It starts with milk. Not just any milk. The best milk.
For years, Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has been making some of the best cheese curds in the world; the secret is the milk.
CEO Paul Bauer said the Ellsworth Creamery gets 1.9 million pounds of milk per day between its two plants (the other is located in Comstock).
"We don't have a lot of milk holdover," Bauer said. "Literally it could come off the truck and be in a milk vat in the same hour."
The creamery runs three shifts a day, every day of the year functioning at full capacity. Bauer said they can't afford to slow down.
"There are no down days," Bauer said. "That's not an option."
Bauer, who has worked at the creamery since 2009, said the process of making the curds takes three-and-a-half hours. After the creamery collects high quality milk from area farmers, workers begin the pasteurization process, which heats the milk to kill harmful bacteria.
After pasteurization, the milk and cultures are placed into a vat. After the coagulation process begins, the vat cuts the milk and cultures into curds and whey.
After separating the curds and whey, the cheddaring process begins. Cheddar cheese is a staple in this area, but what exactly is cheddaring? It's a multi-step process that reduces whey content, adjusts acidity, adds characteristic flavor, and results in a denser and sometimes crumbly texture, according to a cheesemaking website. With the curds beginning to solidify, Bauer said they have a rotating dicer that creates larger chunks of cheese curds. Next up is the salting belt, where the curds will stay for a short period.
The Ellsworth Creamery processes two types of cheeses: curd or barrel. The creamery packs 500 pounds of cheese into each barrel to be sent out to become other cheese products.
After the salting belt, the cheese curds are boxed up and packaged, ready to be sold.
Bauer said people working on the floor monitor a certain power of hydrogen or pH level to make sure the curds come out perfectly.
The creamery makes regular, base cheese curds, but sometimes spices them up with one of their many flavors. Bauer estimates there is likely to be around 15-20 flavors, with employees trying to find the newest, tastiest options. Ranch, taco, cajun, hickory bacon, dill and garlic are just a few.
Bauer is partial to the regular cheese curd and said the new flavor, Hot Buffalo, is a little too spicy for his liking.
The cheese curd isn't just the squeaky cheese in the bag anymore. Bauer said they also make a bratwurst packed with cheese curd crumbles, pizzas layered with cheese curd crumbles, and will soon introduce a line of breaded cheese curds as well.
"We're trying to push the envelope slowly with different uses for cheese curds," Bauer said.
It's not just Americans who get to enjoy the creamery's cheese either, Bauer said. The Ellsworth curds make it to China, Australia, and South Korea. Bauer said the business sells its whey products internationally as well.
Ellsworth was proclaimed the "Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin " by Gov. Anthony S. Earl in 1984. The creamery collects milk from 450 dairy farm family owners (that's 30,000 cows) throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota.
The cooperative formed in 1910 to manufacture and sell butter. In 1966, the cooperative expanded into cheesemaking. Two years later, the creamery began selling packaged curds.
Fast forward to 2017, where the creamery produces 160,000 pounds of cheddar cheese curds each day.
The creamery recently expanded by adding a 28,000-square-foot building that will be used for packaging cheese products as well as additional cooler and dry storage space. The expansion will enable the creamery to purchase additional equipment needed to keep up with the growing demand for its cheese curds and cut cheese products.
"We've outgrown our space," said Bauer in April.
The expansion was expected to create 14 news job.
The creamery's retail store, located at 232 N.Wallace St., is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week. Try to get there at 11 a.m. when the new curds come out daily for the ultimate squeak. Learn more by visiting ellsworthcheese.com.
Cheese Curd Festival
Bauer, the Ellsworth Chamber President, said he always looks forward to the yearly Cheese Curd Festival in Ellsworth, for more than just cheese.
"It's a fun way to get around cheese curds, but at the end of the day, it's a great way to support the local community and chamber," Bauer said. "So it's a win for both groups."
The Cheese Curd Festival will be in East End Park on June 23-24 with lots of activities happening on both days. If you are interested in more information or times for the Cheese Curd Festival visit www.cheesecurdfestival.com.
From the locally sourced, high quality milk to the finished cheese curd product, Bauer said being able to supply the community with delicious cheese curds is a great opportunity.
If you're walking around the Cheese Curd Festival and have a hankering for a great snack, swing into Cheese Curd Central where they'll be frying up their local, one-of-a-kind curds.