If you see a large sculpture of a mouse holding a slice of cheese, you know you are in Wisconsin. Across the country, we are known as Cheeseheads, but how much do you actually know about the “dairy” in America’s Dairyland? Back in 1841 Anne Picket used milk from her neighbors’ cows and established one of our first cheese factories in Lake Mills. Today Wisconsin produces twenty-five percent of all domestic cheese. It takes a lot of cows, people, and investment of time and labor. Sid Cook, one of the state’s first Master Cheesemakers, has been making cheese for as long as he can remember.
Sid Cook | West Point, WI
My parent’s cheese plant was just outside our kitchen door and it was always a busy place with trucks coming in and neighbors stopping by. As soon as I was able to walk, I was in the factory. You just kind of grow up with it.
When I was young, my parents paid about $500 for a small cheese factory in Plain, Wisconsin: Irish Valley. It was in pretty rough shape, and they paid another $300 or $400 dollars to fix it up. My mom was pretty depressed about how bad it was, and she said, ‘I’d like to go home.’ My dad said, ‘Well, I’ll go with you.’ But they decided to stay and tough it out.
I’d be out in the factory all the time with my dad. As a young kid—3, 4, 5 years old, I wanted to help, to be part of it. I loved being in the make room as a kid and would ride my trike around the vats. But as soon as I could stand on a bucket, I was helping with the process. My parents would give me tasks like stirring, cleaning, whatever would keep me busy. I was making my own vats of cheese at a young age and got my cheesemaking license at sixteen.
My parents were there from 1944 until about 1975 when my brother and I bought the factory. They made a lot of improvements over the years. By the time my brother and I bought it, we had about fifteen local farms, and we made Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby, and Muenster. In those days, we sold everything to one buyer: Borden.
Back in about 1977, there were about fifty-five plants in Southern Wisconsin that all lost their cheese market at the same time when Borden decided that they didn’t want to buy cheese from small factories. Somebody in the accounting department thought it would be more advantageous for them to buy from one or two large companies. A similar thing happened after I bought another plant in La Valle. Most of the cheese was going to Armour Foods in Monroe. Armour decided that they could buy the product cheaper out in North Carolina than they could in Wisconsin, so we lost that market.
Right then, I decided I’m not going to sell to one company ever again. We started selling to three, four, five different companies and we started making artisan cheeses and selling them to chefs. Then we opened another store here in Sauk City, and we bought a factory that was in bankruptcy and started making continental-style cheeses that were pre-pressed, like Gouda and Fontina.
The different cheese-making systems allowed us to make a lot more different cheeses and start into the artisan business, which we did in 1998. For years and years, we gave more cheese away than we sold. There were a lot of chefs that were very instrumental at the time—chefs like Rick Tramonto and Gale Gand in Chicago—who were wanting to buy new cheeses and flavors.
You got on the menu and then people would start looking for that cheese in the store. Now we’re distributing all over the country and exporting as well. We’ve been found out by some pretty big companies and have won many national and international awards. I think I’m most proud of the “Best of Show” at the American Cheese Society for our Snow White Goat Cheddar. They asked me to stand for the award, and then once I received the award, they asked me to keep standing, and I heard my name again! The whole company celebrates because it really takes everyone to make that happen. We have the absolute best farmers producing the best milk. We have talented cheesemakers, a dedicated processing team, and salespeople that travel the country to share our products with customers. Sales have grown tremendously over the years.
Now we sell cheese directly to consumers. We sell wholesale to restaurants. We have restaurants and cheese stores all over the country that we ship to.
We’re still making our cheeses in small plants. When we do make improvements, we do it in a way that makes it easier for our cheesemakers. A lot of big companies are just making cheese by the time—everything happens at this time, and this happens and this happens. We haven’t taken the control away from the cheesemaker.
We have a lot of people in the company that are very passionate about what they do, or they wouldn’t be here. We have about 140 people employed between our stores and our distribution and our factories. People stay a long time. Dave just retired; I think he’d been here sixty-four years. Dorothy just passed; I think she worked here until she was 92. Mary worked until she was 91. We just had a gal that’s 84 retire, but I think she wants to come back.
If we sell a cheese curd, we get to use that dollar that week. But that same dollar in a twelve-year aged piece of cheddar—we get to use that dollar once in twelve years.
We need to do the aged cheeses, but we also need to do the churner, where we’re using that dollar again and again. We’ll have people come in and say, ‘Well, that ten-year cheddar is really expensive.’ But it really is probably the cheapest product that we have.
What I say to them is, ‘Why don’t you buy the mild and put it in your fridge for ten years and think of the money you’ll save?’ Well, then it’s a whole different perspective.
It’s not an easy business, or everybody would be in it, right? You don’t see a lot of people starting out. Like a lot of things, it takes a lifetime. The main thing is that we have good management in place and employees who are passionate about their jobs and care about the company.
If cheese doesn’t taste good, nobody’s going to buy it. If it tastes good, you’re going to grow the business because people are looking for new flavors and new things. We’ve had a lot of innovation that we’ve done with sheep milk and goat milk and mixing up cheeses. It’s a lot of chemistry, but it’s a lot of art too. Because you can know all the chemistry and make a lousy cheese.
I’ve taken a lot of classes at the Center for Dairy Research from other cheesemakers and academics from all over the world.
The way we’ve innovated is really three ways: The first way is just a mistake. We’ve had a few of those that have turned out extremely well: Applewood Smoked Pepper Jack was a mistake, same with Creama Kasa and Swedish Farmers. The other way is we actually plan it. Mobay was a cheese that we planned. It was a layer of sheep milk and a layer of goat milk with ash in the center. The third way is we just put a bunch of cultures together and throw it at a dartboard and see what we get.
When Jim Path started the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, he wanted me to be one of the first master cheesemakers. I said, ‘You know, Jim, if I’m going to take a week off, I’d rather spend it in Mexico or someplace, rather than be in class in Madison. But three or four years later, I did it.
By then, the business had progressed to the point where I had hired people and I could get away. It’s pretty hard to get away if you don’t have anybody that can replace you. Back then, I was getting up at 2:30 in the morning and starting up at the Mauston plant. Then about nine or ten o’clock, I’d go down and I’d work at the La Valle plant, and help those guys finish up. I’d crawl under my desk and take a nap until the phone rang and get up and do bookwork.
For us, it was seven days a week. We picked up milk every day, and we made cheese every day. When I bought the La Valle plant we made cheese six days a week, and we still do that. For twenty years, I didn’t have time for anything. I call those the lost decades. I can watch movies from the 80s and 90s, and they’re all new to me.
My work day is very interesting. I go where I need to be. I’m still very heavily involved in the financial side, and stores are kind of my area. I show up at facilities, and I don’t tell them I’m coming, I just show up and talk to all the workers. It’s very fun, especially with new employees. There have been several occasions where I’ll be working with somebody and I’ll say, ‘Well, you really do a nice job.’ And he’ll say, ‘Well, this is my first day.’ I say, ‘How do you like it?’ We get to talking and it’s kind of interesting to BS them a little bit and really find out what they think.
Now I am at a place where I can take some time off. We have a second home in Northern Minnesota, up in the wilderness area about 15 miles from the Boundary Waters. But I have to plan about two months ahead because the calendar fills in.
When we go up North, we always have cheese up there—always have cheese. I love the six-year Cheddar, I always take a blue cheese—Penta Cream is incredible, and the Wildfire is great. I always take a smoked cheese or a smoked Fontina, or a smoked garlic. I like to take a cheese spread; my favorite is the Spicy Beer cheese spread. And then I’ll take one of the mixed blue cheeses or Menage or Canaria.
My dad always said that people would say, ‘Is Sid in the cheese business?’ And he’d always say, ‘Yeah, he just doesn’t know any better.’ It was just the thing that I was going to do because I grew up with it, I liked it and, as it turned out, I became very good at developing new flavors and working with cultures.
Photo 1: Young Sid making cheese, Photo 2: Irish Valley factory where Sid grew up, Photo 3: A picture of his mother’s grandparents–his grandmother is the one holding the cat–taken around 1892.
Most of the earliest commercial dairy operations in Wisconsin made cheese because it kept longer than milk or butter at a time when storage and transportation were limited. You can learn more about the history of cheese making in Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the National Historic Cheese Making Center.
Image of two men in 1937 working at a machine making cheese curds. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.
Wisconsin is home to more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers who make over 600 varieties of cheese. Making great cheese requires training and investment. Wisconsin has the only Master Cheese Maker program outside of Sweden. Becoming a Master Cheesemaker is a three-year commitment, dedicated to the art of cheese. You can learn from the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin what it takes to become a master cheesemaker.
Image of Ronald E. Johnson in 1958 with the world champion cheddar cheese at the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association contest. Photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society.