Award winner is the trunk of a tree with branches that reach throughout the best of Wisconsin cheese making
For someone with two factories that make dozens of different cheeses, Bob Wills’ biggest contribution to Wisconsin isn’t his product but his ideas.
There was the idea, years before it became commonplace, to not use milk from cows given synthetic growth hormone. There was the inspiration that milk from pampered cows at the Milwaukee County Zoo and the Wisconsin State Fair would produce excellent milk for cheese.
There was the notion that people in Milwaukee have the right to fresh cheese curds, too.
Most importantly, though, has been Wills’ idea and core belief that Wisconsin cheese makers are better off working together rather than trying to compete.
At both his cheese factories, Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee, he works with other cheesemakers in a variety of ways – as a boss, mentor, colleague or collaborator. Both companies will have cheeses entered in the World Championship Cheese Contest this week.
“I figure there is space for all of us,” said Wills, a certified master cheese maker. “There are occasional situations where we overlap, but it’s generally beneficial to use resources efficiently and when I work with someone else, I always end up learning something.”
Wills is the trunk of a tree with branches that reach throughout the best of Wisconsin cheese making.
Bleu Mont Dairy’s Willi Lehner, described by the New York Times as the “off-the-grid rock star of the Wisconsin artisanal cheese movement,” makes his bandaged cheddar and other award-winning cheeses at Cedar Grove.
Uplands Cheese Company’s Pleasant Ridge Reserve, one of the most celebrated cheeses in the U.S., was developed with Wills’ assistance and made at Cedar Grove until the company had a facility of its own.
Next-generation cheese makers Anna Landmark, Katie Hedrich Fuhrmann and Cesar Luis apprenticed at Clock Shadow or made their cheeses at Cedar Grove.
“Some are more successful than others,” Wills said of new cheese makers he mentors. “For every one you can name because they’re successful, there are probably three or four who realized it was really hard work and they didn’t want to do it. And that’s valuable also.”
All of this is light years away from where Wills, 65, began.
As a younger man, he was more of an academic than what he calls “a Wisconsin stereotype.” He earned a master’s, Ph.D. and a law degree at UW-Madison and worked in Chicago and Washington, D.C., as an economist.
But the entrepreneurial bug had always been biting the Milwaukee native. His wife, Beth Nachreiner, was the daughter of the owner of Cedar Grove Cheese. In 1989 the couple purchased the business.
“The first 10 years I was in business were depressing,” Wills said. “Seeing a path forward from that was really difficult.”
A cold call to Swiss Colony’s Forrest Kubly turned things around. Kubly wanted to lend a hand to a small cheese company, and asked Wills if he could make butterkase, a semi-soft creamy cheese. Wills learned, and that order helped turn the company around.
“It still chokes me up talking about it because of how much difference one person can make,” Wills said. “So I feel I have this responsibility to give back.”
Wills didn’t stay put once Cedar Grove was running smoothly. In 2011, he opened Clock Shadow. A much smaller operation than Cedar Grove, Clock Shadow is a testing lab for Wills’ ideas and a way to serve the city.
For the first time, there was a made-that-day source for cheese curds in Milwaukee, and the Hispanic cheeses Clock Shadow makes meet a demand in the factory’s neighborhood.
A Latin-inspired cheese, Clock Shadow’s Chees-E-Que, debuted in recent years and a bratwurst-flavored version won its category at the American Cheese Society’s awards last summer.
Each August, Clock Shadow partners with the West Allis Cheese & Sausage Shop to make and market a cheese made with the milk from State Fair cows.
It’s easy to be creative these days, Wills said, because Wisconsin is having a moment. It’s the kind of moment culture has seen before, he says, minus the cheese.
“There were literary clusters where you had Byron, Keats and Shelley, who were all challenging each other,” Wills said. “And it’s happened with music in San Francisco or New York that generated more than what anyone working on their own would have done.
“That’s what it feels like with the cheese industry in Wisconsin. And we have enough to keep the momentum going.”