Making the Finest Cheese in the World

The Burnett Dairy Cooperative, makers of the best string cheese on the planet.

Friday, September 18, 1998, Alpha, Wisconsin - Let's say you wanted to become a block of cheese. Not a cheesehead mind you, which you can do simply by attending a Packers party at any bar in Wisconsin and screaming your fool head off every minute between commercials.

No, you want to finally realize that latent desire you've always had of turning yourself into a handsome, ten pound block of, say, Provolone. Good, you've come to terms with this. Now, let's do it.

Head up to Wisconsin, where they make more cheese than any state in the U.S. and pretend that you are one of three things; hay, soybean meal or corn (we're starting from scratch, here.) Now, make yourself look appetizing to your average 2,000 pound cow.

Good. Now, spend a few days on a journey through the wondrous miracle of a bovine digestive system and evolve into a thin, vigorous stream of whole milk, splashing into a galvanized bucket. Isn't this fun!

Get yourself pasturized and you're ready for action. Come on over to Alpha, Wisconsin and the Burnett Dairy Cooperative. Meet Bruce Willis.

A natural in front of the camera,
Bruce Willis works on another batch
of Monterey Jack with Jalapeno.

Let's not get distracted, here. This is the real Bruce Wayne Willis. He was not even named after the other B.W.W. In fact, he was named five days before Mr. Die Hard. He will be your cheese maker today.

You are in good hands. The Burnett Dairy Cooperative has won many awards, including for the Best Provolone in the World this past year, the Best Cheddar Cheese in the United States last year and, in 1988, the Best Cheese Overall in the World for their string cheese, a type of mozzarella. No American cheesemaker has won this award since then. You are on hallowed ground.

What is most important in making good cheese? "Making sure you have good, quality milk to start with," says Willis, who has been with the cooperative for 27 years. And that's why I sent you to Wisconsin. Let's get to work.

If you are 100 pounds of pasturized milk (which you are) you will end up as ten pounds of cheese - your shining moment. First, Willis will add some "culture starter bacteria" to you. I hope you're not ticklish.

After letting you ripen for half an hour (whew!) he will add some vegetable rennet to thicken you up. Feeling pretty good, aren't you? Just think, they make 60,000 pounds of cheese here each day, and it's all 100% natural. In another half hour, you'll be the consistency of Jello.

Next, Willis will load you into a machine that will dice you up into little cubes and put you into the "Double O" a huge vat that will cook and stir you for another half-hour. Just as you expected, you'll come out looking like popcorn.

Then he'll toss you onto the finishing table, where he'll "knit, cut and pile" you until you can stand it no more. That tingling sensation you feel is your PH balance hitting 5.1 - just enjoy the ride.

And you will feel much lighter now, as all of your whey (whew!) has drained off. Put simply; before you hit the table, you were only 6% solids and now you are a sturdy 50%. You are buff.

Your whey is sent over to the evaporator, a 50 foot tall tower with a control room like a nuclear plant, that will process the whey into something that can be used in ice cream, candy and baking products. The usefulness of your whey should make you feel proud - very proud.

Suck in that pride, boy. You're about to be cut into cubes again, tossed in a water bath and tossed around like bread dough to harden. Some cold, thoughtless machine will auger you into foot-long cylinders and you're almost ready.

Soak in a salty, brine bath for as long as you wish - the average is a couple of days, more for a saltier cheese - then sit around and age for anywhere from two weeks to a year and you are ready, you are one, fine block of cheese.

As a licensed cheese maker (this is an official title, and a revered one here in Wisconsin) Bruce Willis supervises and trains employees at the cooperative, which was opened in 1966 and is owned by the 285 dairy farmers who provide milk.

"It's a challenge; I work designing new cheeses," he says. "It's a lot of teamwork and it's a pretty good time - we make good cheese, the old-fashioned way." Willis is talking about the hundred employees who work in three shifts at the factory on State Road 70 in Alpha.

How does it feel to be a block of Provolone? Not all you expected? Tough. Remember how Burnett won the Best Provolone in the World last year? Well, the 12 pound block was sold at a charity auction for $1,860!

Want to know more about
the Burnett Dairy Cooperative and cheese?

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