A common adage among Wisconsin cheesemakers is that happy cows produce better milk, and that better milk makes a better cheese. Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wis., takes it a few steps further. The farmstead, managed by cheesemaker Andy Hatch, operates on the belief that great fields for happy cows leads to even greater milk, and that milk paired with great cheesemaking leads to highly decorated and award-winning artisan cheeses.
Home to 300 acres of rolling landscape in the Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, Uplands uses an old-world model lifted from the French and Swiss Alps, where it produces cheese with fresh, unpasteurized milk from its own cows. In order to produce artisanal cheeses that boast unique flavor complexities, special attention is paid to what the suppliers of the milk are fed.
The location of the farm, coupled with the nearly 40 inches of rain it receives annually, is ideal for growing a diverse range of grasses, legumes and herbs. It’s this steady diet that the farm’s nearly 150-cow herd feeds on from spring until the final days of autumn, giving Uplands a high quality milk. In order to ensure the herd is getting its proper nutrients each day, the farm rotationally grazes the cows in 20 different pastures and never in the same field for consecutive days. Moving the cows from one pasture to the next allows the cows to feast on new patches of grass and legumes, while allowing the previous day’s pasture to rest and recover.
Managing a closed herd, the farm only uses its own bulls and raises its own calves. It does not purchase cows from outside the herd. In fact, Uplands crossbreeds nine different types of cows. Because the cows spend their life outside grazing pasture, Uplands’ cows need to have athletic and robust characteristics. As a result, the farm breeds less for size and more for mobility and efficiency in converting grass into milk. The farm has found success crossbreeding larger breeds like Holsteins and Brown Swiss with smaller breeds such as Jersey and Tarentaise, says Hatch, cheesemaker and general manager at Uplands.
“We’re after a few things with our cows. Physically that they’re outside grazing all the time,” Hatch says. “We’re also looking for a flavor complexity. Different breeds of cows give different kinds of milk. They have different fats and proteins. The other end is the flavor you can develop in your cheeses is how those fats and proteins are broken down in the aging process.So our thinking is the more complexity you begin with in your milk supply, the more flavor complexity is available. It’s a luxury and we can approach it like that because we use the milk just from one herd. If someone is buying milk, they can’t pick and choose. But everything we do here, how we breed the cows, how we manage the farm, how we age the cheese, it’s all aimed at flavor complexity.”
Uplands’ philosophy is that its herd should go through a natural calving pattern, so the cows have their calves in the spring and are allowed to go dry throughout the winter, meaning they don’t get milked. This allows them to build body reserves for next year’s calves. As a result, cheesemaking does not occur in the winter months.
“It’s the old school way of dairy farming and it’s a natural way of farming,” says Hatch. “A cow is meant to have her baby in the spring when there’s abundant food and then hibernate when she’s pregnant in the winter. It’s not practical for most dairy farms but because our focus here is that grass-fed milk in the summer, we’re able to make it work.”
Hatch says the cows are milked seasonally in the spring, summer and fall, twice a day, once in the morning and once at night.
“We don’t get very much milk out of our cows,” he says. “A holstein kept in a barn fed hay and corn will give you 100 pounds of milk a day. We get about half of that out of our cows. It’s because they’re eating only grass and their genetics aren’t geared towards volume. The volume is much smaller and the flavor properties are much different.”
From May through October, while its cows are grazing fresh pasture, Uplands is busy making its highly decorated Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a hard cheese made in the tradition of coveted Alpine cheeses like Gruyere and Beaufort.
The traditional practice in cheesemaking was to make cheese on the farm using milk that was as fresh as possible. That’s exactly what Uplands does. Moments after the morning milking is done in the barn (which is 10 yards from the creamery), the milk is pumped directly into the cheese vats in the make room and the cheese making begins.
“It’s pretty much straight out of the cow,” says Hatch. “We don’t pasteurize it or homogenize it or anything, it’s about as fresh as you can get. We get more flavor complexity out of raw milk.”
Making Pleasant Ridge Reserve takes Hatch about six hours and the last step is to put the curd into forms. The cheese gets pressed over night and the next day the 10-pound wheels are removed from the forms, salted and placed on racks where they are then moved into the ripening rooms. Here, the cheese is hand-washed every two days in a brine solution, which encourages the development of certain cultures on the cheese rinds. These cultures, along with the micro flora that is indigenous to its unpasteurized milk, develop flavors in the cheese over time. And as the cheese ages, the flavors become more complex and concentrated.
Hatch says the cheese is aged a minimum of four months, and after 12 months it’s considered extra aged and is sold at a somewhat higher price.
“A large part of our work is ripening it and deciding if we can sell it,” says Hatch. “Each batch is a little different. We use raw milk, so each day cows are in different pastures the milk can be variable. It’s just a part of working with raw milk. So the name of the game is how do you ripen each batch differently and how do you sell it at its peak. It’s almost like dealing with different vintages of wine.”
By the time the cheese wheels are shipped across the country, they get turned and washed an average of 60 times. In fact, it takes more labor to age the cheese than it takes to make it. Hatch says washing rinds rarely occurs today because of all the labor it requires, but doing it this old fashioned way creates wonderful flavors during the maturation stage.
The results have spoke volumes. In 2001, 2005 and 2010, Pleasant Ridge Reserve was named “Best of Show” at the American Cheese Society competitions, and is the only cheese to have ever received the honor more than once. It was also named U.S. Grand Champion at the 2003 U.S. Cheese Championships, making it the only cheese to have ever won both of the national competitions.
Building on the success with its Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese, Uplands began producing its other highly-coveted cheese, Rush Creek Reserve, in the autumn of 2010. Previously, the farm always sold its milk to another cheesemaker in the autumn when the cows start transitioning to eating hay because the milk produced is less than ideal for Pleasant Ridge.
Instead of producing a hard cheese like Pleasant Ridge Reserve, Rush Creek Reserve, which is made from September to mid-November, is a soft cheese that, since being produced, is a hot commodity across the country.
“We like to say that Pleasant Creek is made in the pastures and Rush Creek is made in the caves,” says Hatch. “The flavor that you find in Pleasant Ridge is very much a product of the inherent complexity of the milk itself. Rush Creek on the other hand develops its flavor much more through the ripening process and the yeast, the molds and the microflora.”
Rush Creek Reserve is designed to show off the richer texture of the hay-fed milk and the delicate ripeness of a soft, young cheese. Made with unpasteurized milk, it is aged side-by-side Pleasant Ridge in the ripening rooms. It’s a smaller wheel, weighing 12 ounces, roughly an inch thick and wrapped in spruce bark.
Hatch says Rush Creek Reserve is inspired by the French Vacherin Mont d’Or, and is bound in spruce bark, which gives shape to the soft round and imparts a sweet, woodsy flavor to the cheese.
“Rush Creek’s flavor is a product of how its ripened, what molds are growing on the rind,” says Hatch. “The idea is you’re working with less flavorful milk, so you have to generate flavor somewhere else.”
The savory flavors born from the rind gives Rush Creek’s custard-soft paste a deep but delicate richness, reminiscent of beef broth or finely cured meat. Hatch says it’s best enjoyed by removing the top crust and scooping the cheese with a spoon or a nice crusty bread.
The award-winning cheeses that Hatch produces at Uplands is coveted in households and restaurants from coast to coast. In fact, the cheesemaker, who says he stumbled into the profession, says the company’s biggest market is San Francisco, followed by New York and then Chicago.
City boy turned cheesemaker
Growing up in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Hatch’s family was not a farming family. But somehow, he was always attracted to the profession. In the early 2000s, he began working for a corn breeder at the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute in East Troy, Wis. But corn breeding wasn’t an ideal job for Hatch who was looking to go a different direction.
In a rather strange turn of events, Hatch was whisked into cheesemaking.
“The corn breeder I was working for had married into a Norwegian cheesemaking family, and right about the time I was getting ready to leave his lab, his elderly father-in-law in Norway died and he sent me over there to help out,” Hatch recalls.
While in Norway Hatch was taught how to make cheese. He then spent a couple years in Europe apprenticing for a few different cheesemakers. Upon returning to the states, Hatch decided to enroll at the University of Wisconsin to study dairy science. He then apprenticed with a couple cheesemakers near Madison and became a licensed cheesemaker. It was in 2007, when he was hired by Uplands’ owners Mike and Carol Gingrich and Dan and Jeanne Patenaude to head the operations.
On top of raising a herd of dairy cows and cheesemaking, Uplands also raises pigs. In fact, it sells about 50 Berkshire pigs, which are pasture-raised, yearly to restaurants in Wisconsin.
“We fatten our pigs on whey – whatever is not incorporated into the curd from the milk,” ” says Hatch. “They go nuts over the whey. Most of the lactose is still sent out in the waste, which is sweet, sugary, and they just go [crazy] over it. They’ll drink five gallons a head a day.”
When the farm gets the pigs in the spring each year they are about 35 pounds. When they get butchered in November, they’re 400 pounds.
“That’s like 180 days and like 350 pounds,” says Hatch. “We finish them on acorns because there are a lot of oak trees around here. And then we sell them to chefs.”
Hatch says the pigs are sold to restaurants such as Sanford Restaurant, Rumpus Room and Lake Park Bistro in the Milwaukee area and to L’Etoile in Madison.
“The fat in this pork tastes like maple syrup. All of the sweetness in the whey gets concentrated in the fat,” Hatch says. “The fat is like three inches, it’s really amazing.”
Uplands Cheese Company, Inc.
5023 State Rd. 23 North
Dodgeville, WI 53533
Phone: (888) 935-5558