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Dairy Marketing

Wisconsin Cheese: Celebrating 25 years of mastery

Adam Brock

Adam Brock is director of food safety, quality and regulatory compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. He is a guest columnist for this week’s Cheese Market News®.

It’s no secret that Wisconsin wins more awards for its cheese than any other state, region or nation. What may be a secret, though, is the reason for such impressive statistics. It’s all rooted in an investment in people, the process and their dedication to product perfection. One of the best demonstrations of this is Wisconsin’s own Master Cheesemaker program, which proudly celebrates its 25th anniversary this year.

The program, the most advanced education program in the art and science of cheesemaking outside of Switzerland, is jointly sponsored by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, UW Extension and the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Its rigorous standards are a key factor in Wisconsin’s cheesemaking innovation and leadership, despite an increasingly competitive national and global marketplace.

In celebration of the 25 years of inspiration and innovation the Master Cheesemaker program has had on our industry, Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin is placing a special emphasis on the program this year, including an update to the Master’s Mark. This unique logo is only available to graduates of this rigorous program and differentiates them from other products in the market.

The mark, which previously featured an image of a proud and confident cheesemaker, is one of honor that cheesemakers can use to distinguish their products. According to Bill Hanson, a Master Cheesemaker at Arena Cheese, Inc., the mark isn’t just a source of pride for the Masters and their cheese plants, it instills customer confidence. “They really appreciate the Master’s Mark and what’s behind it,” he said.

To improve on that strength, the mark is becoming personal this year. Each Master Cheesemaker is receiving a Master’s Mark that bears their very own likeness. An individualized artist sketch is a testament to the unique innovation that each cheesemaker contributes to Wisconsin’s industry-leading status, not just in quantity, but in quality.

Participation in the Master Cheesemaker program is exclusive, with applications only available to active Wisconsin cheesemakers, who must have held a cheesemaker’s license for a minimum of 10 years. The cheesemakers must select the specific cheese variety (or varieties) they wish to pursue. Furthermore, the applicant must produce each variety of cheese for a minimum of five years before entering the program. And that’s just to be considered for the program!

Once accepted, candidates dedicate three rigorous years to advanced education, including an apprenticeship, throughout which they must regularly submit samples of their cheese to be graded for consistency and quality.
There is also coursework covering a wide range of topics, including artisanship, quality assurance and cheese technology. And, of course, there is plenty of opportunity to network and share best practices with other leading cheesemakers. The final step of the program is passing a challenging examination, which takes upwards of 50-60 hours to complete.

Upon graduation, they are awarded the title of Master Cheesemaker, earning them the right to market their products with the Master’s Mark — a distinction that sets a graduate’s products apart from all others.

It’s an intense commitment and impressive accomplishment — one that only 80 cheesemakers have achieved in the past 25 years. But those who have participated say it’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done.

Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery holds more certifications than any other cheesemaker and can speak firsthand to its rigor. “There’s no other program in the nation that’s as intense or provides the same level of training, quality standards or follow up,” said Workman.

Scott Barker of Cedar Grove Cheese Inc. agrees. “Becoming a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker has been one of my goals since the beginning,” he said. “Never have I been more proud to accomplish a goal.”

As a result of this program, Wisconsin has maintained its position as a leading innovator, continually reinventing the wheel. Participants are taught how to elevate their craft, and how best to push the artistry of their product. As a result, it inspires Masters — and all those who work with them — to experiment and find new cheese types to express their elevated craftsmanship.

Innovation and quality are essential elements to maintaining Wisconsin’s leadership position in the industry. And the Master Cheesemaker program will continue to fuel that success.

“I’m always looking for new ideas, and the program better equips you to implement new ideas,” said Ken Heiman of Nasonville Dairy.

The result is more than 600 varieties, types and styles of Wisconsin cheese, many of which have won local, national and international awards. This success is no doubt fueled by the Master Cheesemaker program, whose graduates took home 25 awards just last month at the 2019 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Numbers like these have Wisconsin on track to, once again, win more awards than any other cheesemaking region worldwide.

According to Terry Lensmire, a Master Cheesemaker from Agropur, Inc., the certification and Master’s Mark are vital to maintaining Wisconsin’s great cheesemaking reputation. “It’s a sign of commitment,” he said. “I’m committed to obtaining more knowledge about cheesemaking and applying that knowledge.”

The Master’s Mark is a well-earned symbol of the tremendous amount of dedication the cheesemaker puts into their work. The new mark will roll out on cheese packaging soon. When consumers see it, they can be certain that what they are purchasing is among the highest quality cheeses available, and that the person who made it has dedicated themselves completely to their craft.

CMN

The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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