In Wisconsin, cheesemakers start early and go long. Instilling that desire to make great cheese is a gift that is key to our tradition of turning Wisconsin terroir into something spectacular.
Passion is an understatement
You know you’re a true Wisconsinite when you get your cheesemaker’s license before your driver’s license.
“My mother had to give me a ride to classes,” says Ken Heiman, who became a cheesemaker at the ripe old age of 15. “As far as I’m concerned, it was a passion.”
Passion is a bit of an understatement.
Ken, a Master Cheesemaker who owns Nasonville Dairy in Marshfield, Wisconsin, is an encyclopedia of all things dairy – from cheese’s ancient roots in Egyptian tombs and Greek mythology to the exact time it takes his plant to turn a tanker load of milk into feta.
Just hearing Ken talk about his 14-year aged cheddar is like listening to a love story.
“You would swear that you’re eating the best Dutch chocolate that you could have or the best dessert that you could possibly imagine,” he says. “It will just keep drawing you back.”
These are the elite
Ken doesn’t mind the rockstar status that comes with cheesemaking, either.
“Oh lord, everybody thinks you walk on water,” he says.
Case in point: kids who tour Nasonville take their hairnets, white coats and shoe covers home so they can dress up as cheesemakers for Halloween.
That admiration is hard-earned. Reaching the Master Cheesemaker certification demands 10 years of making a specific kind of cheese before you can even be considered for the rigorous three-year certification to earn the right to wield the Master’s Mark.
“Wisconsin is the only state in the union that has licensed cheesemakers. Now, if you want to be a Master Cheesemaker, you’ve got an absolute minimum of being 14 years into it,” Ken says. “It brings something here that nobody else has got. These are the elite.”
Ken is a Master Cheesemaker in four cheeses – feta, cheddar, asiago, and Monterey Jack – and with that Master’s status comes license to play. Ken has dreamed up a huge range of original cheeses, including a lineup of spicy Monterey Jack that brings the world’s hottest peppers together with the world’s best cheese.
“If you really wanna go off the deep end, then it’s Carolina Reaper,” Ken says of their Monterey Jack infused with the infamous pepper’s 2.1 million Scoville units of heat. He tells a story about Rich Seubert, a towering Wisconsin native who played for the New York Giants, watching his teammate Kareem McKenzie take a huge bite of Carolina Reaper thinking it was Pepper Jack.
“Water’s just running off him!” Ken laughs. “Richie goes, ‘Hey McKenz, is it hot?!’”
Making the world a better place
Ken has a wicked sense of humor when it comes to cheese, but he also has a deep reverence for the art of cheesemaking and the long heritage it represents.
“It came from our forefathers many, many years ago, and we never forgot it,” he says, recalling the day his family purchased Nasonville back in the 1960s. He’s proud that they grew what started as a run-down cheese plant into the thriving hub it is today, bringing hundreds of jobs to his home state and millions of pounds of Wisconsin cheese to people around the globe.
For Ken, making cheese comes down to making the world a better place.
“Why does a farmer farm? Because he believes when he leaves this earth, he’s gonna leave it better than he found it,” Ken says. “Same with making cheese.”