Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wisconsin Brick Cheese

I've been threatening to write this one for a while.  Having grown up in the midwest at a time when cheese factories (local jargon) were commonplace, Wisconsin Brick cheese seemed about as ordinary as Velveeta.  Now after being in the cheese business in Georgia for most of the last thirty years and selling some of the great cheeses of the world, I find myself fondly looking back at that simpler time.  Widmer's is the brand that we have sold so successfully over the years here and if one reads their website story, you are struck by the melancholy mood inherent in being a survivor of consolidation in modern America.

By way of history, John Jossi, a twelve year old Swiss immigrant of 1857, is credited with developing Brick cheese.  Jossi spent his early American experience between New York and Wisconsin working in Limburger cheese plants in both states.  1877 is the year he is credited with developing a milder bacterial "smear" that washed rind cheeses receive to develop their flavor.  To keep it in perspective, if we are contrasting Brick with Limburger, that Brick smear can still be plenty strong but yet pale by comparison to Limburger and, make no mistake, Brick cheese is made distinctive by that bacterial wash.

Following the turning and pressing of the fresh curds into the brick molds, which historically have been molds for making actual bricks, the cheese is dipped in the brine "wash" which is a culture of salt and bacterium linens which commences the action of imparting the pungent heady aromas to the young cheese.  The cheese is next placed in a 70 degree room for aging and may receive further washings if desired.  Joe Widmer, head of Widmer's Cheese Cellars and a son of Swiss immigrants himself, prefers his cheese aged 10-12 weeks with a proprietary blend wash before releasing to the public.

Wisconsin Brick cheese varies from a little-aged mild style to a well-aged stronger cheese.  Widmer also makes a Jalapeno Brick and markets his Brick Curds.  Other well known washed rind cheeses include St. Nectaire, Livarot, Reblochon, Port Salut, Limburger of course, and what many consider to be Brick's European antecedent, Tilsit.

I began by lamenting the consolidation of the cheese industry in modern America.  As you read this, know that Widmer may very well be the last small independent Brick cheesemaker left standing.  This is a loss for more than sentimental reasons.  The Krafts and Bordens of America don't make the cheese described above...not by a long shot.  What they market as Brick is made in mere days and coated with orange food coloring to approximate the color of the wash.  By comparison the mega-wine companies make a much better approximation of the historical product even if they do lack the regional distinction.

This Thursday from 5 to 7pm, Gail Avera returns with more new wines from Lafayette Selections.  Many of these will be California wines from the Lodi region.  Please join us.

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