September 12th, 2006
Name: Uplands Cheese Company
Owners: Mike and Carol Gingrich
Location: Dodgeville, Wisconsin
Animals: 200 cross-breeds. Started with 50 Holsteins and bred in other breeds.
Cheeses/Products: Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Pleasant Ridge Reserved Extra Aged
More info: www.uplandscheese.com
Even fourth generation Wisconsin cheesemakers will tell you that the Gingrichs are the ultimate artisan cheese success story. Mike worked at Xerox for years when the Gingrichs lived in Southern California where they were both raised. At some point along his corporate path Mike realized that he was ready for a different lifestyle. Having enjoyed time he spent on the farms of his aunts and uncles when he was a boy, he thought that farm living would be an interesting experience for his own family. Needless to say it was an adjustment- but one that in the long-term they are glad they made. Mike started out raising beef cattle for a few years and eventually switched to dairy farming. He and Carol milked 30 cows for years before they began talking with friends Dan and Jeanne Patenaude their community about becoming partners in a larger dairy.
Although Jeanne had grown up on a dairy farm, Dan got into dairying when the woman who lived across the road from his family was milking 30-40 cows on her own and needed some assistance. Gradually Dan transitioned to running the farm for her. Mike and Dan had a vision for a rotational grazing setup which was possible in their region of Wisconsin if they could get enough contiguous acres to do it. They got together in 1994 and found a 300 acre parcel that they felt could support 200 cows. The acreage was parceled into 19 pastures with all of the buildings, and the original farmhouse, in the center of the property. By the spring of 1995 they were selling fluid milk. Within a short period of time it became apparent that running the farm efficiently, from a managerial perspective, did not require both Mike and Dan full-time. Thus Mike began looking at value-add products that they could produce from the farm.
One unique factor for aspiring cheesemakers in the state of Wisconsin is the requirement to complete an apprenticeship. In order to get a cheesemaking license in the state, you are required to complete specified coursework at the University of Wisconsin and also to spend a certain number of hours working in a licensed cheese plant. The requirements have changed considerably within the last 10 years to create a more flexible program for people looking to get into the cheesemaking industry. As Mike pointed out- if he hadn’t had a partner in his dairy business, fulfilling the requirements would have been incredibly difficult for him to do while running his dairy. Mike spent a year and a half(not exactly full-time) working at Cedar Grove, a cheesemaking facility about 15 miles from his farm.
Many fans wonder how Uplands came up with such a unique and successful recipe…Methodically, of course! Mike looked through the Cheese Primer and identified cheeses that were made with milk produced when the cows are out on high quality, spring and summer pastures. The seasonal aspect of Uplands’ cheese production is key to Mike’s philosophy on producing award-winning cheeses; they make cheese only when the pastures are in excellent condition because they feel that this produces the best kind of milk for aged, raw milk cheeses. Once he identified a group of cheeses, he ordered chunks of each one from Murray’s Cheese and then invited all of their friends over to select the winner. The group unanimously agreed that Beaufort was their favorite. The next step was to learn how to make Beaufort so Mike went to the University of Wisconsin to work with cheese experts there who helped him learn the ways of Beaufort production. Of course they made some changes to the recipe to account for the difference in wheel size (traditional Beaufort is usually about 90 lbs per wheel and Pleasant Ridge Reserve is about 10 lbs per wheel). They were ready to begin making cheese but not quite ready to construct their own plant so Mike made an arrangement with Cedar Grove to use their facility.
This worked wonderfully for a starting point. Mike and Carol followed the truck filled with their milk up the road to Cedar Grove each day to make cheese. The schedule was a bit tough given that they started their cheese make after the folks at Cedar Grove were finished which meant long days for the Gingrichs. There were also some equipment challenges- for example the press they used at Cedar Grove was a cheddar press and the wheels of Pleasant Ridge Reserve are quite small for that style of horizontal press. Mike said that a couple times they had wheels that would “pop” out of alignment and that to avoid this they had to develop a system of straps to keep the wheels of newly made cheese in place. However- both Mike and Carol are incredibly grateful for the learning time they spent at Cedar Grove. This time afforded them the opportunity to learn what equipment and setup was going to make the most sense for them before they invested capital to build their own facility.
As many of you know, Pleasant Ridge Reserve can be aged for a period of 5-20+ months (read: a long time). Although Mike and Carol had many people who could help them with cheesemaking there weren’t resources or great bodies of information about maturing cheeses. They are largely self-taught and continue to tweak things year to year. There is an immense amount of time and labor involved in maturing Pleasant Ridge Reserve- and keep in mind that as you begin making in the spring of a new season, you are still tending to most of the wheels from the previous year’s production. The Gingrichs were fortunate enough to get their friend of many years Joe Milinovich to come on board at Uplands as their cave manager. He and his two staff members are in the caves 7 days a week washing and turning wheels, cleaning boards and monitoring the environment. Everyone knows that Joe and his team are rocking their job in the caves but we also found out that Joe is quite a talented pig roaster.
The day after we conducted our formal interviews with Mike and Carol we attended the annual pig roast they hold with Dan and Jeanne at the farm. Over 150 people from their community come out for it each year with potluck contributions in hand. We not only had the opportunity to meet other Wisconsin cheesemakers but also some of the original tasting crew that helped determine the cheese Uplands would produce. A great honor indeed. Even with amazing pig parts, noodle salads, freshly picked pears, and pies available at every turn, I still found myself returning to the cheese tent to sample the multiple ages of Pleasant Ridge Reserve…go figure.