Passing On The Craft
Most cheesemakers will tell you their earliest lessons in the industry came from the School of Hard Knocks –from raking and hooping to scrubbing out vats by hand. Taking on the toughest jobs in the plant was once the first step in proving you’re worthy of wearing the cheesemaker whites.
But Larry Harris, the Master Cheesemaker and Director of Operations at Meister Cheese in Muscoda, Wisconsin. represents a new generation of cheesemakers who skip assigning grunt work and go straight to passing on their craft.
In his opinion, if you made it to the factory floor, you’re already worthy.
“What I always try to explain to everyone on the floor is we're all equal,” he says. “I have a different job description than what you have, but I'm here to help you every step of the way so that we actually can get the job done quicker, better and as a true team.”
Breaking From Tradition
Larry’s management style may break from tradition, but it’s nothing new at Meister. He says he’s simply passing along the kindness he’s received from the owners since his first day.
“They make everyone here feel like a part-owner,” he says of the Meister family, who have owned and operated the factory for three generations. “You're never dictated to. They want your input. So to me, I feel like I own Meister Cheese.”
Maybe that’s why he’s stayed on there for his entire 30+ year career.
It all started back in the 1980s when his brothers, who both worked at Meister, brought home an application for Larry. Given their family history, it just felt right.
“My dad did the milk hauling and my uncle made the cheese,” remembers Larry of his family’s cheese factory. Though their operation shut down in the early 80s, cheesemaking was always in his blood. “Working with my brothers reminded me of my dad and his brothers working together.”
In Love With The Challenge
Larry’s gig at Meister started off part-time, but he quickly fell in love with the challenge of cheesemaking. “This is not a job,” he says. “It's an art.”
That art explodes to life when you taste the spectacular cheeses Larry and his team are crafting.
Drop into their on-site cheese shop and you’ll find cases brimming with imaginative mashups – a heady gingseng & garlic Jack; sun-dried tomato and olive-studded Mediterranean cheddar; and Muscoda Mayhem Colby-Jack, a creamy Wisconsin original fired up with thre types of hot peppers.
“We were some of the first ones to add flavors to cheese,” says Larry. “We’re always innovating and trying to find new cheeses that we can develop within Meister.”
The Highest Honor
Larry already has decades of cheesemaking under his belt, but he upped his game further when he earned his two Master Cheesemaker certifications in Cheddar and Monterey Jack.
“The process was intimidating to me. I wanted to show that I’m worthy of this high honor,” Larry says.kj
But he passed with flying colors and came out the other side an even better cheesemaker.
“[The program] helped me step back and really look at how to develop different types of cheeses that truly make an impact on somebody that eats it," he says.
It’s safe to say that Larry’s truly exceptional cheeses make an impact. But we have a feeling his greatest impact will be on the next generation of cheesemakers.
“The most rewarding part, for me, is to be able to mentor,” he says. “I think of everyone that works on the factory floor as part of my family.”
For Larry Harris, the cheese life is definitely a family affair!