A Cheesemaking Childhood
Growing up directly above his family’s cheese factory in Stanley, Wisconsin, Master Cheesemaker Ryan LaGrander learned early on that the cheese life is harder than it looks.
“There were times when people didn’t show up to work and my dad would come wake us up,” Ryan remembers. “You have to wax cheese all morning when you’re 12 years old.”
Being the son of a cheesemaker might’ve induced some pre-teen eye rolls back in the day, but Ryan credits his strong work ethic to his unusual childhood (unusual in most places not named Wisconsin).
“A lot of the people you talk to, they have dads and uncles and grandpas and great grandpas and great-great grandpas that were cheesemakers, too,” he says. “You’re in the greatest cheesemaking state coming from a line of cheesemakers. That’s special to be a part of.”
Ryan and his brother Joey are third-generation cheesemakers at LaGrander’s Hillside Dairy, founded by their grandparents back in the 1960s.
They started small, but today they run around a million pounds of milk per day. That’s a lot of cheese curds!
“It all started because my grandpa made the decision to be a cheesemaker and buy a plant – he was gonna do it for himself,” Ryan says. “It’s pretty amazing that they took it from where it was to where we are now.”
Carrying On The Legacy
Their family legacy comes through in their spectacular cheeses, from crave-worthy Colby longhorns to fresh curds so squeaky they’re like a tiny symphony for your tastebuds.
These salty little nuggets of pure Wisconsin magic are in such high demand that LaGrander’s cheese shop employees spend much of their day fielding calls from curd-obsessed hopefuls looking to snag a fresh batch. In fact, LaGrander’s cheese curds are so good that they’re the official curd supplier for Culver’s (think the In-N-Out of the Midwest).
“We’ve done ‘em for as long as I can remember,” Ryan says. “It comes back to the quality, from the milk coming in all the way through the process.”
Quality is king at LaGrander’s, which is why Ryan, Randy and their dad all got Master certified.
“We’re the only state in the country that has a Master’s program, and there’s a reason: because cheese is a huge part of what Wisconsin is,” Ryan says. “Having the Master’s program is just reinforcing that Wisconsin is committed to staying on top and being the best.”
Ryan is proud to carry his family’s legacy forward as a Master Cheesemaker, and is now passing the torch to his kids, who will work summer jobs at the family factory.
“That’s important for me to build their work ethic, to set them up for the future,” he says. “Whatever they do, it all starts with a good work ethic.”
Pro tip: If you can only get your hands on cheese curds at the grocery store, pop ‘em in the microwave for a few seconds. Ryan says warming them back up helps restore them to their original squeaky glory.