Slice Of History

April 14, 2020

Slice Of History

Wisconsin Cheese is steeped in history and tradition, and staying true to that legacy is something Master Cheesemaker Bill Hanson knew he had to do.

Love at first bite

When Colby met Jack, it was love at first bite. And it all happened at Arena Cheese in the Wisconsin River Valley. 

Back in 1979, a cheesemaker at this very factory noticed that they had a little bit of Colby and a little bit of Monterey Jack left over at the end of each shift but not quite enough to sell either cheese on its own. Well, here in Wisconsin, we hate to see good cheese go to waste.

So this legendary matchmaker got buttery orange Colby together with creamy white Monterey Jack, and discovered they were a match made in heaven.

Just like that, Colby-Jack was born.

Today, you can still visit the factory where it all went down, thanks to Bill Hanson, a Master Cheesemaker who left the corporate side of the cheese world to resurrect Arena after it fell on hard times in the '90s. 

“I just felt it was time to get back to my roots,” says Bill, whose 40+ year career started in small factories like this one. It’s those places where he says he learned “the true artistry of making cheese.” 

A cheesemaker's saga

Bill’s story is a classic Wisconsin cheesemaker saga: born into a dairy farming family, he got curious about life beyond the barn and “you could always get a job in a cheese factory.” He did just that, but quickly discovered it ain’t so easy being cheesy.

“You'd walk in on the first day and they would give you the worst and the most miserable jobs there were,” Bill says, recalling grueling hours spent scrubbing copper kettles and muscling 200-pound wheels out of the brine tank at a local Swiss cheese factory.

Only the ones who survived the hazing were deemed worthy of learning the craft. 

For Bill, these early challenges were well worth the later rewards. 

“They would teach you how to make cheese by the touch and feel,” he remembers, lighting up. “You could feel that cheese and say, ‘It's ready.’ That's what's so cool about it.” 

The Colby-Jack tradition

His mentor, a Swiss immigrant steeped in Old World traditions, passed down time-honored cheesemaking techniques that Bill continues to teach his team to this day – despite the many technological advancements in the industry.

“Following the recipe, following your moisture analyzer, following your pH meter – you'll always make good cheese,” he explains. “But if you incorporate that touch and feel, you'll make great cheese.”

At Arena, Bill brings his old-meets-new philosophy to the Colby-Jack tradition.

He makes the marbled, meltable Wisconsin original with Arena’s own special recipe that starts in a unique divided vat: half Colby (itself a Wisconsin Original created in 1885) and half Jack. Stop by the cheese shop and you can peer right into that vat through the factory window, just feet away.

Talking cheese

And if you’re lucky, Bill will stand right next to you to narrate the process as it unfolds.

“I love talking about cheese,” Bill says. “We all have a lot of pride in what we make.”

A few years ago, Bill put his pride and passion for cheese to the test in Wisconsin’s rigorous Master Cheesemaker program, earning certifications in Colby and gouda.

“You think you've seen it all, know it all,” Bill says. “And I found out it was still a learning process.”

Now on the other side of three years of intensive classes, Bill’s prouder than ever to rep Wisconsin as a Master Cheesemaker – and as a torchbearer for our very own local legend, Colby-Jack. 


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