UW Dairy Center Helps with Champion Cheeses
By Brian E. Clark
DODGEVILLE – Mike Gingrich -- now a Wisconsinite and one of the country’s top cheesemakers -- grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena, but spent many a summer working on his uncles’ dairy farms in Michigan.
The experience left a deep impression on Gingrich, who became an electrical engineer and spent the first 15 years of his career working for the Xerox.
But it was a lousy fit.
“I was disillusioned with the corporate world, so I made a radical change,” said Gingrich, who bought his first dairy outside of Spring Green in 1978.
Sixteen years later, he and his wife, Carol, teamed with Dan and Jeanne Patenaude to buy a 300-acre dairy in an area known as Pleasant Ridge, about six miles north of Dodgeville. The Patenaudes now run the cow and milking side of the operation while the Gingriches handle the cheeses. The farm is divided into 20 separate paddocks that are connected by lanes. Cows are moved daily and graze on the paddocks that have the best pasture.
But what Gingrich really wanted to do was make cheese.
And make cheese, he has.
At last month’s American Cheese Society’s annual competition in Louisville, Kentucky, Gingrich’s Uplands Cheese Co. took top honors for its Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a Beaufort-style cheese that captures the sweet flavors of southwestern Wisconsin pasture grasses.
It was the second time Uplands won Best of Show at the competition for its non-pasteurized, French-alpine style cheese. And he did it this time around by topping 749 other entries.
"To win the top honor in one of the most prestigious competitions in the United States - not only once but twice in four years -- is truly remarkable,” said Dan Carter, manager of the state’s Dairy Business Innovation Center.
Cheesemakers from 26 states and Canada were represented at the American Cheese Society competition. In addition to the Gringriches, other Wisconsin winners included Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle. Cook earned 20 awards, including five first-place ribbons for his cheeses.
When Gingrich and his wife -- who have won other national and international honors -- decided to enter the cheese-making business, they set out to find a great cheese they could make from their pasture-fed cows that would emphasize the grasses, herbs, clovers, wildflowers and soils on their land.
They Gingriches chose Beaufort as the variety of cheese they wanted to make after ordering it from Murray’s Cheese Shop, a specialty dealer in New York City’s Greenwich Village.
“On our small scale, we knew we couldn’t compete on cost with industrial cheese makers,” he said. “We figured we had to make something that could command a price premium.”
They sell their Beaufort to specialty shops, grocery store delis and fine restaurants around the country for $20 a pound. They also mail order their cheeses, but only during cooler months. The extra-aged wheels go for $25 to $30 a pound, yet the company regularly sells out.
Once they selected their variety, they approached the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison for advice on how to make their cheese and operate a cheese-making business.
“We knew we couldn’t make it exactly like the French Beaufort, but we tested eight variations (and) aged them to come up with the one we wanted to pursue,” he said.
“We had to tease out the best flavor,” he added.
John Jaeggi, who coordinates the CDR’s cheese program, said Gingrich was all business from the start.
“Not only is his cheese incredibly good, but Mike is a detail guy who tries to do things the right way,” Jaeggi said.
“We love his cheese,” he said. “Any time we do a promotional events, we try to bring along Mike’s Beaufort as an example of what we help people do.”
Gingrich first took a cheese technology course from the CDR at its facilities at Babcock Hall on the UW-Madison campus.
“When he first expressed interest, we were a little leery at first,” Jaeggi said. “With anyone, we try to gauge their seriousness and put them through a few hoops to assess them before we decide to work with them.”
Gingrich passed the test, Jaeggi said, then took follow-up courses, did an apprenticeship and began to develop a business plan.
“He is successful because he took each step that needed to be done,” he said. “He had a vision and goal and a target market going in. He was deliberate.”
Jaeggi said he and others at the CDR helped Gingrich devise a manufacturing schedule for the cheese, which is only produced from early May to mid October.
“We did trials using our little manufacturing vats, came up with what he liked best and helped him find a manufacturer at Cedar Grove, 20 miles north of their farm in Plain,” he said.
“We tried to talk him out of producing his cheese on the farm initially,” he said. “We said 'don’t spend that capital now.'”
So for the first four years, the Gingriches took their milk – they only select a third of it for cheese making – to Cedar Groves Cheese to use the company's vats once it was finished with them.
Often, that meant working into the wee hours of the night.
But they hit a home run their first year, taking their first best of show in 2001 at the American Cheese Society competition.
Last year, they decided to make the Beaufort at their farm. They built a 4,000-square-foot facility, half of which are “cave” rooms where where the 10-pound wheels of cheese are aged at 55 degrees – the same temperature as in the limestone caves of the French Alps.
The Uplands Cheese Co. is run by the Gingriches, seven part-time employees and full-time cheese-maker Joe Milinovich.
Gingrich declined to say how much the cheese-making building cost or discuss other financial aspects of the business. He did note wryly, however, that he expects to be paying the new structure for some time to come.
The new building, however, has allowed him to double production from 30,000 pounds to 60,000 pounds.
“I figure I’ll do this as long as it’s fun,” said Gingrich. “It’s a great way to make cheese and takes full advantage of pasture to produce ‘sublime’ flavors.
“We don’t mind taking the extra steps, and we’re gratified that people like what we make,” he said.
Making their Beaufort is labor-intensive. It is washed frequently with a brine solution to keep the rind free of unwanted microbes. The procedure also produces a variety of pleasing flavors.
For more information on the Uplands Cheese Co. and its award-winning Beaufort cheese, go to http://www.uplandscheese.com. For information on the Center for Dairy Research, see http://www.cdr.wisc.edu/.