Sid Cook, Owner & Certified Master Cheesemaker at The Carr Valley Cheese Co.
If there was a gene for cheesemaking, Sid Cook was certainly born with it. The fourth-generation cheesemaker and owner of Carr Valley Cheese Co., in La Valle, WI, can trace his family’s cheddar-making roots back to the late 1800s. It’s easy. The writing, and photos, are all hung like a timeline on the wall behind the glass case displaying cheeses for sampling at the La Valle, WI, retail store. The first photo shows Cook’s great-grandfather, Simon Lepley, and his wife Cora Emma, pictured with their best cow and two young children, Lee and Sarah. Sarah, a cheesemaker too, was born in 1889 in Richland Center, the same small town where her grandson, Sid, came into the world in 1952. Cook’s parents, Sam and Merna, operated the Irish Valley Cheese Factory in Plain, WI. This is where Cook learned to make classic cheddar and Colby using milk from farms nearby. Cook and his brother Monte bought the Irish Valley factory from their parents in 1976. A decade later, Cook purchased Carr Valley Cheese from the Mueller brothers, whose family had founded it in 1902. Today, Cook is a certified master cheesemaker, operates four cheese factories and eight retail stores and has earned over 870 national and international awards — more than any other cheesemaker in North America. He brings not only the weight of history to his craft, but also a natural knack for innovation.
Cheese Connoisseur spoke to Cook about life with cheese, his career and what’s new.
CC: What are a few of your first memories growing up in a cheesemaking family?
SC: Cheesemaking has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Our house was connected to the plant, so I could walk out our kitchen door and enter the factory. I loved it. I would go into the plant and ride my trike around the vats. But as soon as I could stand on a bucket, I was helping to stir the corners of the vat. Also, cheesemaking was deeply entrenched in my family, especially on my mother’s side, and the women were just as involved in the process as the men. At family gatherings, my aunts, uncles and grandparents would all “talk-cheese.” Back then, small family cheesemaking operations were found every five to six miles because of the number of dairy farms and the necessity to transport milk by horse and wagon.
CC: Was there ever a time you wanted to be something other than a cheesemaker?
SC: I loved making cheese with my parents, but I wasn’t always sure I would pursue it as a lifelong career. I went to college and studied political science and thought I might go that route, but living and traveling in Europe reinvigorated my love for cheesemaking. I saw these world-renowned cheeses abroad and thought, “we’re making some pretty awesome cheeses in our part of the world that people need to know.” I love experimenting and the creative aspect of innovation in American cheesemaking. Once you know the art and science, it’s amazing how many unique combinations can be developed through a few simple ingredients.
CC: Many teenagers can’t wait to get their driver’s license at age 16, but you got your cheesemaking license at this age. What did it take to get this license?
SC: In Irish Valley, a farming community in south central Wisconsin where my dad’s factory was located, almost everyone I knew grew up on a farm and worked before and after school. To this day, the youngest you can be to get your cheesemaking license is 16, if you complete the apprenticeship and put in the hours. Today, we love supporting kids in the community and offer an apprenticeship for them to pursue cheesemaking, as it’s a fantastic career and has great growth opportunities.
CC: Could you tell us about your early cheesemaking career and its evolution?
SC: I started working with my parents at Irish Valley before I purchased Carr Valley. Back in the 80s, all the cheese companies I knew were making one to two different varieties, usually cheddar, Colby, muenster, brick, or Swiss. I knew I wanted to experiment with different milk types, affinage, flavor profiles and aging techniques. I started coming up with “American Originals”, cheese types that had never been done before, and I think that is what set Carr Valley apart from the beginning. Another thing I learned early on was to diversify our customer base. I saw great cheesemakers selling their businesses because they sold to one large buyer, and when the relationship ended, they closed their doors. So, we began selling wholesale and to distributors, but also opened several retail stores in the area, which has been great for us over the years.
CC: How has the cheese industry changed since you first started?
SC: Many things in the industry have changed, especially with expanding to different locations and plants, but at the same time, we’ve remained true to our essence — a commitment to quality and innovation. We also make cheese the same way we did at the beginning. Everything is done by hand with quality; local milk is delivered daily from our network of family farms. We use our senses to craft cheese in open vats, and we take a lot of pride in the product we create. I think you can taste the passion we put into each cheese.
CC: Why have cheddars always been a staple for you and continue today as bestsellers?
SC: People always ask me my favorite cheese, I usually say, “it’s whatever cheese I’m eating at the time,” but the truth is, it’s our four-year-old cheddar. I love it on its own or on top of a warm piece of apple pie. Cheddar was the first type of cheese my family made because that was what local customers wanted at the time. My dad loved cheddar, too, and we always had it on the table. It’s very nostalgic for me. The cheddar my dad made would be white if it was fresh and mild, and he would add annatto if it was an aged cheddar.
CC: Next to your Apple Smoked Cheddar and Apple Smoked Garlic Cheddar, your Bread Cheese is another big favorite. What is Bread Cheese?
SC: It’s my take on the Finnish cheese, Juustoleipa, which is traditionally made from reindeer milk. I joke that we don’t have any reindeer in southern Wisconsin, except at Christmas, so we needed to adjust a bit and make it with cow’s milk. It is a fantastic cheese and has been a hit since we started making it. We oven-bake it at our Fennimore, WI location until it is a toasty brown. I think people love it because of its taste, but also because of its versatility and creative applications. You can heat it any way you like. My favorite way is with a waffle iron. You can pair it with sweet or savory. Maple syrup and honey are delicious with our Chipotle and Plain flavors, while Pizza and Garlic flavors are great with marinara.
CC: What led you down the artisan cheesemaking path? Did older family members encourage you, or did they want you to stay true to tradition?
SC: My family always encouraged me to try new things and experiment. I actually grew up in an artisan cheesemaking factory due to its size. We didn’t make a lot of cheese. We had three or four varieties. What happened was as factories got bigger and more efficient, we had to find a way to make our small cheese factories stand out. My uncles and great-uncles would come together and talk about how people were doing different things. At the time, there was no consistency amongst the different small factories, so if a larger buyer wanted a cheddar, they wanted to purchase it from one large company compared to many small companies. By making many different kinds of cheese, close to 100 today, we retained the artisan process and give customers different products they can’t find at some of the larger operations.
CC: What was your first artisan cheese?
SC: The first time I saw a recipe for mixed milk cheese was one by Dr. Price, who developed it in the 1950s. But I hadn’t seen anyone making his recipe, so I tried it and called it “Dariworld.” Some of our employees referred to it as “Sid’s Dariworld”, which stuck. Then in the 1990s, we started making Menage, a blend of goat, sheep and cow milk that is then slightly aged for a firm body and nutty flavor. After aging it is dipped in green wax. I wasn’t aware of anyone else doing mixed milk cheeses at the time, but it was a hit from the start. Chefs in the area were excited to have a domestic product that was different than the traditional varieties.
CC: What fuels your cheese-making innovation?
SC: Most of the product development is from experimentation, but some of our best-sellers were actually from mistakes. For example, we had a bunch of our pepper jack accidentally put in our cold smoker. The next day when it came out, we tried it, and it was fantastic. We’ve had our apple-smoked pepper jack on the product list ever since. That said, I always try to make cheeses that I like. If I do that, it usually turns out well. I never try to make cheeses for the market or hop on trends, because I never know what will be a hit. Things change over the years, as well. Some cheeses are very popular for a few years, then become less popular. Or they win a big award or are picked up by a large retailer, and they become our biggest seller. You never know.
CC: What does it take to produce an award-winning cheese? What awards are you most proud of and why?
SC: There is so much work that goes on behind the scenes within every department and every factory, so when we are recognized on a global stage for the work we do, it is amazing. Our biggest award-winning cheese is “Cave Aged Marisa,” which has won multiple “Best of Class” designations. This cheese is special, because it is a sheep milk variety with a beautiful natural rind and distinct flavor, but it is also named after my daughter, Marisa. But there are so many awards that I’m proud of. Our blue cheeses have been winning an incredible amount of awards in recent years and, although I may be biased, are truly the best blue cheeses I’ve ever had. Some other big award wins that I’m proud of were the American Cheese Society’s “Best in Show” for both our Gran Canaria and Snow White Goat Cheddar.
Despite these prestigious awards, I still feel like the best accolades are from people that I meet that tell me our cheeses are attached to a favorite memory. I call these flavor memories, and they can be so strong! When you are with friends and family and sharing a meal with great conversations, it is a beautiful thing. My favorite is to set out a few nice cheeses, like Mobay, Gran Canaria and a great aged cheddar with some accompaniments and share it with people I love. What’s better than that?
CC: Could you tell us about some of your newest artisan cheeses?
SC: We usually try to develop two to three new cheeses each year. Our blue cheeses have been immensely popular in the last few years, and we just came out with two amazing new blue cheeses: Blue Spruce Blue and Black Truffle Blue. I’m proud of both of these cheeses and of the fantastic cheesemakers we have at our blue cheese facility, Glacier Point, in Linden, WI. Blue Spruce Blue is a mildly veined cow milk cheese that is gently cold smoked with blue spruce wood chips, which gives it a delicate smoked flavor. Black Truffle Blue is our award-winning blue cheese base with added black truffles throughout. Both are incredible cheeses.
CC: Finally, is there a fifth generation of cheesemakers in the family? What wisdom do you share with them and today’s other young cheesemakers?
SC: We have several family members working in the business, and it is a lot of fun. We still “talk-cheese” at family gatherings and always have cheese on the table. We also have other employees in the company who are multiple-generation Carr Valley employees. They bring so much to the company, because there are fresh ideas, but also the years of experience that have been passed down. We still have employees working for us that were here when I bought the company in the 80s! To have those long-term employees working hand-in-hand with younger generations is paramount to our success. And with everyone living and working nearby, there is a real sense of community.
CC: Where do you see your future in cheesemaking headed?
SC: I’ve had the privilege of being friends with amazing cheesemakers across the country, but especially in Wisconsin, and there are great products on the market. I think we will always have patience, quality and innovation as pillars of excellence for Carr Valley, which has put us on the map.