Meet the Woman Bringing a Fresh Perspective to Roth Cheese

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We’ve teamed up with Wisconsin Cheese for an interview mini-series called Meet the Makers, featuring a sampling of the state’s finest cheesemakers and their award-winning creations.

Cheese has been made in Wisconsin since before it was even a state. In the 1830s and 40s, a wave of European immigrants planted roots in the region and started dairy farms, where they made homemade cheeses to get the most out of all that milk. It was a woman in fact, Anne Pickett, who started the first official cheesemaking business in the area, a whole seven years before Wisconsin joined the union in 1848. This time period also saw the creation of now-classic Wisconsin cheeses—namely Brick (we have the folks at Widmer’s Cheese Cellars to thank for this) and Colby. By 1910, the state surpassed New York in milk production, earning it the nickname, “America’s Dairyland.”
Today, Wisconsin is home to over 1,200 licensed cheesemakers who’ve brought home more than 6,000 awards for their cheeses since 1995—that’s a lot of award-winning cheese. Roth Cheese is one such award-winning cheesemaker that’s been woven into the fabric of Wisconsin’s cheese traditions for over three decades. But with so much glorious cheese coming out of this state, Roth, like others, has had to innovate to rise to the top. Enter: Madeline Kuhn, a relative newbie in the world of cheesemaking—and as a woman, still a minority in the industry—who combines her science background with her love of art to dream up new recipes at the decades-old cheese company. I sat down with Madeline to learn more about her process and to find out what it’s like to be making cheese history.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you tell me who you are and what you do?
MADELINE KUHN: My name is Madeleine Kuhn, and I’m the research and development technician and a cheesemaker at Roth Cheese.
What do you love about cheese?
Cheesemaking is a fascinating process and it’s a historical trade. As a scientist by trade and an artist by choice, cheesemaking is something that happens to fall right in the middle of those, so it’s a very rewarding pursuit. And as the Dairy State, we have to walk the walk.

Photo by Dusan Harminc

What does it mean to be a Wisconsin cheesemaker?
Wisconsin is the only state that has a license requirement for cheesemaking. For us, that means that you’re not only mastering the profession and the craft of cheesemaking, [but you] also develop an appreciation for the art of it as well. You need to demonstrate [those things] so that we can maintain the quality and level of product that is coming out of Wisconsin.
You grew up on a dairy, so can you tell me a bit about Roth Cheese’s relationship with Wisconsin’s dairy farmers.
Roth has always been utilizing the milk from our local dairy farms in southern Wisconsin. Currently, we source from farms within a 60-mile radius, which is fairly small in this day and age. We’re happy to work with milk co-ops [in order] to support those small farms. For me personally, that connection to the farms and being in close proximity to them is very near and dear to me because I come from a Wisconsin dairy farm and a multi-generation dairy farming family. So to find myself working in the dairy industry, let alone in cheese, is a really neat place to land.

Photo by Dusan Harminc

Roth has been making cheese in Wisconsin for over 30 years—how has the company evolved since it started?
We started back in the 1990s with one creamery here in Monroe, Wisconsin. Over the years we have expanded to three production sites and we continue to grow and develop, not only the economy and create jobs in those areas, but create ways to share this high quality, award-winning cheese from Wisconsin much further beyond the state.
Originally, the process was very traditional and was influenced and inspired by the Swiss immigrants who had that connection to cheesemakers and cheesemaking in and around Switzerland. So, when cheese started to be made here in Monroe, they used copper vats and aged cheese on wooden boards. We continue to carry those cheesemaking traditions throughout our processes today, while utilizing some new technologies and advancements that allow us to take care of our people and take care of the land in a more conscious way, and continue to spread the cheese and love.
What’s it like to be at the helm of such an impressive cheesemaking operation so early in your career?
That’s a really good question. I came to Roth almost seven years ago, having never made cheese before, and I learned very fast and the only way that was possible for me is because of the community that we enjoy in cheesemaking. There are so many lifelong cheesemakers and cheese professionals who are very generous with their knowledge and their time and believe in carrying this tradition into the future by educating and sharing it with young, inexperienced people like myself.
I’m not sure that I see myself as being at the helm of it, but it certainly is an opportunity and having an open mind and being a sponge to soak up that knowledge from others in an effort to be a part of that.
You’re also part of another special community as a woman in cheese—do you find that mentorship is a big part of this sub-community?
Yeah. An interesting thing about cheesemaking historically is that it started very small on a farmstead homestead level, and most of the cheesemakers were women who were looking for outlets to preserve the milk produced on farms for themselves and their families. But because of changes in the manufacturing industry over centuries, that landscape has changed a lot.
Today, there are not that many women working in the cheese world, so I appreciate my relationships with really excellent examples of other women in the industry. That’s important for me to have those folks to look up to and to share an experience with. It’s also an inspiration as a young woman in this position to see some rockstar women leading the way, specifically in specialty cheese and artisan cheese.

Photo by Dusan Harminc

Favorite part of the cheesemaking process?
I’ve always been fascinated by tangible physical changes in food. Think about cracking a raw egg on a hot pan and watching the light solidify and become opaque and the yolk change color and texture, or watching bread dough rise because of the action of yeast—you can tell things are happening. My favorite part about cheesemaking is this brief moment of time. After adding the clotting enzyme called rennet to the milk and before it starts to solidify to curd, there’s about a minute where you can start to see the proteins coming together in the liquid milk and you can feel it and it looks grainy and you can see things are happening. I watch for that whenever I can when I’m making cheese. I just love that moment. It tells me that cheese is happening. It’s on its way.
Out of the more than 200 awards Roth has won, what are some standouts?
It’s always exciting to win awards, especially for something that we pour our hearts into. We’ve been fortunate to receive hundreds of awards and we value all of those. It’s a way for us [makers] to appreciate the quality of our product. It also sets the bar for what we try to achieve every day and what we want to put our name on and pull out from Wisconsin. We’ve had some really big exciting wins [like] in 2016, Roth won the World Championship Cheese Contest with our Grand Cru Surchoix. Grand Cru is where Roth started, so to be recognized on a world stage in the highly competitive World Championship Cheese contest for Grand Cru was very exciting [as] a Wisconsin-based cheese maker producing an Alpine-style cheese.
Are there any exciting things on the horizon at Roth Cheese?
There’s always something on the horizon at Roth Cheese. We just completed the construction of our brand new headquarters and conversion facility in Stoughton, Wisconsin, which is further solidifying our commitment to working and developing in Wisconsin and contributing to a vibrant specialty cheese industry.
On a personal level, I feel fortunate to be on the creative side of the cheese industry. Finding [ways] to be innovative and bring fresh new concepts and ideas into a very historic, very traditional industry like cheese is a challenge, but a good kind of challenge. You need to continue to stay on top of how people are interacting with and enjoying cheese in order to keep moving forward. I’m always excited about what that means for Roth, for the specialty cheese industry, and for Wisconsin cheese.

What’s your favorite type of Roth Cheese? Tell us in the comments below!

Our friends at Wisconsin Cheese are committed to showcasing all the amazing cheeses the state has to offer—and there’s a lot of them. Wisconsin has more flavors, varieties, and styles of cheese than anywhere else in the world. From Italian classics like Parmesan and ricotta to Wisconsin Originals like Colby and Brick, this cheese-obsessed state has a little something for everyone. Find out more about Wisconsin Cheese by visiting their site.

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