Tradition is the name of the game for Wisconsin cheese. It's where cheesemakers ground themselves and where they mentor future generations from to keep that delicious tradition going.
Small town cheesemaking
In a small town in Wisconsin a few decades in the past, a young Joe Widmer is walking down the street with a big group of kids. All of them are eating candy bars – except Joe.
He’s chomping away on a chunk of blue cheese.
“I'm no stranger to strong cheese,” Joe says around 50 years later from his office at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in that same small town. Here in Theresa, Wisconsin, his love for bold cheeses (and tradition) has led him to make some of America’s last authentic brick cheese – a Wisconsin Original known for its unique, powerful flavor.
Joe grew up here – not just in Theresa, but in the cheese factory itself.
“I was born and raised above the cheese factory,” says Joe, a third-generation cheesemaker whose grandfather emigrated from Switzerland and got his first job as a cheesemaker here in Wisconsin. “If you walked out the kitchen door and down the steps, you walked right into the vat.”
Keeping the legacy alive
Cheesemaking wasn’t always part of Joe’s plan. After high school, he left home to work on the railroad and play guitar.
“Back at that time, a lot of my interest was in music,” says Joe, who’s played genres from rock to blues to folk, and still keeps a guitar in his office to strum at the end of each day. “But I ended up making cheese, and I'm glad I did.”
Once Joe came back to the family business, he dedicated himself to keeping their legacy of traditional cheesemaking alive.
Making old-fashioned Brick – a strong, washed-rind cheese invented in Wisconsin around 1877 – is a big part of that.
“Our product is so authentic that we're still using the bricks my grandfather used,” he says of the well-worn bricks that press whey out of each block and give the strong, earthy cheese its name.
The old fashioned way
Widmer’s is one of the only remaining factories to make Brick the old way. You can even step off the street into their cozy cheese shop and watch Joe and his team crafting blocks by hand just feet away – no glass windows or TV screens. It’s all happening in the same room.
“You know, we're pretty adamant on sticking to tradition,” Joe says. “You'd say, why would anybody stick to that? We always say, 'What do you want – grandma’s donuts or Dunkin Donuts?'”
Joe’s commitment to his craft runs deep. He’s even Master certified in brick, to go along with Master Cheesemaker certifications in Colby and cheddar.
“I already had a degree in food science and I grew up making cheese, but it was well worth it,” says Joe. “You go back and have even more of the chemistry, microbiology, artisan courses – just everything you need to know about cheese.”
And in Joe’s humble opinion, there are few better places to learn about cheese than Wisconsin.
“We have more third and fourth generation cheesemakers in Wisconsin than probably anywhere in the United States,” he says. “ We're very proud of our heritage.”
And if Joe has anything to say about it, that heritage will continue for a long, long time.