The cheese life
In Wisconsin, Cheese is a way of life for most of the cheesemakers and their families that own and operate their own cheese business. We work endlessly on creating a brand that represents not only our product, but our family. Many of us choose this living because of our passion for food and agriculture and our drive to do challenging and rewarding work.
My wife and I own Hill Valley Dairy, a small batch artisan cheese business in southeast Wisconsin. Together we operate all aspects of Hill Valley Dairy. On a typical week we produce around 500 lbs of cheese that we sell around the greater Milwaukee and Madison areas. Our current products include cheddars, goudas, cheese curds, and trial batches of naturally aged wheels of cheese (more about creating those in an upcoming blog). We have found a customer base at a variety of farmers markets, and local groceries, restaurants, and specialty food shops.
Milk we use is trucked from my brother’s dairy farm to the creamery in downtown Milwaukee where I make our cheeses. Once made, I transport our cheeses back to the farm for storage, aging, and distribution out of our on-farm cheese aging and work space – affectionately call The Wheelhouse.
Those logistical parts of our small business frame our weekly grind. But the character of this lifestyle shows when we look at our conversations, collaborations, and the people we work with.
My wife and I think and talk about (and of course eat) cheese all the time. Even after we get beyond the never ending to-do list of a small business, our daily conversations continue with - how a batch of gouda turned out, what new or improved labels we want, an interaction with a customer, the event we are planning with a chief, photos to take for marketing, what amazing things our cheese friends are up to, etc. We have learned many things about each other in these conversations, mainly how we can use each other’s strengths to help grow our small business. These conversations have led us to discover that we don’t agree on whether or not Limburger should be eaten at breakfast, but we most definitely agree that if we continue to make great cheese, we have an opportunity to support our family and our community.
One topic that dominates our conversations is thinking of all the amazing people we know, and trying to figure out how we can get the chance to work with them! The collaborations we get to do and the people we work with are ways we get to put our values into action. One collaboration story that we love resulted in our Whiskey Gouda. This particular cheese is the story of 3 brothers – a dairy farmer (my brother), a cheesemaker (me) and a distiller (my wife’s brother). These family relationships allow me to source and marry together top-notch milk with top-notch whiskey for crafting our Whiskey Gouda. We love working with family to make this wonderful cheese.
Our collaborations come in many different forms, for example, while our summer months are packed with weekly famer’s markets, we spend a lot of our winter working on event planning with other local businesses. Being a small business gives us a platform to help promote things that are important to us as a family. We are thankful for the relationships we have built with people like our friends, the local butcher and the local bakery, that we have been able to work with on a handful of different fundraisers and events promoting many of Wisconsin’s small family businesses and community organizations. We figure our path to success as a small family business is only possible when we try to help other families succeed as well.
We live and share our cheese life with our whole team; our family, customers, local businesses, and our employees too. We are fortunate to have a couple employees who have been great assets to Hill Valley Dairy. Mike is a fellow cheesemaker in Milwaukee who helps us on the production side, Zach and Allie are from neighboring towns and have a passion for Wisconsin cheese and local farmer’s markets. Zach is our next generation cheesemaker and Ally sees the cheese come full circle by milking cows, helping at the creamery, and selling at farmer’s markets. And we cannot forget our most important “employees” our two young daughters. They play huge part in our day to day at Hill Valley Dairy. They help with cheese deliveries, set up and cleanup of markets, packing coolers, and also, nothing sells cheese like a toddler grinning ear to ear over a bag of fresh cheese curds. This cheesy adventure has given us an opportunity to work with incredible people. Together we are able to create great cheese and use that as a tool to connect our community.
Wisconsin cheese is unique in a lot of ways, but we believe the cheesemakers and their families that own and operate many of the small batch artisan cheese businesses here is what makes Wisconsin cheese so special. It’s their hard work and dedication to living that “cheese life” that creates a great product and a successful small family business.