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The Dairy State’s Master Cheesemaker Won’t Answer Your Emails

Gary Grossen, the master cheesemaker at the University of Wisconsin, lives and breathes cheese—so much so that it's nearly impossible to reach him by cell phone or email.

by Nick Woods
Feb 16 2016, 6:27pm

Photo via Flickr user infowidget

Gary Grossen, the master cheesemaker at the Dairy State's flagship university, knew his calling by age 14, when his dad left him alone in the barn to look over the Emmenthaler.

He's moved on to bigger things since then, handling everything cheese-related at the Babcock Dairy Plant on the University of Wisconsin's campus. Under his watch, food scientists from the university's world-renowned Center for Dairy Research test new cheesemaking techniques that have led to better practices and higher-quality products across the industry. Perhaps more than anyone, he knows what makes cheese great, from every economic and qualitative angle. After all, he was hired to stand on the front lines, watching the world's best practices develop for more than a decade. But to hear him talk about what makes for great product, you'd think that this academic hoopla is just a distraction from what's really important.

Grossen lives and breathes cheese. He, his brother, and his sister grew up above the family's plant in Monroe, Wisconsin–"the Swiss Cheese Capital of the USA"–and started working "from the moment [they] could look over a kettle." He still drives back and forth between UW and his hometown where he still lives, a small community with a population of about 11,000. He considers himself an artisan, and says he leaves the science "up to them people with the PhDs."

"There's two type of cheese," Grossen says. "There's cheese, and there's Wisconsin cheese. People here have such an open mind to try something new, or something different. Even down to a young age here, people have always wanted a deeper flavor."

Gary's students will be the first to tell you it's best to try and reach him on Babcock's plant floor, where he spends most of his time; more than one tells me he doesn't answer email or his cell phone. So I feel particularly lucky to get a few minutes quizzing one of the world's preeminent cheesemaking gurus for a few minutes while he takes a break from his daily grind.

MUNCHIES: Hi, Gary. Why did you pick cheese as a profession?Gary Grossen: At a very young age, my brother, sister and I were learning about cheesemaking—long before people would even imagine to, you know? I knew when I was in high school, there was no doubt about what I wanted to do. My dad and I went into partnership, and eventually I bought him out. In 2002, I sold that plant after 51 years, stayed with the people who bought me out for three more, and then in 2005 I came to Babcock Hall.

I still remember when I was 14, my dad left me alone with the kettles for the first time, to make sure everything stayed on time. That was a proud moment for me, knowing he knew I'd do a good job, and that he'd taught me the art well.

My family made Emmenthaler, the 200-pound wheel Swiss, and then later the 180-pound rindless block, which we cut into 90-pounders. We made all of that in copper kettles. That's near and dear to my heart, loading 3,000 pounds of milk into a copper kettle and making Swiss cheese. When you take a plug out to take a look at it, and you've got those nice, shiny eyes in there, nice eye formation—that just makes you proud. It's very rewarding when you get a product to turn out.

What's the first lesson you teach students who want to learn to make cheese?"Do your time." No matter how many years you been doing this, there's always more to learn. Even myself. You gather so much knowledge from day to day.

I see cheesemaking as a practice of consistency. Once you develop that flavor that you're looking for, you want to consistently have it. When I was a kid, you got up before school to work, and went back to it when you were done. A few times you'd be late, because Dad would keep you home till the last minute. There's discipline involved. You knew you were producing something that people were looking forward to seeing.

What makes for great cheese?Number one is to take pride in what you're doing. You need quality milk to make quality cheese. That's what I stress to the students, that that's where it all starts. The dairy farmer and healthy, happy cows are what make for that kind of quality milk, packed with protein. The kind of feed you give your cows is important, of course—how you treat them. But more important, farmers have to see what's happening to their product. You want them to see into what you're doing, because it gives them a sense of pride about where their livelihood is going. You need to have the same pride in your product, so they continue to provide you with theirs.

Where do you see the industry headed?The young people these days like flavorful cheese. [Before], we went through a period where the younger generation liked it milder. So we're getting into this period where students want to hear about ripening, cave-ripened cheeses, and aged cheeses. They're not high-volume, but they provide a lot more variety.

I make 15 different types of cheese here: [from] Swiss to Romano to Gouda to brick; the cheddars, Monterey Jacks, Colbies, Juustoleipä [Finnish squeaky cheese]; and then different flavored cheeses like the havartis—dill havarti, pesto havarti, plain havarti. It's all hands-on, so students here can learn a wide variety and see what the [bacterial] cultures can do for you, [and] the adjuncts that go along with each different culture so you can learn how to get the flavor that you want.

The industry's headed where they're headed. And it makes you proud to see that talent develop, that you've made someone want to take up the art of cheesemaking.

Thanks for speaking with me, Gary.