Living Many Lives
Bob Wills is a man who’s lived many lives. He’s been a lawyer. He’s worked for the U.S. Senator and fellow Wisconsinite who founded Earth Day. He even has a PhD in economics.
But he left all that behind to become a cheesemaker.
“I realized, as much as I'd done all these intellectual pursuits, that the satisfaction of having a product I could put my hands on was really important to me,” Bob says. He also was hungry to run his own business, and he got that chance in 1989 when he bought Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wisconsin.
“The one thing I say about cheesemaking is that I've not had a boring day since I got into it,” says Bob, who has transformed Cedar Grove from a commodity operation into a bastion of artisan cheesemaking.
A Cheesemaking Incubator
The tiny factory has become a playground for Bob to bring his passions for academia, conservation, entrepreneurship and cheese together in one place. He hosts aspiring cheesemakers at his factory in an experimental ‘incubator.’ Bob’s approach to cheesemaking is far from ordinary – and it has helped inspire makers throughout the state.
He names his cheeses after Shakespeare characters in honor of the local American Players Theater in Spring Green, and he built a greenhouse called The Living Machine that cleans wastewater from his factory with tropical plants.
“I don't know that I intended to change the world,” he says. “But the business became a vehicle for reflecting things that I cared about.”
Bob cares about many things – uplifting small businesses, protecting the environment, improving the food system – but nothing quite compares to his love for cheese.
On a recent visit, we found him crafting a batch of traditional, melt-in-your-mouth Butterkäse, an ultra-buttery German cheese that Bob swears by for the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. With his hands buried in a mound of fresh, fragrant curds and a huge smile on his face, it’s easy to see why Bob ended up dedicating his life to this craft.
“Everywhere I look in the cheese industry, there's something a little different. It's like a playground,” he says.
Elevating His Craft
Bob loves geeking out about cheese. He lights up talking about one he recently tried in Brazil fresh off a BBQ. He could talk for hours about the European-style cream cheese called Quark that he’s introducing to America through his urban factory in Milwaukee, Clockshadow Creamery. And as a Master Cheesemaker, he’s taking his obsession to the next level.
“The Master program has elevated the level of the craft to a degree that just can't be really understood,” says Bob, who’s already Master certified in Butterkasë and Cheddar. “It's also created this camaraderie among cheesemakers. All the Masters – everybody here helps everybody else.”
Bob has been a leader in the cheesemaking community, not only for Masters but for anyone looking to try something new. His factory has become a launchpad for some of the most innovative new cheeses in the world.
“Those of us who are on the ‘bleeding edge’ of creating these new varieties and in pioneering this stuff are really generous people,” he says. “They're all people who have had that attitude that there was plenty of room for everybody.”
It’s true – whether you’re a fifth-generation maker or a lawyer who fell in love with the cheese life, there’s a place for you in the Wisconsin Cheese family.