live in Wisconsin and you're looking for a monthly night out, tasting and learning about fine artisan cheese, I'm doing another year-long class series in 2015.

We meet at the Firefly Coffeehouse, a fantastic space that serves as the living room of my town, Oregon, Wis., about 10 minutes south of Madison. Each class includes a tasting and storytelling of artisan cheeses, a glass of complimentary wine, beer or beverage and general merriment. Classes begin at 7 p.m. and are limited to 25 attendees. Each class costs $22 and seats must be reserved in advance. Classes generally sell out two to three months ahead of time. I often have special guest cheesemakers and speakers, too.

I'm offering something special through through January 1, 2015: purchase a season pass to all 12 classes and get two classes for free. Makes the perfect gift for your favorite cheese geek! All classes are of course available for a la carte purchase, too.

Here's the 2015 line-up:

January 20
Cheese 101: Tasting the Eight Categories of Cheese

Start out the year with a refresher course on the eight different types of cheese – fresh, semi-soft, soft ripened, surface-ripened, semi-hard, aged, washed rind, and blue. Learn and taste your way through your very own cheese board of eight American artisanal cheeses, learning the story and characteristics of each.

February 19
Relishing the Rind

To eat or not to eat? ‘Tis the age-old question of cheese rinds. Explore the different types of cheese rinds: bloomy, ash, and washed, taste exquisite examples of each, and learn what cheesemakers must undertake to create a beautiful rind.

March 24
March Madness: American Originals

The United States is home to some of the most innovative cheesemakers in the world. We’ll taste four original cheeses dreamt up by cheesemakers either through sheer genius or, more often, by mistake. Hear the stories of what it takes to create an award-winning American Original.

April 21
U.S. Champion Cheeses

With the United States Championship Cheese Contest held in Wisconsin just one month prior to this class, we’ll taste and learn the stories of four American gold medal winning cheeses.

May 21
You Be the (Cheese) Judge

American Cheese Society Judge Patty Peterson from Milwaukee joins this class and walks attendees through an official cheese judging session. She’ll teach the basics, and then let YOU be the judge with a blind tasting, official score sheets, and lots of fun. Taste both Wisconsin and American award-winning cheeses.

June 16
American Sheep’s Milk Cheeses

Nutty, rich and rare: sheep’s milk cheeses date back thousands of years, with perhaps the most famous sheep’s milk cheese being Roquefort. Taste four American and International sheep’s milk cheeses and learn what makes this category of cheese extra special.

July 21
Brie & Bubbly

Summer is high season for artisan brie and bloomy rind cheeses, as animals are in full milk production mode and cheesemakers have plenty of milk to create luscious, creamy beautiful bloomies for us to enjoy. Taste four brie and camembert-style cheeses and enjoy a glass of bubbly with each!

August 18
Perfect Pairings

From chocolate to spiced pecans to honey, more artisan food makers are crafting perfect accompaniments to cheese. We’ll taste four different perfect pairings and learn why certain foods pair better with cheese than others.

September 24
Stinky Cheeses

Americans are become more sophisticated when it comes to big, bold cheeses that can smell up a room and washed rind cheese is one of the fastest growing categories of artisan cheese. We’ll taste four washed-rind beauties whose bark is often much different than their bite. Get it past your nose, and stinky cheese may just become your new favorite.

October 22
Virtual Road Trip: Cheeses of Switzerland

Having just returned from leading a 10-day tour exploring the cheeses of Switzerland, Jeanne will introduce you to four of her new favorite Swiss cheeses and tell the stories of Alpine cheesemaking.

November 10
Charcuterie & Cheese

Artisanal cured meats and hand-crafted cheeses are a natural pairing in the world of good food. Taste three original pairings of local, award-winning charcuterie and Wisconsin cheeses.

December 8
Ultimate Cheddar Cheese Flight

End the year on a high note, with a vertical cheddar cheese flight. You’ll learn about a new era of Wisconsin Cheddar emerging, with cheesemakers crafting aged and bandaged Cheddars. Taste three aged Cheddars from one to 15 years, as well as a reserve Bandaged Cheddar.

You can purchase tickets online at I look forward to seeing you there!