Archive for September 21st, 2006

Carr Valley Cheese Company

Sid outside the Lavalle plantName: Carr Valley Cheese, Inc.
Owner: Sid Cook
Location: LaValle, WI
Animals: Carr Valley gets cow milk from 40 farms (within 20 miles) each milking no more than 70 cows, sheep milk comes largely from one dairy that sells to CVC through the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Coop, and goat milk from a group of 8 farms in the Green Bay area.
Cheeses/Products: Are you ready? CVC makes over 65 different cheeses. Look at them all on the Carr Valley website. But essentially if you can think of a style of cheese, Sid has probably made it.
More info: www.carrvalleycheese.com

I am wondering if anyone else out there in cheeseland is wondering how Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese pumps out over 65 varieties of cheese in what seems to be a sizable volume… I have been thinking about this for three years at least and could only imagine that he was like the Willy Wonka of cheese. Of course, the less optimistic part of my mind was wondering if it was going to feel like a big factory… my first instinct was definitely closer to what I actually saw.

We met Sid at the facility in Mauston, Wisconsin. Greg O’Neil, one of the owners of the Chicago retailer Pastoral was also in town and joined us on the Carr Valley Cheese tour. There are three cheese plants at Carr Valley, all relatively close together, each with a buzzing retail shop that sells all of the Carr Valley cheeses. The Mauston plant also had a viewing window where you can watch milk being transformed into cheese in any of the three large vats and also large areas for pressing, brining, waxing, storing and packing.

Gigantic brine tanks filled to the brim Preparation for pressing at the Mauston facility

Sid is a fourth generation cheesemaker. He drove us through the valley where he grew up- often called Irish Valley- and past the farm and home/cheese house where he was raised. Cheese might as well be in his blood. He described his relationship with cheese as a kid perfectly when he said, “you opened up the door on the side of the kitchen and there was the vat.” The first cheese plant that his father operated was in a valley called Carr Valley which is the name Sid still uses today. Sid worked with his father for years before taking over the business in the mid 70’s. He and his brother made Wisconsin-style cheddar in that plant for 10 years. Eventually in 1991 he purchased another cheesemaking facility with a layout that would allow for more flexibility and the development of more styles of cheese.

There are three “plants” in use today of which we visited two. The Mauston location is largely used for European style cheeses and a number of Sid’s American Originals. Whereas the LaValle plant is used largely for cheddar production. Sounds like a gigantic operation right? Let me break down my impression in the most basic terms: Carr Valley is bigger than many in the artisan cheese market. However, while handling a large amount of milk day in and day out the milk purchasing model looks much more like one you might find in Europe. The cow milk comes from approximately 40 dairies (all within a radius of 15-17 miles of the plant they supply) each milking no more than 70 cows. The sheep and goat milk that he buys are also from smaller farms that pool their milk together. Also Carr Valley didn’t build brand new facilities, rather they found plants that were closed or on their way out of business and modified the interior to meet their needs. Sid has been able to build up Carr Valley like this at least partly because of the years he has spent in the Wisconsin dairy industry, not to mention the generations of cheesemakers in his family that came before him. He understands milk quality inside and out and also has probably worked with more cultures than most people in the artisan cheese business. He also learned how to make his own cultures from his father and grandfather.

Sid distinguishes artisan production (volume of 100,000 lbs or less) from specialty cheese production (over 100,000 lbs but not at commodity level). He makes a number of cheese styles in both of those categories. His smallest productions on some of his artisan cheeses are around a few thousand pounds per year. Although Sid has the ability (read: volume and consistent product) to serve a wide range of customers, individuals to restaurants to specialty supermarket chains, he does a large part of his sales in his own retail stores. Currently he has 5 retail stores and in the two that we visited (they were connected to the plants), visitors flowed through steadily all day long.

Sid talks us through cheeses on his retail board in Mauston

Carr Valley employs 70 people total including retail sales people, cheesemakers, packaging and even the drivers of the milk trucks. Man of his employees have been with Sid for well over a decade and in some cases there are multiple generations of families working for CVC. Based on his years of experience and the exposure he has had to various cheesemakers and cheeses, Sid Cook is likely one of the most knowledgeable cheesemakers in the country. He has the kind of confidence that only comes with having lived something.

Cheddar pressing at the Lavalle location
While Sid remains fairly detached from perceptions others in the cheese industry have about Carr Valley Cheese, he is always game for a healthy competition (like ACS). Like Willi Lehner, Sid is not being arrogant when he tells me that it would be incredibly hard for someone to build a business like his, he is simply being realistic. He started in the game with a definite advantage and has been mindful to always stay in touch with his heritage. This is why he continues to produce the cheeses that the cheesemaking generations before him established in the state and around the country. Among the volumes of Carr Valley originals you will always find bandage-wrapped Mammoth Cheddar done in the traditional Wisconsin style- with pride.

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