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Original Plymouth Brings Waxed Cheese Back Into Favor With High-End Retailers
|Click here for a pdf version of this Plymouth Artisan Cheese article
A waxed-rind American granular curd cheese is slowly winning back favor from epicurean cheesemongers along the East Coast.
Plymouth Original, a raw milk heritage cheese and favorite of the late culinary icon Julia Child, is created in limited production at one of the country’s oldest cheese factories in Plymouth, VT.
The cheese is made almost exactly like it was 120 years ago, with a wax rind – making it difficult to persuade today’s bon vivant cheesemongers that favor natural, bloomy rinds.
“Waxed cheese is a tough sell these days for the tip of your gourmet pyramid,” said Jesse Werner, owner and cheese maker, Plymouth Artisan Cheese.
“It’s similar to Cheddar, but probably predates that. Historically, it’s a bit like Cheshire.”
—Jesse Werner, Plymouth Artisan Cheese.
A lot of these premier cheese shops on the East Coast really don’t sell waxed wheels of cheese, Werner said.
“Somebody once told me that cheesemongers don’t like the way it cuts on the knife. Maybe they think it’s passé – this isn’t new or cutting edge. But traditional Plymouth has always been wrapped in wax,” he said.
We’ve gotten into nice stores and had a great public response – customers love cheese in wax – but for the really high-end shops, we couldn’t get in the door, Werner said. They want bloomy, moldy, natural rinds.
However, winning a second place award last year in the American Cheese Society’s (ACS) Cheese Competition earned Original Plymouth attention from formerly skeptical cheese retailers.
“That made it a bit easier to show it around,” Werner said.
The company’s waxed series of cheese includes Original Plymouth and East Meadow, sold in six-pound waxed rounds and waxed blocks ranging from one-half to three pounds.
The Plymouth Cheese Factory, located in the preserved village of Plymouth Notch, is one of the oldest cheese operations in the US, founded in 1890 by John Coolidge, father of former US President Calvin Coolidge.
The Coolidge family owned and operated the plant until 1998, when it was sold to the state of Vermont and turned into a museum of sorts.
“The Coolidge family revived the plant from 1960 to 1998, but at that point, there was need for modernization, so it was handed off to the Historical Society,” Werner said.
The plant, which needed modern wiring and to be brought up to code, stayed dormant for years.
“At this point, the cheesemaking room was downstairs and there was a railing where visitors could stand and watch. A lot of stuff was grandfathered in, but by 1998, it had to be modernized.”
Over the next decade, the factory had a few stops and starts with owners trying to bring back cheese production, with limited success. Werner took over operations in 2009.
“I started with cheese as a consumer – just really liking it. People started doing value-added cheesemaking in Vermont, making this really great stuff, and it made me think this was possible.”.
The first thing I did was take courses on simply tasting cheese and eating cheese, he said. Before I started to learn anything about cheesemaking, I wanted to be well-versed in what’s out there.
Werner, who was raised on a farm in northern Vermont, began his formal training at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC), and working with neighboring farmstead operations.
He then launched his own company, Fairfield Farms Artisan Cheese, and set about renting the Plymouth Cheese Factory.
The turnaround was relatively quick, with Werner signing a lease July 1, 2009, and making his first batch of cheese six days later – a raw milk cheese that was ready for sale after two months.
“There was some work done in the lead-up to that – a lot of stainless steel work, a lot of welding, making the processing more efficient,” Werner said.
“My landlord is the state of Vermont’s Division for Historic Preservation, so it’s kind of an interesting situation. They really wanted to see something happening at the factory, and it would be nice if there was some cheesemaking going on,” Werner said.
Visitors are welcome at the factory from mid May to late October, and all weekends in between.
“We’ve adjusted our cheesemaking to cater to visitor traffic,” Werner said. “Lots of Saturday and Sunday cheesemaking, and no holidays off during the summer.”
“We really want it to be win-win for everyone. It’s one of those public-private partnerships that has benefits,” he said.
A local dairy farm about 30 miles from the factory supplies milk for the plant.
“We tested a bunch of local farms – different components, different types of cows – and this one had really good, consistent quality for our purposes,” Werner said.
Cheese is made anywhere from two to four days a week, year-round. Production totals about 2,000 pounds of cheese each week.
The one-year Original Plymouth and three-month East Meadow are granular curd varieties based on the traditional British cheesemaking of the region’s original settlers.
“It’s similar to Cheddar, but probably predates that. Historically, it’s a bit like Cheshire,” Werner said. “A lot of people think it’s a Cheddar because they show up in Vermont and expect waxed white Cheddar.”
Our cheese is wrapped in wax, so people immediately think it’s a Cheddar, but it’s made very differently and the texture isn’t as crumbly with a higher moisture content, he continued.
It’s a cross between a traditional
farmhouse Cheddar and a Colby, Werner said.
Cheese is sold at local retail stores and restaurants, online, onsite, and through several distributors – each covering territories in Vermont, New Jersey, Boston, Brooklyn, New York and New England. Plans are in place to expand distribution nationwide.
“We’ve done very well in our own backyard, and I just spoke to someone on the West Coast who reps the Southern California, Arizona, Texas markets. We’re sending out samples, and pretty excited to get out there,” Werner said.
Something that’s helped us with our local marketing endeavor was examining retail stores and looking at what each customer base was buying, Werner said.
“We started doing a half-pound waxed block – really good for our area because we don’t have a lot of cheese shops willing to cut and wrap slices for customers.”
We make a bunch of wheels and definitely sell to larger stores, but we want to be able to sell in local Vermont country stores, too – and all these local delis with a refrigerated section, but not necessarily a cheese counter, he continued.
“Doing a pre-packaged wax block allowed us entry into a wider variety of stores,” Werner continued.
The Plymouth factory employs five full-time workers, with added help during the summer tourist season when the site is open seven days a week.
Werner and another employee are in charge of cheesemaking, and a large amount of time is dedicated to the waxing process.
An abundance of help and cooperation also exists within the Vermont artisan cheesemaking community, according to Werner. Both big and small companies are willing to offer sales leads and supply resources.
“There’s a lot of little cheese
makers in Vermont right now, and we’re all doing something a bit different,” Werner said. “I think there’s enough room in the market for us to keep from crowding each other out just yet.”
Right now, about nine different styles of cheese are made under the Plymouth Artisan Cheese brand.
“We have two things going on right now. We’ve tried to revive the granular curd and the Original Plymouth cheese, all done in wax,” Werner said.
The factory also makes a smoked variety of granular curd cheese, and a sharp, two-year version of Original Plymouth called Hunter cheese.
“When cheese lovers come in and say ‘Give me the sharp cheese,’ that’s the one they want,” Werner said.
We’ve also done a bunch of flavored varieties sold locally over the years, he added. And just recently, we started the natural rind series called Grace’s Choice, bringing Plymouth into the modern artisan cheese era.
“It’s a natural take on the granular curd, with a European, cave-aged wash. We keep it in the aging room for a couple months, and brush it dry for the last month,” Werner said. “We’ve had pretty good luck with it so far.”
The company intends to cautiously launch new varieties to help sustain the growth its enjoyed over the past three years.
“I don’t know if the Original Plymouth cheese could grow to huge volumes, but adding the natural rinds and a few others in the research and development stage allows us to grow our sales and catalog,” Werner said.
“It’s definitely growth – maybe just a little more managed,” he continued.
Klondike Cheese In Final Phases Of $11 Million Addition For Making Greek Yogurt
Click here for a pdf version of this Klondike Cheese article or this 2009 Klondike Cheese article
by John Oncken*
Monroe, WI—Klondike Cheese Company here is approaching the final phases of installing Greek yogurt-making equipment in the new 40,000-square foot, $11 million addition to its dairy plant here.
The company hopes to be producing Greek yogurt in March 2013 for the foodservice industry and under its own “Odyssey” brand label.
“Yogurt requires using a live culture and everything must be perfect. Just like in making cheese, the difference in being a good cheese maker and a not-so-good cheese maker is in how you use the culture.
—Ron Buholzer, Klondike Cheese
Greek yogurt has been the fastest-growing dairy product among American consumers over the past five years. New York-based Chobani, Inc., owned by Turkish immigrant, Hamdi Ulukaya, who began making yogurt in 2005 after buying a former Kraft Foods yogurt plant that had been closed, leads the way.
Brothers Ron, Steve and Dave Buholzer, all Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers and owners of Klondike Cheese, are third generation cheese makers that date to Ernest and Marie Buholzer, who immigrated from Switzerland in 1925.
Ernest made cheese for the local
Farmers Cooperative Cheese and was followed by Alvin X. Buholzer and his three sons, Ron, Steve and Dave.
The Buholzer family purchased the cheese factory in 1972 naming it Francis X. Buholzer & Sons, then Klondike Cheese Company. The cheese produced was always of the highest quality as the many award-winning ribbons and trophies will attest.
The family was not afraid of change as the move to Feta cheese in 1988 and the construction of a new Feta plant in 2000 attests.
Today Klondike Cheese, now in its fourth generation with the addition of Luke (Ron’s son); Adam (Steve’s son) and his wife Teena and Matt Eardly, who is married to Melissa (Steve’s daughter) produces Feta, Havarti, Muenster and Brick cheeses.
The Greek yogurt craze in the US started when Ulukaya, who came to the US. from Turkey in 1997 where his family farmed, began making Feta cheese in the late 1990s at Johnstown, NY. After seeing an advertisement for the vacant Kraft yogurt plant near Utica, NY, he bought it and spent nearly two years developing his first Greek yogurt that entered the consumer market in 2007. The rest is history.
As luck would have it, Ron Buholzer, while attending a cheese industry meeting, got to know Hamdi Ulukaya, who in the course of their conversation suggested that “Ron, you ought to think about making Greek yogurt.”
“I didnt know if he was serious or not,” Ron says. “But, I did some thinking and lots of talking with my family. We did a lot of research, learned a lot and realized that we had many current Feta customers who were Greek and could offer us a potential market.”
The fact that the Buholzer family is blessed with a fourth generation who were already working at Klondike Cheese and were eager for new challenges contributed to the decision to research Greek yogurt.
Among that research was a trip to Greece made by Steve and Adam, where they met Evangelos Mandrekas, whose family had been making yogurt since 1954. Evangelos took over the plant in 1984 and after spending time in college in England, returned to Greece and built a new yogurt plant in 1991.
His plant, Mandrekas SA, grew to become one of the biggest private label yogurt producers in the country and developed an export business in Europe and the US.
Mandrekas was also interested in working with a US company because of the difficulties (rules, regulations, milk supply) in establishing an American company.
The result was the creation of a consulting relationship combining the yogurt know-how and experience of Mandrekas and the production, operations and sales skills of the Buholzers and Klondike Cheese.
After some two years of thought and research the Buholzers went ahead and began actively planning for a Greek yogurt enterprise with Adam (a UW-Madison chemical engineering grad) spearheading the operation.
Although the Buholzers formerly knew little about producing yogurt, they learned fast and have been producing Greek yogurt in a pilot plant for some time. Ron says they have received a great amount of assistance from the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research in product development and the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (WDATCP) for help in meeting the rules and regulations for this new (to them) product.
“Yogurt requires using a live culture and everything must be perfect,” Ron says. “Just like in making cheese, the difference in being a good cheese maker and a not-so-good cheese maker is in how you use the culture. And as a living organism the same culture can vary day by day.”
The new building addition is in place, attached to the existing cheese plant. The inside of the new structure currently reminds one of an ant hill as dozens of construction workers drill, bend, connect, move, bolt and otherwise prepare for the new equipment and its installation.
Some equipment is already in place, the rest will be installed in the next two months. The hope is all will be ready to begin production in early March.
Ron says the new plant will mean the addition of 10 to 15 new employees.
“We just don’t know yet, we’ll know more as we get going,” he says. “We have already hired a plant manager, a quality control manager and a sales manager.”
The current center of the Greek yogurt processing industry in the US is in New York where Chobani and several other major yogurt makers are located.
Klondike will be the first major yogurt plant in the Midwest offering Greek-style yogurt to the huge foodservice industry.
Ron Buholzer feels that his family is also helping the move to expand employment and the economy in Wisconsin.
“Just look at all the people working here,” he points out. “Then add those who built the equipment, mixed the concrete, supplied the wiring and all the thousands of
pieces and parts used in the project.
One might call the new Greek yogurt project another scene in the long time family affair which the Buholzers have been carrying on for nearly 90 years. Is there a secret in how the three brothers (Dave, Steve and Ron) can work together for so long?
“Everything is not always peace and quiet,” Ron says. “We do argue and debate but each of us has a rather defined area of responsibility: Dave works in production and shipping; Steve in procurement and production and I’m involved in maintenance and as company president and the next generation are fitting in very well. There is a lot of overlap and we always work things out.”
*John F. Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624 or e-mail him at email@example.com.