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The Art of Crafting Cheese

September 15, 2023

The Art of Crafting Cheese

Cheese is their canvas; your enjoyment is their muse. Meet three Wisconsin cheesemakers who are painting a new picture of artisan cheeses using innovative flavors, time-honored techniques and out-of-the-cheese-cube thinking. Learn how these pioneers explore the possibilities with cheese. They’re dreamers and innovators taking the science and art of cheesemaking to a new level, guiding the “whey,” creating award-winning classics and new cheese obsessions.

A Traditional Artist: Joe Widmer, Widmer's Cheese Cellars

Like the beauty of traditional art, the art of cheesemaking often starts with classical techniques. Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer’s artisanal cheeses—aged cheddars and Wisconsin Originals brick and colby—are the cumulation of knowledge and creative processes curated over 100 years.

Joe Widmer

Steeped in tradition, Joe still washes his cheddar curds before salting and placing them into forms, just as his family before him did when they began handcrafting cheddar in 1922. The result is a tastier, more complex cheese with less bitterness. Widmer’s Cheese Cellars has won numerous top awards for their aged cheddars at the American Cheese Society Cheese Competition and the International Cheese & Dairy Awards, as well as Best of Class winner at the 2023 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest for their newest addition, Widmer’s Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar.

Joe Widmer placing brick cheese

“Our secret to award-winning cheddar is making it according to the recipes and traditions passed down from four generations,” Joe says. “You can compare it to any family recipe, such as a coleslaw that a loved one made for special occasions. We're adamant on sticking to tradition.”

Joe ages his cheddars up to 15 years. These super-aged yet smooth specialty cheddars boast intense flavor with hints of caramel. One taste and it’s evident Joe takes pride in his craft. “Cheesemaking is an ancient art that began over 4,500 years ago. Just as an artist may paint his picture, the cheesemaker uses their skills to create their masterpiece, and it takes a special talent to do so,” he shares.

Widmer's cheese

According to Joe, every block of cheese has a story. And there’s perhaps no better one than the lost art of brick cheese. “Brick cheese was invented in Wisconsin in 1877; it’s a washed-rind cheese with a strong aroma,” says Joe. “Today, we are the country’s only fully traditional brick cheese maker. Our product is so authentic that we still use my grandfather’s bricks to press the cheese.” Widmer’s Aged Brick recently won First Place at the 2023 American Cheese Society Cheese Competition.

A Flavor Artist: Kerry Henning, Henning's Wisconsin Cheese

Three-time Master Cheesemaker Kerry Henning is respected throughout the cheese industry for his traditional techniques…but he’s revered worldwide for his artistry in crafting aged and cleverly flavored cheddars.

Kerry Henning

Kerry is well known for his various flavored cheeses, especially swoon-worthy and distinct cheddars. His most celebrated works include the 2023 American Cheese Society Cheese Competition First Place and 2020 World Championship Cheese Contest Best of Class winner Chipotle Cheddar, the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest Best of Class winner Peppercorn Cheddar, and the 2007 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest Best of Class winner Tomato Basil Cheddar, to name a few.

Kerry Henning making cheese

But does Kerry play favorites? “I have three favorite flavor combinations—Mediterranean Sunset Cheddar, Louisiana Lagniappe Cheddar and Blazing Buffalo Cheddar,” he reveals. “Each one has flavors from the regions they were designed for. We relied on customers in those areas to help us refine the final cheese. Our biggest challenge is sourcing the ingredients. Some sell for hundreds of dollars a pound, but they make such unique flavors.”

Infusing cheddar with uncommon ingredients isn’t as easy as throwing paint on canvas. “When creating a new flavor, I keep in mind how added ingredients may affect the cheese and if the flavors will meld well together,” he shares. “I also consider if the flavors will come through as the cheese matures and develops its flavor profile.”

Every artist needs to be inspired. For Kerry, it’s his customers. “I listen to what they want and try to produce a cheese that meets their expectations,” he says. “Wisconsin’s agricultural products have also always inspired us. We have used apples, blueberries, cranberries and strawberries in our cheeses. Our Blueberry Cobbler Cheddar is my favorite fruit cheese; it’s a hit around the country.”

A Mixed-Media Artist: Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese Haus

Here in The State of Cheese, we adore traditions. But we also love to reinvent them. Few capture this creative spirit like Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, who combined two mediums— cheddar and blue cheese—to create two original recipes that have won worldwide acclaim.

Chris Roelli

“Cheddar and blue cheese are two of my favorite styles,” says Chris. “I wanted to combine the flavors of the two yet be able to distinguish that my Dunbarton Blue® and Red Rock are cheddar-forward cheeses. Many call them transitional blues.”

Combining two cheeses with big personalities takes expertise and creativity, something this fourth-generation cheesemaker has plenty of. “We combine the process of each style and add some out-of-the-box thinking to arrive at our finished product,” shares Chris. “We use our senses and let the cheese guide us. The process cannot be rushed.”

Red Rock combines the best of earthy cheddar with the tanginess of mild blue cheese. Known for its bloomy rind and vibrant orange hue with subtle blue veins, this 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest Best of Class winner is a creamy dream come true.

collage of Chris Roelli and Roelli Dunbarton Blue cheese

Aged at least 90 days, Dunbarton Blue® is a handcrafted, cellar-cured cheese with the character of a fine English-style cheddar coupled with a subtle hint of blue flavor. Open-air curing creates a natural, edible rind.

“I see the artistry of making cheese as us paying attention to what the milk, curds and whey are doing and using the natural progression of the process to get the desired outcome,” Chris explains. “My inspiration comes from my family history and through the cheese community. There are a lot of great cheesemakers in the world. We want to stand next to them with our products and quality.”

Love at First Bite
These dedicated artists create works of art to be shared and experienced throughout the generations. Taste their craftsmanship for yourself in recipes featuring their prized creations on the following pages.


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