Around the Cheese Board with Bob Wills of Cedar Grove Cheese

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by Wisconsin Cheese

Tracing back to 1878, the story of family-owned Cedar Grove Cheese is one for the books. Talk to master cheesemaker Bob Wills, and you’ll agree: This man knows his cheese. Take some time to tour his cheese plant, and you’ll hear plenty of tales about sustainable, specialty, and artisanal cheesemaking in Wisconsin. He’s worked with cheesemakers from all over the state, making countless types of cheese, and even finds time to make his own award-winning cheeses. We had the pleasure of visiting Cedar Grove Cheese and seeing Wills hard at work, doing what he knows best.

How he got into cheese: Previously a lawyer, I married into the cheesemaking world.

The cheese: We make traditional and specialty cheeses, in numerous varieties, without artificial growth hormones, animal enzymes, or genetically modified organisms. We buy milk from over 30 Wisconsin dairy farmers, all of whom have pledged not to treat their cows with synthetic growth hormones, and some of whom are certified organic.

A new cheese to make: Brie is on my bucket list.

On Cedar Grove Cheese: This is really just a playground; there’s a sense that it’s a factory, but it’s really just fun.

On working with other cheesemakers: I love working with Nordic Creamery; it’s great working with individual farmers, such as Gary Zimmer of Otter Creek; and Willi Lehner [Bleu Mont Dairy] is the most creative person in the world.

 

On “The Living Machine”: The Living Machine, a water purification facility behind the cheese plant, takes wastewater from the plant and filters it through microbes, tropical plants, fish, and snails, processing it back into clean water that is distributed into the nearby Honey Creek. It takes three to four days for the process to complete, and it is able to remove 99 percent of the biological oxygen demand, 98 percent of the suspended solids, 93 percent of total nitrogen, and 57 percent of phosphorus.

Memories: The first cheesemaker to really get started at Cedar Grove was Mike from Uplands Cheese. He had good cows and a good pasture, had recently been to Europe, and came to me and said, “Bob, I want you to teach me how to make the best cheese.” I said, “I can do that.” He started off by having me make the cheese here at Cedar Grove and aging the cheese in his basement. As I trained him, he took copious notes. I remember the first year they had a product, Mike was pulling out of the drive, on his way to Lexington, Kentucky, for the American Cheese Society Competition, and he said to me, “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” I replied, “You don’t need it.” He called me a few days later. They’d won first place. Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve has won for a third time this year, which is unprecedented.

Be sure to check out Wills’ new Clock Shadow Creamery opening in downtown Milwaukee this fall.

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