A passion for the environment combined with a love for artisan cheesemaking and collaboration is why Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills continues to be one of the most respected influencers in Wisconsin cheesemaking.
Bob Wills is a man of many achievements. He’s worked as a legislative aide in Washington D.C., earned a Ph.D. in economics, and became a research associate and instructor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And while these noteworthy accomplishments would provide enough feathers in one’s cap for the most ambitious purveyor of pursuits, Bob didn’t stop there.
Over the last 30-plus years, he has added certified Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, owner of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery, board member of the American Cheese Society and chair of the American Cheese Education Foundation, prestigious cheesemaking mentor and passionate environmental steward to his impressive list.
“The one thing I say about cheesemaking is that I've not had a boring day since I got into it,” says Bob, who bought Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wisconsin, in 1989 and transformed it into a bastion of artisan cheesemaking. He also established Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee in 2012— Wisconsin’s first urban cheese factory. Innovation and environmental stewardship are Bob’s calling cards. Cedar Grove Cheese was the first cheese business in the U.S. to go rBGH free in 1993, and it was also one of the first companies to make organic cheeses. It’s home to the Living Machine, an on-site greenhouse that uses wetland plants to clean and purify the factory’s wastewater before it’s returned to the ground, a lagoon and a creek. The water helps grow the grass and corn that the cows eat, and the cycle begins again.
Creating a culture that combines the science of making cheese with the cheesemaker’s art is something Bob takes to heart. He hosts and collaborates with other Wisconsin cheesemakers like Hill Valley Dairy, Landmark Creamery and Cesar’s Cheese at both factories, which have become launchpads for some of the most innovative, award-winning new cheeses in the world.
“I don't know that I intended to change the world,” Bob says. “But my businesses became vehicles for reflecting what I cared about.”
Grate. Pair. Share. spoke with Bob about his passions for collaborating with other Wisconsin cheesemakers and protecting the environment, as well as what’s on the horizon for this always-evolving pioneer of cheesemaking.
What inspired the Living Machine?
Edgewood College faculty connected me with John Todd, owner of Living Technologies, at a time when we had to find a solution to Cedar Grove Cheese’s waste treatment. His approach enabled nature’s way of cleaning water. We took microbes from our lagoon, the local creek and the municipal plant and discovered what they (microbes) like to eat from the residuals of cheese production. And we used aquatic plants to turn those nutrients into growth. Now we are preparing to convert leftover materials into fertilizer and sequester phosphorus, a scarce natural mineral necessary for plant life.
From former economics instructor to Master Cheesemaker, what inspires your drive?
There is so much to learn. In my 33 years in the industry, I have never had a day without a discovery or new mystery to investigate and try to solve. The path is rarely clear, and the destination is shrouded in fog. You either embrace that challenge as invigorating or become overwhelmed. As a former competitive athlete, I keep on swimming.
You're well known for working with other Wisconsin cheesemakers and the local community. What do you enjoy about the collaborative process? Collaboration with other dairy professionals and community members melds our experiences and perspectives. I get new ideas and contribute ideas that I don’t have the capacity to pursue. Empowering cheesemakers and farmers to attain their dreams is fulfilling. One of my favorite collaborations was with John Riepenhoff, a Milwaukee artist. We started riffing on creativity, like building new ideas from familiar and recognizable bases. The first cheese I made when I bought Cedar Grove Cheese was colby. John and I decided Clock Shadow Creamery should produce a Double Cream Colby that he could share at his art exhibitions. I admire how he broke the bounds of media to integrate food with fine art.
You’re always at the forefront of cheesemaking. What projects do you have in the works?
Climate change and environmental challenges always force their way back into our work. Nature may be intelligent, but it is not indestructible. Although many companies are jumping on the earth-friendly marketing bandwagon, most of the real work is on the land. My goal is to support and encourage our farmers’ environmental efforts by telling their stories to customers.
I also work with Quigistics, an integrated production and supply chain data company. We created QR code access for consumers to obtain timely information about their cheese. And we’ve been gathering resources so consumers can learn about the diverse and innovative practices of the farmers who provide our milk. Therefore, our farmers can be rewarded for their climate-friendly practices.
What are Cedar Grove’s most unique or must-try cheeses?
I love quark cheese. Its versatility is unparalleled, from cheesecakes and ice cream to pizza and crab rangoon. Another style that we have been enjoying is a variation on Brazilian grilling cheese—dubbed Chees-E-Que. We scrambled its roots a bit by making a version adding bratwurst seasonings (still vegetarian like all of our cheeses). I think it’s the ideal tailgate cheese. Eat it hot off of the barbecue. I am also still partial to our butterkäse. It was one of our first specialty cheese varieties. And along with cheddar, I chose butterkäse for the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® Program recognition.
Cheeses at Cedar Grove
Cedar Grove Cheese produces award-winning traditional butterkäse, cheddars, cheese curds, colby, monterey jack, quark and more; the cheeses are handcrafted with milk sourced from over 35 local, family owned farms. At Cedar Grove Cheese, you’ll also find the following:Organic cheeses
: Made from the freshest, Grade A, certified organic whole milk. The cheeses are turned by hand and made with love, select from aged cheddars to rich muenster
. And when available, be sure to sample the squeaky organic cheese curds
Grass-fed cheeses: Prairie Premium cheeses are made from grass-grazed cows’ milk that’s creamy and brims with lush grass and clover flavor notes.
Indulge in the handcrafted taste of Cedar Grove’s artisan cheeses in the following recipes.