Klondike Cheese

14 09 2009

By Meredith Hart

Aside from the obvious activity of eating cheese, what is there to do in Wisconsin?

Go to a cheese factory, of course! And that’s what we did. Klondike Cheese Co. to be precise.

Feta in Forms - by Emily LarsonLuke Buholzer, V.P. of sales, had never given a tour as early as 7am so that day would be a first. Although Klondike does not give public tours of their facility, we were given the special opportunity to see what goes on behind the scenes. We arrived that morning to the sight of the big industrial building shrouded in a heavy fog. For the people working at Klondike, 7am is really not that early. In fact, many had been working away for three hours already. Luke was plenty chipper and happily instructed us to don sanitary hairnets, booties, and coats before our whirlwind tour of the cheese factory. To understand what we looked like, think of the 1980s TV show, The Smurfs.

Our first stop on the tour: the curd forming room. Workers in rubber boots and white coats stood around long rows of metal tubs containing hundreds of individual cheese forms. White curds flew out of a machine from another area of the building while the workers made sure each form was filled evenly. We watched from above on a platform next to two huge vats each churning 40,000 pounds of milk. Luke opened the door of one of the vats revealing mixing poles and swirling liquid.

As we worked our way through the different stages of cheese making we were consistently in awe and confusion at the incredibly self-sufficient machines. As the milk solidified, a metal slicer moved in circles cutting it into slabs. As the Feta was packed into containers, a robot with frighteningly human-like gestures picked them up and stacked them in a box. Those robots really put the popular dance move “the robot” to shame.

The local community makes Klondike’s production possible. Eighty-five percent of the milk for their cheese DSC_8923comes from diary farms within a 30-mile radius with a few from within 60 miles. Klondike’s relationship with its farming community does not stop at milk production. Once the whey has been drained off the cheese it goes through different treatments before watering 120 acres of alfalfa that is grown to feed the cows.  “We’ve got our own little circle of life here,” said Luke.

That circle of life extends to the company’s employees. Much of the muscle behind Klondike’s cheese production comes from the local community where people often times work side by side with their friends, children, and other family members. Luke, a fourth-generation Klondike Cheese maker, has worked in the family business since he was 12-years-old doing the least glamorous of jobs: washing the cheese forms. “Oh, it was terrible,” he said as he remembered washing the tiny little holes in the forms. But he kept at it and has since performed every job in the house, finally moving up to Vice-President of sales. Needless to say, cheese making was in his blood. In keeping with the Swiss cheese making tradition, the Bulholzer’s lived in a house that sits literally on top of the building for many years. For Luke and his family, that meant waking up everyday, going downstairs to the rumbling machinery and making cheese. From certain places on the property the little house is still visible on top of the building although no one lives there anymore.

Klondike’s Swiss heritage has been very important for its success in the community of Monroe but its most favored cheese is not Swiss at all. It’s the award winning Feta that they began making as an experiment 20 years ago and has since become its best seller. Turns out the Swiss can make Feta very well. “We’ve got a closet full of awards,” said Luke about their Feta. They have been among the top winners at the Wisconsin State Fair, the American Cheese Society, and the World Championship Cheese Contest. Luke raved, “There are other great cheese makers out there, so it’s really an honor.”

The Factory in Motion - by Meredith HartIn addition to the 80,000 pounds of Feta produced daily, Klondike excels at making Havarti, Brick, and Muenster cheeses. While advancing from vat to churn to conveyor belt to forming to curing, the milk moves closer and closer to becoming another Klondike batch of excellence. Although Klondike lets distributors put their own labels on their cheese, they don’t worry about the loss of credit. “We just want to be cheese makers,” explained Luke genuinely.

For nearly a century they’ve been extraordinary cheese makers and with the family’s  enthusiasm and the cooperation of local farmers, that’s what they will continue to be.

To see more Klondike Cheese photos, please see our Flickr slideshow.

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