Midwest Moments: Uplands Cheese Company

There is no lack of cheese in Wisconsin. As the top producer of cheese in the United States, it boasts almost 10,000 licensed dairies across the state. Even their NFL team revels in the dairy delights by it’s numerous paraphernalia regarding cheese. Foam cheese hats are every where to be found in any gift shop in Wisconsin. So, with all that cheese, what makes this small cheese company that only makes two types of cheese so special? Well, a lot. Let’s dig in.

Uplands Cheese was owned by Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude. They were farming neighbors for years when they decided to band together to create a farm based on seasonal, rotational grazing methods. This was practically unheard of at the time but since Jeanne Patenaude’s brother wrote a book on rotational grazing in the 80’s, they were well informed of the benefits. This new farm was ideal for growing diverse grasses and herbs so their milk quality created milk with a unique and exceptional flavor profile. They knew they had something special on their hands and that it was getting lost in the fluid milk market. This lead to researching seasonal, rotational grazing practices around the world and it landed them on the cheese making and practice of transhumance in Switzerland. These hard, Alpine cheeses were a perfect expression of their quality milk. Being in Wisconsin also meant that they had the support of The Center for Dairy Research which helped them plan their recipes and thus, Pleasant Ridge Reserve was created.

Andy Hatch came to work on the farm in 2007 and Scott Mericka joined the team in 2010. Both started as apprentices but quickly moved in to managerial roles in their respective places. Andy in the creamery and Scott in the barn. Succession planning for any business is difficult but especially so in dairy farms. The work is back breaking, the hours can be grueling, and if money is something that you are after, this just isn’t the business to get in to. Thankfully, Andy and Scott were completely committed to keeping the farm alive so they bought it from Mike and Dan in 2014 and have continued to make the delicious cheese Uplands has always been known for.

A visit to the farm in February means that cheese is not actually being produced but there are still plenty of things going on. The cows are still out in the field and Pleasant Ridge Reserve is aging gracefully in temperature and humidity controlled rooms awaiting it’s next wash. Production for Pleasant Ridge doesn’t start until May and it is wildly dependent on the weather. The criteria is very stringent for the milk when being used for cheese making. Only the best milk will produce the quality needed for a three time ACS Best in Show winner, the only cheese to hold that title so many times.

Pasturing animals requires an entirely different set of skills and due to the wild nature of the nutrients being ingested, Andy actually slightly tweaks each batch to adjust to the changes. Each batch has a different flavor profile but there is still a sense of consistency. During peak milking, they can make up to 78 10lb wheels. Age does not necessarily mean that the wheels are ready yet either. They do hold some back for an “Extra aged” version but they constantly taste each batch to make sure that they are being released in a way that is the best suited for the intended flavor profile. It’s definitely not a “sit it and forget it” sort of deal.

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Pleasant Ridge Reserve aging gracefully.

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Clancy plotting which wheel she should take.

Rush Creek Reserve is the cheese made from October through Christmas and this style is largely based off the same Swiss traditions of making a runny, washed rind cheese in the winter. I venture to guess it’s one of the most Instagrammed cheeses during the Christmas season. It’s a cheesemonger’s delight. It is a completely different style of production and it’s needs are very different from Pleasant Ridge.

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Rush Creek with some Olympia Provisions Summer Sausage.

Uplands is one of the darlings of the American cheese community due to the nature of what they are doing. It is truly an artisan product completely dependent on the land and the flavor is a true representation of Wisconsin. It’s a small company that has accolades lining their walls but the work is done by a few dedicated people that wear as many hats as can possibly fit on their heads.

So, these are just a few thing that make Uplands Cheese so special. Really, it comes down to a lot of hard work and a lot of delicious cheese.

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Esther Hill, Clancy, Ben, and Andy Hatch.