by: Renee Brincks
A busload of cheese enthusiasts explored southwestern Wisconsin’s craft creameries in June, as part of Oneota Co-op’s inaugural Cheese Bus tour.
Twenty-nine people boarded a Hawkeye Stages bus for the daylong adventure, which was led by Oneota Co-op cheesemonger, Beth Rotto, and cheese assistant, Maria Carr. At each of three facilities, guests enjoyed a behind-the-scenes peek at the cheesemaking process. They learned about the role quality ingredients and traditional techniques play in small batch cheeses, and they sampled a variety of fresh products. Licensed cheesemakers also answered questions about the industry, tools of the trade, differences in cow, sheep and goat cheese, and the growing popularity of handmade cheeses.
Martin Klammer of Decorah, who took the tour with his 15-year-old son, Noah, said those conversations were a highlight.
“We sat right in the rooms where they make these cheeses, and we talked about their craft,” he said. “You really learned about what goes into these products.”
Wisconsin’s 1,200 cheesemakers produce approximately 600 different varieties of cheese. Nowadays, one of every four pounds of cheese sold nationwide comes from the Badger State. Mt. Sterling Cheese Cooperative, the first Cheese Bus tour stop, is a member-owned and operated facility that churns out pasteurized and raw milk cheddars, feta, mozzarella and whey cream butter, all made from goat milk. The co-op’s cave-aged Sterling Reserve earned a silver medal in the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest.
Oneota Co-op carries cheeses from Mt. Sterling and from the tour’s second stop, Cedar Grove Cheese Company, in Plain. In 1993, Cedar Grove was the first United States cheesemaker to label its products free of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH); a portion of the four million pounds of cheese produced there each year is certified organic as well. Cedar Grove lightens its environmental impact with its “Living Machine,” a pioneering system of tanks, microbes and plants that naturally removes soap and cleaning agents from as many as 7,000 gallons of wash water each day. The filtered water is cooled and released into a local trout stream, while protein-rich solids fertilize local fields.
“The Living Machine is a really inventive idea,” said Cheese Bus participant Noah Klammer. “You wouldn’t think bacteria could break down and actually clean all of that water.”
The third stop of the day was Hook’s Cheese, a family-owned facility in Mineral Point that has been producing cheese for 35 years. Hook’s ages its award-winning sharp cheddar for up to ten years and also produces Colby, Gorgonzola, Parmesan and more. Cheese Bus guests spent a few hours visiting galleries and gift shops in Mineral Point before wrapping up the day with a Pike’s Peak stop on the way back to Decorah.
Oneota Co-op is planning future food-related tours for members and the community – watch The Scoop and www.oneotacoop.com for details.