Article sourced from Cheese Underground, Written by Jeanne Carpenter
Crafted in blocks, barrels and wheels, and then cut, wrapped and stamped, millions of pounds of construction-orange Wisconsin cheddar are sold every year to American consumers.
Most Wisconsin cheddar gets shipped to the coasts for city folk to enjoy, but thousands of pounds are still bought by Midwest locals at roadside cheese shops and cheese factories, with many a Wisconsin farm family still putting the requisite piece of sliced cheddar on apple pie at Sunday dinner.
In a quest to learn more about how the cheddar industry evolved in Wisconsin, I’ve been doing a little research. Did you know that cheddar was just about the only cheese produced in the entire United States prior to 1850? By 1880, in a foreshadowing of our future dairy dominance, Wisconsin had taken the lead in producing more cheddar than any other state in the nation. And by 1929, back when there were 2,499 cheese factories and creameries, each supplied by a dozen or so farmers, with each farmer milking about a dozen cows, nearly all of those cheese factories made cheddar.*
That’s right, baby. Cheddar was king.
While it continued its dominance in driving the state dairy economic engine, by the late 1950s, however, the state of cheddar had changed. Almost every cheese factory now sold their cheddar to big distribution companies such as Kraft, Borden or Armour, marking the beginning of an era when distributors, not cheesemakers, set the price for their product. To quote Wisconsin cheesemaker Sam Cook in 1957, (you may recognize Sam Cook’s name, as he’s the father of Sid Cook who today owns Carr Valley Cheese): “You took what they gave you. We was lucky to sell what we had.”**
The relationship between big distributors and cheesemakers changed the face of cheddar. Back in the 1930s and 40s, cheesemakers had taken pride in their cheddar being different or “better” than the cheese factory 4 miles down the road. Those were the days when each factory had its own self-propagating cheese culture and resident molds in its walls and aging planks. Those were the days when cheddar had what you might call “character”.
Now, with the coming of the big distribution companies, cheddar instead became a commodity. The new buzzwords became: “consistency” and “long shelf life” and “mild flavor.” These were the traits that put Wisconsin cheddar on the map and made it such a huge success in national markets. As author Ed Janus puts it: “This was the great achievement of the Age of Cheddar.”***
Success is all well and good, but it comes at a price. With Kraft, Borden and Armour demanding consistency, many small factories went out of business, being either unable or unwilling to modernize. Many of the old cheesemakers, born of the craftsmen era, didn’t know scientific cheesemaking. The way they determined when the curd was ready to mill wasn’t to check the ph of the whey; it was to put a hot iron to the curd mass, and when it strung out a certain distance, the cheesemaker knew it was ready for the next step.
By the 1980s, Wisconsin had lost many of its smaller cheese factories in the name of progress. Equipment was sold and doors were shut. Some were turned into machine sheds or homes. Most were left to just fall down. And with the loss of the smaller plants, Wisconsin began to lose the character of its cheddar. The cheddar from one factory now tasted much like the cheddar from the factory down the road. In essence, Wisconsin’s cheddar industry traded “character” in exchange for “consistency.”
Remaining cheddar plants got bigger and more efficient. The mass market clamored for lower prices. Now cheesemakers had to make more and more cheese just to continue to make a living. Everything became based on volume. Many a cheesemaker who got out of the business in the 1990s will tell you that by the end, they were making only a profit of one penny per pound of cheese sold. That’s not enough to live on, much less to send your kids to college or re-invest in your business.
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Edible Milwaukee is a free quarterly publication, dedicated solely to the production, distribution, and consumption of food in Greater Milwaukee, Port Washington, Sheboygan, Racine, and Kenosha.
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