By Jeanne Carpenter
In Wisconsin, cheesemaker roots run deep. Nowhere is that more evident than in the case of Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese. Arguably the state's most decorated cheesemaker with more than 200 awards earned during the past five years, Cook grew up - literally - in a cheese plant.
"You opened the door on the side of the kitchen and there was the vat," Cook says matter-of-factly. As a fourth generation cheesemaker, one might assume because Cook started working in the family business before age 12, earned his cheesemaker's license at 16, and now owns and operates three cheese plants and seven retail stores with 80 employees, that his profession was a foregone conclusion.
Not so. After high school, Cook went to college at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville and earned a bachelor's degree in political science. But the call of the family business soon beckoned. Thirty years later, Cook is perched at the pinnacle of his career as the mastermind behind more than 50 original cheeses and is a certified Master Cheesemaker in Cheddar and Fontina. If a modern Wizard of Oz were set today in the rolling hills of Wisconsin, Cook would no doubt be cast as the wizard calling the shots behind the cheddar curtain.
Cook admits that he eats, sleeps and dreams about cheese. Of the 80 varieties he currently crafts, more than half are his own creations - meaning he simply made them up. As one stands in front of the 30-foot cheese case in Cook's hometown retail store in Sauk City, scanning the never-ending variety of cow, goat, sheep and mixed milk cheeses, it's hard not to be impressed with the man's ingenuity.
Take Cocoa Cardona, for example. Aged with a rind that's been rubbed with velvety cocoa powder, the smooth and snowy cheese takes a customer by surprise with its subtle chocolate flavor. And then there's Gran Canaria, a mixed milk (cow, sheep and goat) made from the milk of grass fed animals, aged for at least two years in olive oil. Its deeply complex flavor and crumbly texture earned the Best of Show title at the 2004 American Cheese Society competition.
Considered one of Wisconsin's most innovative cheesemakers, Cook has also been known to name his American Original cheeses after natural landmarks, such as his Baraboo Blue, named for a nearby city in Wisconsin. He's also named cheeses after his family, including daughter, Marisa, 20 and son, Sam, 25. In fact, Cook describes his Cave Aged Marisa, a seasonal cheese made with milk from pastured Wisconsin sheep, much as he describes his daughter - sweet and slightly rambunctious. But both are true originals. Cave Aged Marisa has taken home a number of awards, including Best of Show at the 2006 Wisconsin State Fair, and most recently, Second Runner Up Best in Show at the 2008 American Cheese Society.
It was at the 2008 ACS show in Chicago where Cook most recently made history. He remembers the award ceremony vividly. He had just sat back down in his seat after accepting the prestigious runner-up Best in Show award for his Cave Aged Marisa, when he was called up - again - to accept the Best in Show award for his Snow White Goat Cheddar, a bandage-wrapped cheddar style cheese. Out of 1,149 cheeses, Cook, in an unprecedented move, had taken two of the top three awards given for American cheeses.
"I was sitting there thinking, this is fantastic - I've won runner-up with a cheese named after my daughter - what could be better? And then they called me back for Best of Show. I was shocked. It was crazy. I couldn't move. To get two out of the top three awards was unbelievable."
Earning those two top awards has also been good for business. Cook predicts next year's sales "to be wild." He's working on two new American Originals to debut in 2009 and is close to achieving his original goal of selling 100,000 pounds of 20 unique, original cheeses a year.
"We're getting darn close," Cook says. "It's very difficult to create, launch and market a new cheese that no one has ever tasted before. It's like trying to beat sales records with something people don't even know exists."
That's where Cook's seven retail stores come in. With locations in LaValle, Fennimore, Sauk City, Middleton, Wisconsin Dells and two stores in and near Mauston, Cook uses his retail stores as test markets for new cheeses. His two new best sellers are Bread Cheese, adapted from a Finnish cheese called Juustoleipa, and Apple Smoked Garlic Cheddar - a white cheddar that is apple smoked, hand rubbed with paprika and carries a light smoky and garlic flavor. He can't keep either on the shelves in his own retail stores and orders are pouring in from retail shops and distributors around the country.
"We're actively growing both sides of the business - retail and wholesale - and that's a remarkable thing to do at the same time," he says. "All indicators point to a record sales year this year and I see no reason why that's going to change."
Working hard to grow his business is a goal always in the forefront of Cook's mind. The reasons are simple: more business means more work for more people in the community as well as a better bottom line for Cook. But it also honors his cheesemaking background, a heritage 125 years in the making.
It began when Cook's mother's family started one of the first cheese plants in Vernon County in the 1880s. His cheesemaker father, Sam Cook, is one of the biggest mentors in his life, and Cook worked with his father for years before taking over the business in the mid ‘70s. In 1986, Cook purchased Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., a small factory that had been in operation since 1902.
To remain profitable in a rapidly-consolidating industry, Cook looked to innovation to stay on top. It was at the LaValle plant where he began devoting significant time to experiment with new styles of cheeses. He soon began targeting production toward artisan and American Original cheeses - specialties that attract higher prices from chefs and consumers. He also insisted on crafting cheeses through time-tested methods -- in other words -- doing it by hand.
"We still do it the old-fashioned way," Cook says. "Our goal has never been to become bigger, but to produce high quality cheeses with a lot of flavor. Getting bigger has almost been an accident - the right opportunities have come along at the right time and we've purchased facilities that give us the flexibility for more styles of cheese."
With more than 50 types of original cheeses already to his name, one might wonder if the creative well has dried up. No worries, says Cook.
"I'm always working on new cheeses. To make and age cheeses for as long as my family has, it just comes naturally. But it's also an extremely hard thing to do. You have to be a good cheesemaker, a good marketer and have a good head for finances."
Being an innovator in a century-old industry is key, he says. " It's not enough to make good cheese anymore - the public is demanding really exceptional cheeses with bold flavors and unique properties. I work very hard to spot the niches that are not being filled. I'm not interested in copying European cheeses or other American Originals. I'd rather be a leader on the cutting edge."
So what does a cheesemaker with more than 200 awards to his name have left to accomplish? Plenty, it turns out. "I have no plans to stop making cheese anytime soon," Cook says. In fact, Cook is just ramping up his quest to continue to elevate Wisconsin's standing in the artisan cheese world. He actively encourages fellow cheesemakers to enter contests, as well as to participate more often in buyer events.
"I'm interested in raising the status and reputation of Wisconsin cheese," Cooks says. "If Wisconsin is viewed as making the best cheese in the country, that's good for everyone -- from the farmers milking the animals to the cheesemakers marketing the cheese made from that milk. I'm interested in generating more dollars that ultimately go back to our dairy farmers."
Cook also takes an active interest in civic events. He quietly supports several different community organizations and churches. He seeks unique charitable causes the same way he seeks unique cheeses. "We look to support the causes that other people don't. We donate cheeses to dozens of events every year and lend support to many less-known, yet very worthy folks."
You also won't see Carr Valley Cheese or Sid Cook's name sprawled on any buildings in town. That's because he doesn't take credit for everything he does. "We want to be very focused and help our community. The people here have supported our business and we're happy to give back. That's what my family has done for 100 years and I'm happy to continue the tradition."
And if Sid has his way, that tradition will carry on for the next 100 years - one American Original at a time.
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