We’ve teamed up with Wisconsin Cheese for an interview mini-series called Meet the Cheesemakers, featuring a sampling of the state’s finest makers and their award-winning creations.
As a kid, I associated Wisconsin with the Green Bay Packers and not much else, thanks to my mom’s best friend Jamie, a Wisconsin native and a die-hard fan. Decades later, Jamie still loves the Packers, but I now know that there’s much more to Wisconsin than just football: The state’s dairy and cheesemaking industry happens to be one of the finest in the world (yes, world!). Makers like Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese have been shaping the region’s cheesy story for over a century—in fact, Carr Valley’s been in business since 1902. I sat down with Sid at their Mauston factory and retail store to learn more about their impressive lineup of cheeses, his journey to cheesemaking, and what the future holds for the Carr Valley crew.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
SID COOK: My name is Sid Cook, and I’m a Master Cheesemaker at Carr Valley Cheese in Wisconsin.
MT: What does it mean to be a Wisconsin cheesemaker?
SC: First of all, it’s a geographical location that is very suitable for dairying because we have lots of water. If you look at the state, you have the Mississippi River, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, the Wisconsin River, and then the Fox River flowing through the center, so we’ve got an ideal landscape for making cheese.
We also have a lot of support. Wisconsin has a great dairy school, the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. We have a great cheesemakers’ association—the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association—that many cheesemakers from other states belong to because of their reputation. Our Department of Agriculture is very well-versed in cheesemaking and has actually led the nation in regulations for cheeses and descriptions of cheeses. Then of course, we have our dairy farmers, who have come together to support cheesemakers and the dairy business here in Wisconsin.
MT: Sounds like an incredibly supportive community, and with so many resources. Can you tell me a little bit about your family’s history in the cheese world?
SC: I’m a fourth-generation cheesemaker. It was my mother’s family that started in the cheese business back in 1883, and it was a gentleman by the name of Ed Lepley—who would be my great-great uncle—that started making cheese when he was 13 or 14 years old. My grandparents were cheesemakers, all my uncles were cheesemakers, my mother and father were both cheesemakers, and so I come from a tribe of cheesemakers.
As a very young child, I spent a lot of time in the cheese factory. I would tip a five-gallon pail on its side and stand by the [cheese] vat when I was five or six years old, stirring the corners of the vat for my dad because he would be up in the intake weighing in canned milk. That’s the way we did things back in those days. By the time I was 11 or 12, I was making my own vats of cheese to help out with things. I worked in the factory every summer and weekends. When I was in college I’d come home and help. I’d work all summer long in the factory and plant, and so I learned a lot over the years about making cheese on the practical side.
I learned a lot when my uncles would get together with my parents—and of course they talked about cheese. They would exchange ideas and exchange cultures [for cheesemaking], and so there was a lot of help back and forth.
MT: Did you always know that cheese would be your career path?
SC: Absolutely not. I thought I’d be an engineer or an attorney. I knew that I wanted to go on and get an education, which I did. Then I decided that maybe sitting behind a desk the rest of my life wasn’t really what I wanted to do, and so I got involved in the family business. My brother and I worked [at our family’s plant] together for 10 years before I bought out his share, and then in 1986 I bought the Carr Valley plant and never looked back. In ’91 I bought another factory, and then another one, and then another one. Today, Carr Valley manufactures in four plants.
MT: What types of cheeses do you make?
SC: We make brine-salted cheeses and pre-press cheeses at our plant in Mauston, we make vat-salted cheeses at the original plant in Carr Valley, we make our blue cheeses at the Linden plant, and we make our Bread Cheese at Fennimore. All of the cheeses that are made in those plants go into distribution at our facility in Portage, where they’re aged. There, we do affinage, waxing, cotton wrap, packaging, aging, smoking, and everything [else] that’s needed to make all the innovative cheeses that we do.
MT: You really do it all! You mentioned that you’re a Master Cheesemaker—what does this mean to you personally?
SC: Being a certified Master Cheesemaker is really quite an academic accomplishment. I’ve had about 50 or 60 years of making cheese, and to be a Master Cheesemaker you have to have at least 10 years of experience. You have to make the specific cheese that you’re being certified as a master in for [a minimum of] five years, and then you have to take week long classes quarterly for three years. Then, you have to take a 28-page written exam. Before you’re even accepted into the program, you’re given an oral test by a dairy scientist at the Center for Dairy Research. Then, the test is graded to make sure that you really are who you say you are, and then you’re a Master Cheesemaker.
Generally, you’re awarded the Master Cheesemaker certification by someone that has helped you become a good cheesemaker, so it’s really a great honor when you consider that all in all, it’s going to take you about 13 to 15 years to do it. For most of us it’s an even longer journey, because we’ve been making cheese for a lot more than 10 years.
MT: What does the Master Cheesemaker certification mean to Carr Valley?
SC: It’s a great educational experience taking all the classes and learning how to make different cheeses. All in all, I’ve probably taken 20 or 25 different classes with cheesemakers and academics from around the world. I’ve taken classes on Polish, German, French, Spanish, Italian, Greek, British, Irish, Scandinavian, and even Danish cheeses. It really gives you a wide variety of experience beyond the cheeses that you’re used to making. At Carr Valley, myself and other Master Cheesemakers have really been blessed with the ability to innovate beyond what we grew up with, or what we learned in the plant. It’s really widened the horizons, and I think it’s really widened the horizons for Wisconsin cheese in general.
MT: That’s so many kinds of cheese!
SC: So much cheese, so little time.
MT: It really seems like y’all are constantly dreaming up new cheeses, too. What’s that process like?
SC: There are several different ways that we innovate with new cheeses. The first way is purely by accident. We’ve had a number of accidents over the years that have turned out wonderfully. The Creama Kasa was an accident, the Smoked Hot Pepper Jack was an accident—we won’t necessarily get into how those happened, but know that they were accidents. The second way is basically putting different milks together, different cultures together, doing different affinage once the cheese is made, and just seeing what you come up with.
The third way is to actually have a plan. We do this sometimes where we have a plan and we decide what culture we’re going to use, what milk we’re going to use, and if we’re going to add some other flavor component to it. Then we decide if we’re going to age the cheese, how long we’re going to age it, what temperature we’re going to age it at. All of those things change flavor profiles and textures and cheeses.
MT: What are some exciting new cheeses you’ve dreamed up lately?
SC: There’s the Wildfire Blue, which we made because we decided that we needed a blue cheese that had some heat to it. With the Wildfire, I think we made the cheese and somebody happened to taste it and say, “That’s wild.” It has a little fire to it, and so we decided we’d call it Wildfire Blue. Why not?
It’s a very unusual blue cheese, and that’s what we do. We like to innovate and we like to put flavors together that balance each other, and Wildfire Blue is a very well-balanced cheese. When you taste it, you get a lovely mushroom note front and center, and then you get some heat coming on, but not too much. You get a nice little pepper buzz, and then it dissipates. Then, like you always do with a really good cheese, your hand goes out and picks up another piece to eat because it’s so good.
MT: That sounds like a great name for a great cheese. What does the future of Carr Valley look like?
SC: I think the future looks very bright. We’re constantly improving our equipment—the renovation that we just did here will last this plant probably 40 or 50 years. We’re not shortsighted, we’re long-sighted. We’re doing what we can to take things forward for the people that work here and the generations to come.
Our friends at Wisconsin Cheese are committed to showcasing all the amazing cheeses the state has to offer—and there’s a lot of them. Wisconsin has more flavors, varieties, and styles of cheese than anywhere else in the world. From Italian classics like Parmesan and ricotta to Wisconsin Originals like colby and muenster, this cheese-obsessed state has a little something for everyone. Find out more about Wisconsin Cheese by visiting their site.
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