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A Century of Cheesemaking

September 2, 2022

A Century of Cheesemaking
Like the finest of wines, cheesemaking gets better with time. Especially when guarded family recipes and closely held techniques are combined with today’s innovative spirit. Here in Wisconsin, cheesemaking is often a family business. For Carr Valley Cheese owner Sid Cook and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars owner Joe Widmer, their stories and love for cheese spans over generations and are 100 years or more in the making. When you care as deeply about your craft as these cheesemakers do, handing the reins to those you trust and whose passion runs as deep as your own cannot be underestimated.

historic black and white photo of family milking cow

Carr Valley Cheese | La Valle, WI

Nestled among the lush pastures of central Wisconsin, Carr Valley Cheese company is famous for doing things the old-fashioned way. It all started in 1883 when Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook’s great-great-uncle, Ed Lepley, began making cheese. And it didn’t take long for cheesemaking to become a generational passion; Sid’s parents paid $500 in 1944 for a small cheese factory they coined Irish Valley. That was where Sid and his brother learned about the art of cheesemaking.

“Our house was connected to the plant, so I could walk out our kitchen door and step into the factory,” recalls Sid. “As soon as I could stand on a bucket, I was helping with tasks like stirring and cleaning. I was soon making my own vats of cheese and earned my cheesemaking license at 16 years old.” Sid eventually bought and sold Irish Valley, and then bought the first Carr Valley Cheese plant in 1986. Those on a cheese pilgrimage can still visit this location today.

“Walking into our factory is like stepping back in time, with the exception of electricity,” says Sid. “We still have small, open vats and are doing most of the cheesemaking by hand.”

Carr Valley ribbon awards

Having won more top national and international awards than any other cheesemaker in North America, Sid is well known and respected for crafting cheeses with traditional cheesemaking techniques, while pushing the boundaries of creativity to come up with some of the most imaginative blocks, wheels and wedges around.

“The artisan cheeses that we're doing...we just literally made them up!” Sid shares. “My passion is innovation, doing things other people aren't doing in any place in the world.”

Carr Valley cheese on store shelf

This is good news for cheese connoisseurs, as there are more than 50 original varieties to relish including handcrafted masterpieces like ultra-decadent blues (Glacier Penta Crème™ Cheese will make a believer out of you!) and aged mixed milk specialties like Gran Canaria®. Carr Valley Cheese is best known for their artisanal aged and cleverly flavored cheddars. And you can be sure to find twists on the classics like Apple Smoked Fontina cheese, too.

Sid Cook and employee leaning in doorframe

When it comes to igniting the flame for making cheese, Sid claims the key is to get every generation involved, especially the youngest. But he admits it’s the longtimers that keep the cheesemaking fires burning.

“We have some cheesemakers who have been working for us since the 1980s. Their experiences and stories bleed into past and present generations of cheesemakers,” says Sid. “It’s invaluable—we can teach the science and steps to making cheese, but the passion comes with the history.”

Widmer house

Widmer's Cheese Cellars | Theresa, WI

Take a trip to the small town of Theresa, with a population of just over 1,000, and discover one of the state’s best kept secrets— Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. Owned by Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer, this award-winning artisan cheese plant celebrates its 100th anniversary year in 2022.

John Widmer as a child

While a century has passed, not much has changed at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars. Like his father and grandfather, who immigrated from Switzerland at age 18, Joe continues to craft Wisconsin Originals brick and traditional stirred-curd colby, as well as aged cheddar cheeses following his grandfather’s golden rule: Take no shortcuts and accept nothing less than excellence.

“I was born and raised above the cheese factory,” recalls Joe. “If you walked out the kitchen door and down the steps, you walked right into the vat. Every time I came into the factory, my Uncle Ralph would say, ‘You’re just the guy we are looking for,’ and he and my dad would give me jobs to do.”

Even Joe’s children have experienced life at the plant. “The kids do various jobs,” says Joe. “My son, Joey, is now a fourth-generation cheesemaker here and my daughter, Hannah, helps us in the office when in between semesters at college.”

bricks used in cheesemaking process

Growing up in a cheesemaking family instilled in Joe a great pride in producing top-quality cheeses and a reverence for doing things the old-fashioned way.

“Our product is so authentic that we still use the bricks my grandfather used,” Joe says of the well-worn bricks that press whey from cheese in the forms. Brick cheese was named for its rectangular shape and the bricks used to craft the delicious, finished product. Joe is credited as being the only cheesemaker in the country still using real bricks as part of this time-honored technique. And the recipe? It hasn’t changed since 1922.

Joe Widmer

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars offers mild or young brick that’s buttery sweet with a touch of nuttiness, brick spreads and the classic, surface-ripened variety. Similar to bars of white gold in a vault, Widmer’s aging brick cheeses line wooden curing room shelves from floor to ceiling, and a wash of B-linen inoculated whey is applied by hand daily to their surfaces until they reach pungent flavor perfection. The cheeses are then wrapped to continue to ripen. Joe prefers to eat brick cheese after 10 to 12 weeks of aging. “Real brick should have a heady aroma, and the flavor intensifies greatly as it ages,” Joe shares. “It’s not for the timid, but cheese aficionados swoon over it.”

From their families to yours, these dedicated artisan cheesemakers lovingly create cheeses meant to be shared and experienced for generations to come. Taste a piece of Wisconsin Cheese history for yourself with the following recipes featuring their award-winning creations.


Make it: Roasted Tomato-Pumpkin Bisque


Make it: Flammkuchens (German Pizzas)


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