Keeping family tradition alive in Fremont
By James Card
“At one time it was claimed that there used to be one every 15 miles because how far can you go with a horse and wagon and the milk cans?” said Jon Metzig, the master cheesemaker at Union Star Cheese Factory.
“We had Silverfield up in Fremont that just got tore down and one a few miles down the road,” he added. “If you ever see a building on the corner of a road, that was more than likely a cheese factory. I just know what they look like: that was a cheese factory, that was a cheese factory, that was a cheese factory.”
The only thing in common that the Union Star Cheese Factory has with cheesemakers that have fallen by the wayside of history is that, it too, is situated alongside the corner of a road.
In the old days, this was necessary for the unloading of milk cans from the back of pick-up trucks.
Metzig is a rarity. He is the third generation of his family to operate the cheese factory in a time when other small-town cheesemakers have folded.
Sitting just off the crossroads in the village of Zittau, there is no parking area for customers but rather a shoulder-strip lane to pull off on.
Throughout the day, there is a revolving pole position of cars angling off the road and stopping in for cheese, especially the squeaky fresh curds.
The cheese factory was founded in 1906 as a co-op. Later Metzig’s great-grandfather’s brother bought it.
Growing up in cheese factory
In 1980, Metzig’s father purchased the business and Metzig remembers bagging curds when he was 6 years old and living upstairs above the factory floor.
He worked on dairy farms growing up. Just out of high school, he became a licensed cheesemaker.
Metzig studied at UW-River Falls and got interested in food science. He toured Europe and learned about the cheesemaking practices of the Old World.
His father still works at the factory and Metzig said they are in a slow-motion “transition phase” of him eventually taking over the family business.
In 2016 Metzig became a master cheesemaker, a Wisconsin-designated title that requires years of study and effort. A person has to be a licensed cheesemaker for 10 years, then the candidate must choose a type of cheese to be licensed in, very much like a doctoral student choosing a dissertation topic.
Metzig chose Colby and cheddar for his master requirement.
The candidate produces those cheeses over three years, refining the art and science of making this particular cheese,.
During those years, inspectors stop by critique the finished product. After that the candidate must take a series of short course and take a written final exam.
Impact of pandemic
When COVID-19 came about, Metzig took his hits like many small businesses. The cheese he supplied wholesale to restaurants immediately stopped.
A large percentage of his sales come from retail and he had to navigate mask mandates and safety protocols. But he also noticed that he has a large numbers of fans willing to great lengths to get their hands on quality cheese.
“Some weekends it would be busier because people had nothing to do. So people would drive up from Milwaukee and get some cheese curds and drive back,” said Metzig.
”I’m optimistic. Since COVID, a lot more people are aware of where their products come from. The local food movement is growing,” he said.
Despite his business concerns about inflation, supply chains issues and staffing shortages, he remains positive as he knows he’s in a good position – both professionally and geographically – as a cheesemaker.
He sources his milk directly from two local farms, Silverthorne Farm and the Harness Family Farm, as he has a good relationship with the farmers to make adjustments to the milk quality of the herds. But Metzig has high praise for dairy farmers across the Wisconsin.
“The quality of milk in our state is at the top. We have the best milk in the country,” said Metzig.
“Making cheese in Wisconsin is so nice because we still have people that still manufacture equipment here in Wisconsin. I’ve heard stories from cheeemakers in other states that if they break a pump, they are down for a week. Where we can just go up to Green Bay to get one or get it fixed,” said Metzig. “And it’s the same for food packaging. People don’t realize how much food packaging is made in the Fox Valley.”
Union Star produces all of the classic favorites: cheddars, Colby, string, muenster and others. They are the mainstays of the business. As a small businessman, he admits that he cannot compete with the makers of what he calls “commodity cheddar.”
But he can compete as an artisan, putting his cheese up against the great cheese masters of Europe and that is where he has found his niche.
“Some of these washed-rind cheeses from Europe, for example, have a relatively short shelf life. They make it in Europe, put it on a container and by the time it gets to the consumer here its already past prime. It’s just old,” said Metzig.
His two premium cheese are Red Willow and St. Jeanne.
Red Willow similar to Limburger but not as pungent. It is a wheel of cheese that is kept in a climate controlled room and is washed with a culture that ferments it from the outside in.
The other premium cheese, St. Jeanne, is similar to Red Willow but slightly drier.
Another artisan cheese Metzig has developed is Farmhouse Cheddar which is like traditional cheddar but put in an environmentally controlled room, and the outside is rubbed with olive oil and salt to create a more natural rind.
Metzig does a couple cheese competitions each year and describes them as brutal. The cheese to be judged starts with 100 points. Any defect gets a subtraction of points. The cheese with the highest number of points left after judging wins. The judges assess the flavor, color, texture shape and even the packaging of the cheese.
At a U.S. competition put on the Wisconsin Cheesemaker’s Association, his cheese scored 97.6. Not bad. He got sixth place. First place came in at 99.8.