Willi Lehner, Bleu Mont Dairy

"Mass produced cheese is meant to taste consistent each and every single time, every single batch. There's no variation and there's not supposed to be. But a small batch cheesemaker, like a wine maker, will never make the same cheese twice. There are so many variables just in the milk itself - the type of milk, the breed of cow, what season and therefore what grass was growing in the field, the time aged, even what cheeses are aging nearby as they can develop and attract different spores. Every single variation changes the flavor ever so slightly. Basically, it's a calculated crapshoot. You control the external conditions and hope for the best. Over time, you figure it all out."

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Called the renegade cheesemaker of Wisconsin, Willi Lehner is a second generation cheesemaker with a strong swiss heritage. Willi developed an appreciation and influence of terroir on cheese in his youth, during a summers spent herding cows and making cheese in the Swiss Alps. Willi's property in Blue Mounds sits at the edge of the rough Driftless region of southwestern Wisconsin, an area that escaped the glacial scraping of the last Ice Age.

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Willi is very selective about the sourcing of the milk for his artisan cheese, using cow's milk from four different local dairies and only using milk from cows on pasture. His wheels are then brought back to his hand-built underground straw-bale cheese-curing cave, lined with special cedar boards. The unique walls help him to control both humidity and temperature, critical to cheesemaking. The soil also plays an important part in WIlli's cheese aging process. His cave will age his 11- to 38-pound wheels of English-style cheddar wrapped in muslin and covered with splotchy, gray microbial colonies that after months of aging help the cheddar develop the exquisite caramelly flavors that can create a flavor explosion. Committed to sustainable agriculture and renewable energy, the vault and the farm are powered by wind and solar.

Mold is actually a good thing for cheese. Willi explains that the mold that grows off the surface of his cheeses gives off real small microscopic rootlets called mycelium that actually grow into the cheese and give off enzymes that the mold can feed off of - Lehner says. "And those enzymes leave flavor behind.

The result of Willi's efforts is a sharp and fruity cheddar that is wonderfully tangy and earthy. Maybe it's all the yodeling Willi does when he is in the cave. Try it for yourself!

Awards

  • United States Championship Cheese Contest, 2009 and 2011
  • American Cheese Society Cheese Competition, 2006-2010

Video

Learn more about cave aging and see Willi's Cave!