Two slices of aged brick cheese on pumpernickel slathered with mustard and topped with onions. Wash it all down with a cold pale ale, apple cider or dark lager.
This is the traditional and suggested way to eat brick cheese.
Not all Wisconsinites enjoy washed-rind cheeses like aged brick and limburger, but in the case of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars aged brick, its mild pungency and robust flavor is one worthy of award.
In fact, it has won numerous awards including a bronze in 2006 at the world competition, held in Madison.
“Brick, particularly the surface-ripened, foil-wrapped version, has always been our calling card,” Joe Widmer, owner, president and Master Cheesemaker at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, says. “It’s a Wisconsin original and is one of the finest cheeses we make.”
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, has been churning out Wisconsin originals since 1922 when Swiss immigrant John Widmer purchased the plant.
Widmer is the third generation to run the plant and like generations before him, hand-craft traditional Wisconsin cheeses such as brick and Colby and the American classic cheddar.
“When my grandfather, John Widmer, immigrated to Wisconsin from Switzerland in 1905, the local population was heavily German. The market for a cheese such as surface-ripened Brick was strong, and logistics were not an issue. He simply sold what he made right here,” he says.
The plant, tucked away in small town of Theresa, is distinctively Swiss in appearance and large, open vats where employees hand stir curds, along with Widmer’s classic bricks, greet all those who enter the store. In terms of plant updates, not much has changed in the building since the early days of Widmer’s Cheese.
Milk still comes from local farms within a 10 to 15 mile radius of the factory.
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars has won blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society on their 4-year-plus aged cheddar, Colby, mild brick and aged brick.
Aged brick is a washed rind cheese like limburger that is made by literally washing the rind each day with B-linen inoculated whey, which gives the cheese the pungent smell and robust flavor, along with its brownish rind coloring.
Today, demographics and taste have changed as well as the market for traditional brick cheese. Widmer says that they “sell much more mild brick than the authentic surface-ripened variety and that most people today don’t know what real Brick is.”
In addition to these traditional cheeses, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars makes flavored varieties of cheddar, cheese curds, brick cheese curds and aged brick cheese spread.
Widmer grew up along with his six siblings in a flat above the plant. He would start his day out in the plant and help after school. He remembers his friends waiting outside the building for him to get his work done so he could do kid things. But the work always had to be done first.
During his senior year, he was able to work afternoons in the plant.
“I got out of high school and my dad asked me if I wanted to go to school or make cheese. And I said ‘I’m sick of school and sick of cheese,’” Widmer says.
This prompted his next 2 years working on the railroad until he decided to return to school for his associate’s degree in food science from UW-Fond du Lac and come home to the cheesemaking business.
“Much of the reason why I came back was pride, really. Your family is in that business and everyone relates you to that cheese. You might say it’s in my blood. You are a part of it as you growing up with it; so at that point I went for it,” Widmer says.
He bought the plant from his father and uncle in 1997 and earned his Master Cheesemaker certification in brick and Colby in 1998; later earning certification in cheddar.
“We still use the bricks we used in 1922. We keep the same recipes and it’s still really hands on. Do you want grandma’s donuts or Dunkin Donuts? That is what I always say,” he says.
The craft to produce the cheese certainly reflects the traditions upheld by Widmer and his commitment to high-quality products.
This, through the hand stirring of all curds to the bricks being laid on cheese forms to stamp out the whey.
Except for a few new updates in the curing room due to changing regulations, cheese is made as it was at the beginning of Widmer’s.
But thanks to a few grandfather clauses due to older equipment, Widmer has been able to keep his two open vats and bricks, along without having close off the small retail store from the rest of the plant.
Something that has changed, however, is Widmer’s marketing strategies.
“It’s expensive to stay in business when you have a handmade product because you have a lot more labor,” he says.
Widmer has worked to unify the Widmer’s Cheese Cellars brand and move into more upscale restaurants and grocery stores with his hand-crafted products.
“People are more well-traveled; they want more authentic foods and a lot of them are trying to get away from pre-packaged food,” Widmer says of today’s customers.
More are looking for quality, handmade products and are willing to pay more for them.
“There are more and more grocery stores with high-end cheese departments too, more so out of state than in state,” he adds. Widmer’s cheese can be found in all 50 states.
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars hosts numerous tours throughout the year, some as big as 20 to 30 people at one time. Widmer says he has even hosted international visitors.
“We are not far off the interstate and we are not far from Milwaukee; a lot of people from Illinois go up north for the weekend. My father and uncle always had the doors open for everyone. For one thing, it’s tourism. People like to see how Wisconsin cheese is made,” Widmer notes.
Five other cheesemakers help in the process from curd to cure, outputting around 700,000 to 800,000 pounds of cheese per year.
Widmer’s assistant Lenny Zimmel has been with the company for more than 30 years and has won his own cheesemaking awards and Widmer is setting up another employee for the Master Cheesemaker program.
Widmer’s son, Joe, along with his daughter, Hannah, may join in the cheesemaking business later but for now Widmer will continue doing what he does best, cheesemaking and marketing.
“Brick and Colby are American originals. There are not a lot of people sticking with original brick and original Colby so we do that. Hand-crafted is hard to find,” he says.