June 29, 2012The artisan cheese movement in Wisconsin, as well as the rest of the country, is a fast moving segment of the food industry, and is driven in large part by two distinct groups of cheesemakers. First we have a group of cheesemakers who have a deep family history in cheesemaking, and a younger group who have little or no background in the farming/dairy industry, just a love for creating new and creative cheeses. Ten years ago Wisconsin had six artisan cheesemakers; today the state has more than 40.
Joe Widmer of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is one of the original six artisan cheesemakers. Widmer’s family history in cheesemaking goes back to his grandfather, a Swiss immigrant that settled in Wisconsin during the early 1900s. John Widmer purchased a small cheese plant in the town of Theresa, just west of Fond du Lac in 1922, and began making cheese. Joe, like his father before him, grew up in the apartment/home, above the cheese factory.
Widmer left the family business after high school to pursue what he describes as his “rock and roll dreams,” but eventually came back to cheesemaking. He, like his father before him, raised his family living above the cheese plant…it sure makes for a quick commute to work every morning.
Today, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is known for its handcrafted cheeses, especially for two Wisconsin originals, brick and colby. The brick produced by Widmer is a “stinky” washed rind cheese with a creamy texture and fantastic flavor, a great cheese to melt in a sandwich or to enjoy with a good cold beer. Brick cheese is a true Wisconsin original, created by Joseph Jossi in the early 1900s mainly to satisfy the demand created by all the new German and Swiss immigrants that were settling in Wisconsin. They were looking to find a cheese that was like something they were familiar with back home, a good washed rind cheese with robust flavors.
Widmer still hand places the original bricks his grandfather used to press the cheese in the forms. There are many “commercial” varieties of brick cheese on the market today, but none hand crafted with care like the brick produced by Widmer’s.
Widmer is one of a handful of cheesemakers in Wisconsin to have earned the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, having completed a rigorous three-year advanced training program for veteran cheesemakers. Wisconsin is the only state in the country that has a certified Master Cheesemaker program. Widmer has completed the course not once, but three times, earning Master certification in brick, cheddar and colby varieties.
If you are not familiar with the fine cheeses produced by Widmer, stop into one of our cheese shops in Egg Harbor, or Ellison Bay, we love to sample and share the stories of the great cheeses produced here in Wisconsin.
Michael C. Thomas is co-owner of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife Janice. With locations in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor, they aim to bring the best of Wisconsin artisan cheeses to Door County, and with “The Cheese Insider” Michael hopes to bring all things cheese to readers of the Pulse.