The Story of Wisconsin Brick Cheese

The Story of Wisconsin
Brick Cheese

In 1877 Jossi came back to Wisconsin, where took the task of running a newly built Wisconsin plant where he set out to produce Brick cheese. Jossi’s success led to the spread of the Brick recipe. Over the year Jossi taught the recipe for Brick to a dozen other Wisconsin dairies.

Passion for Brick cheese

I have a thing for Brick cheese. Could be because I’m stubborn. I hate to let go. And I can’t stand seeing great food denied their due. So all in all, I’m probably predisposed to getting really passionate about Brick cheese.

Although I grew up eating stuff that was sold in the supermarket bearing the label “Brick” what we were really eating had nothing other than its name in common with the real thing. What I got was some sort of factory insta-cheese facsimile, shipped from factory to food store within days of making, rubbed with orange food coloring to replicate the traditional washed rind that’s supposed to be on the cheese.

So then you might wonder, “What is real Brick cheese anyway?” Brick is an American original. It was “invented” in 1877 by John Jossi, a Swiss-born American cheese maker. (Can you say that a cheese was “invented?” Would the word born be better? Maybe “developed’ might be more appropriate.) Jossi came to the states in 1857 from Switzerland with his parents at the age of 12. The family settled first in upstate New York, but two years later young Jossi was running a small Limburger factory in the town of Richwood, in southwest Wisconsin. (A little commentary on how times change-you won’t find too many fourteen year plant managers around these days.) After marrying the daughter of a local cheese maker, Jossi returned to New York in 1873 where he spent a few years working in a larger Limburger plant.

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Apparently during that time Jossi came up with the concept for what was to become Brick cheese. He envisioned a cheese made with curd that was drier then that used for Limburger he was used to. He considered it should be one with lower levels of the bacterium linens that were used to rub the outer rind and develop the flavor of the cheese. And, he came up with the idea of using bricks to press the cheese, which of course was formed into a brick shape.

Although I grew up eating stuff that was sold in the supermarket bearing the label “Brick” what we were really eating had nothing other than its name in common with the real thing.

Passion for teaching

In 1877 Jossi came back to Wisconsin, where took the task of running a newly built Wisconsin plant where he set out to produce Brick cheese. Jossi’s success led to the spread of the Brick recipe. Over the year Jossi taught the recipe for Brick to a dozen other Wisconsin dairies, In 1883, he gave the cheese factory to his brother, who later sold it to Kraft (the story of dozens of small Wisconsin dairies). Jossi died in Milwaukee in 1902. Fortunately his cheese legacy lived on.

While there are hundreds of thousands of pounds of Brick cheese being made today, only a teeny tiny percentage of it is authentic. The rest is merely big factory cheese production that bears the Brick name but carries none of its distinctive traditional flavor.

Its flavor is enhanced during ripping of the bacterium linens, the same pleasantly pungent bacterial action that contributes to the flavor of the classic French cheeses like Pont I’Eveque, St. Nectaire, Reblochon and Livarot.

As Mr. Jossi created it, Brick cheese is firmly in the tradition of the great washed rind cheeses of Europe. Its flavor is enhanced during ripping of the bacterium linens, the same pleasantly pungent bacterial action that contributes to the flavor of the classic French cheeses like Pont I’Eveque, St. Nectaire, Reblochon and Livarot. Real Brick has a heady aroma and modestly full flavor that will almost assuredly keep Brick from ever being the most popular cheese in town.

But cheese aficionados swoon over the washed rind offering from Europe should most defiantly be buying some of this all American original. So buy Brick, I tell you– it's our heritage, it's endangered and above and beyond all else, it's good.

When I say endangered, I don’t mean that real Brick cheese is on the verge of disappearing. But take note there is only one place – Widmer's Cheese Cellars – left that makes real Brick cheese. Happily, Widmer’s is a well run, thriving cheese business. Still located in the town of Theresa, Wisconsin, no more than twenty minutes up the road from where Mr. Jossi invented Brick back in the 1870’s, it is run today by Mr. Joseph Widmer, the third generation of his family to operate the “plant.” (Old timeWisconsin cheese people use the term “plant” regularly but for those who aren’t in the industry I don’t want to give the impression that Widmer’s is operating at some huge commercial scale. They make a healthy half million pounds of cheese a year; not bad for a little cheese ‘plant’ but hardly a drop in the commercial bucket if you look at people like Borden.) Joe’s grandfather John O. Widmer came-like Jossi– from Switzerland and started the company back in 1922. Joe’s father was one of the sons who took over from John. They in turn passed the plant’s operation on to Joe.

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Joe is adamant to sticking to the traditional method of brining the cheese. The curd is still carefully moved by hand from the vat to the cheese molds. Each is hand turned three times during the first day. The young cheese are placed in forms to be pressed– Joe still uses the same bricks his grandfather bought to weight down the new cheese decades ago. After pressing the cheeses are placed in a brine solution to take on salt and the all-important bacterial cultures. From there they are moved to a warm (70 degree) room where the bacteria can work their magic. And he still “smear ripens” the cheeses with a brine of ??? and whey.

To eat and enjoy Widmer’s authentic Brick cheese is great just as it is. I prefer it after it's about ten to twelve weeks of aging. If you like French washed rind cheeses after dinner why not add this one to your list? If you're into sandwiches, real brick is a flavor bonanza. Try it with a slice of sweet onion and some strong mustard. It's also excellent along with some of that really great liverwurst from Usinger’s in Milwaukee.

Photograph of Joe Widmer peering through blocks of Wisconsin Brick cheese.

To eat and enjoy Widmer’s authentic Brick cheese is great just as it is. I prefer it after it's about ten to twelve weeks of aging. If you like French washed rind cheeses after dinner why not add this one to your list? If you're into sandwiches, real brick is a flavor bonanza. Try it with a slice of sweet onion and some strong mustard. It's also excellent along with some of that really great liverwurst from Usinger’s in Milwaukee.

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