New Kid On The Block

December 2, 2019

New Kid On The Block

Wisconsin cheesemakers know that their craft is as much science as it is art. And that's what makes it so much fun to make.

A cheesemaking challenge

Ben Shibler is a cheesemaker who loves a challenge.

“That's why cheesemaking fits me well,” says Ben, who at the age of 21 went from working sanitation at a cheese plant to running the place in just one year. 

“You’re basically manipulating Mother Nature,” he says.  “Occasionally Mother Nature will flex her muscles, and you have to be ready for it.”

From the weather outside to the quality of the milk, there are endless factors that can change the way a batch of cheese turns out. It’s a constant uphill battle, and Ben loves every minute.

Ben now leads the farmstead creamery at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy making delightfully stretchy mozzarella wonders like cheese whips (think cheese sticks, but thinner and bendier). With over a decade of curd wizardry under his belt, he’s now taking his love for the cheese life to the next level in Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker program.

“It’s exciting and terrifying at the same time,” says Ben, who started his journey to master Mozzarella in September. “There are only 60 Master Cheesemakers [in the country]. What if I don't pass it? I don’t want to be that guy.”

Creativity, commitment, craftsmanship

If Ben’s track record of hard work and incredible cheesemaking is any indication, he has nothing to worry about – but going from maker to Master is definitely not for the faint of heart. 

The only program of its kind outside of Switzerland, Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker program is an intense, three-year process that brings some of the best in the world together to perfect the art and science of cheesemaking.

As Ben puts it, the Master Cheesemaker program ties together everything we do best here in Wisconsin – dairy farming plus creativity, commitment, and craftsmanship in cheesemaking. 

“You've got a bunch of really hardworking people with awesome quality milk, and then they work their magic on it,” Ben says. “They stay to the bitter end and go that extra mile to make sure it's perfect every time. And bam – you've got the Dairy State.

That only-in-Wisconsin combination is all under one roof at Ponderosa, where milk goes from the cow to the cheese vat in 90 seconds flat.

“It's a cheesemaker’s dream,” Ben says. “To be this close to the milk source and use it within seconds. If you gave any cheesemaker a blank check and said, ‘Here, design your own plant,’ they're gonna build a plant on the farm, I’ll guarantee it.”

Carrying on the dream

Ben’s pride in the dairy industry is inspired in part by his late mentor, John Pagel. John brought Ben on to fulfill his longtime dream of adding a cheese operation to Ponderosa’s farm, so visitors could gain an even better understanding of where their food comes from and how it’s made.

“John Pagel was one of the most passionate, visionary people about the dairy industry I have met in my life,” says Ben. “I don't think I've ever met someone that made that big of an impact on me personally, not just professionally, in such a short time.”

Now, as Ben enters the Master Cheesemaker program, he’ll balance his course load with helping carry John’s dream forward.

He says it’s an awesome responsibility that he’s honored to take on.

“Come to the farm. Take a tour. Talk to me. Talk to the herdsmen,” Ben says. “And hopefully you leave with the right impression on the level of passion and the blood, sweat, and tears that this group of people – not just us here on the farm but as an industry – really puts into the products that everybody gets to enjoy.”

We can’t wait to see what Ben accomplishes next as he speeds down the road to Mastery.


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