Entering Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in the tiny town of Theresa, Wis., is like stepping back in time. Adorned with the flags of Swiss cantons on the outside, the plant inside affords visitors a close-up look at the making of some of the Dairy State’s best, most classic cheese varieties. Just a step down from a small retail area sits the “make room,” its traditional open vats being carefully tended, curds being stirred or hand-scooped into forms, or the famous Widmer bricks being gently placed atop the forms to press the whey out of the signature Brick cheese.
The plant itself, purchased by the Swiss immigrant John O. Widmer in 1922, has been home—literally—to three generations of Widmer cheesemakers. ”It’s a classic Wisconsin cheese plant,” says current owner Joe Widmer, who, like his father before him, grew up in the rooms above the plant and who raised his children here, as well. “Very little has changed in the 80-plus years that my family has been making cheese here,” he says.
For Widmer, growing up in a cheesemaking family instilled in him great pride in producing top-quality cheese and a reverence for doing things “the old-fashioned way.” “From the time I was 6 years old, I remember helping out in the plant,” he says. “I’d come down in the morning and do my job was before going to school. At the end of the day, I always took pride in the fine products my father had made, and in his commitment to always be the best he could be. That’s what keeps me going and makes me believe that sticking to tradition–not taking any short cuts–is the way to go. The way I see it, it’s like comparing Grandma’s donuts to Dunkin’ Donuts. I’ll take Grandma’s every time.”
Widmer left the family business after high school to pursue rock-and-roll dreams, but eventually came back to cheesemaking.
Today, Widmer’s cheese is widely hailed for its authenticity, handcrafted quality and consistency. The company makes a wide range of cheeses, but is best known for its traditional stirred-curd Wisconsin Colby, award-winning aged Cheddar and, of course, classic Wisconsin Aged Brick.
“Brick, particularly the surface-ripened, foil-wrapped version, has always been our calling card,” Widmer says. “It’s a Wisconsin cheese original and is one of the finest cheeses we make. Because it’s a washed-rind cheese that’s aged longer, it develops robust flavors. We’re seeing demand for it increasing as consumers seek out more distinctive artisanal cheeses.”
Following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps, Widmer says he’ll continue to maintain and grow his family’s cheesemaking traditions. And, like his father, he strives to never stop learning. He’s one of a handful of cheesemakers in Wisconsin to have earned the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, having completed a rigorous three-year advanced training program for veteran cheesemakers. Widmer has completed the course not once, but twice, earning Master certification in Brick, Cheddar and Colby varieties.
Profile and photo courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board