A Next Generation Cheesemaker: Emmi Roth’s Madeline Kuhn

Growing up on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin, Madeline Kuhn wasn’t focusing on pursuing a career in dairy or cheese from an early age. It wasn’t until she went off to the University of Wisconsin in Madison that she began zeroing in on a career in food science.

“That program has a very strong dairy presence,” she says.

It was right after she graduated college in 2017 that Kuhn accepted a job with Monroe, WI-based Emmi Roth in the company’s research and development department. It turns out the craft cheesemaker/importer and position were a perfect fit. In a short period of time, she has been instrumental in iconic Emmi Roth product launches.

“I was familiar with their cheese prior to applying there,” she says.

Cheese Connoisseur spoke with Kuhn about growing up on a Wisconsin dairy farm and how that propelled her into her current role and successes at Emmi Roth. Those seeking a career in the cheese industry are sure to be inspired by her story.

CC: Talk about your life growing up on a farm.

M.K.: Our family farm is located in Wisconsin’s Buffalo County in Fountain City. It’s a tiny river town on the Mississippi River with rolling bluffs and an idyllic landscape. This was the setting from my childhood. I have great memories interacting with the natural world around me in fields. I especially felt great joy and pride in working with the animals, especially cows. It was an excellent way to grow up, and I was happy to have that experience. It’s a rare experience for young people now. But it made me very aware of these natural cycles or processes, watching seasons, landscape changes and harvests as well as the births of livestock and wildlife. I watched them grow and develop and become part of our small, family-owned farm. It really instilled that love for the landscape but also agriculture production, which is at the heart of what I do now working in the cheese industry. It also is how I try to approach many things in my life, knowing my place, where things start and having respect for it.

Our farm had a relatively small herd and was solely family run. We milked around 60 Jersey cows, all pasture raised, with rotational grazing. That was how we approached eating and utilizing the change of seasons and bringing the cows nutrition from the land. We didn’t do any row cropping, just hay harvest, but the farm did work with a local dairy coop where the milk was used to produce cheddar.

I worked the farm and was very involved in everyday chores and the upkeep. There were age-appropriate tasks. Being the youngest, I spent a lot of time with the calves, making sure they were socialized and friendly. They had to get used to having people around them, touching them and working with them. I fed them milk. Seeing them head out to pasture was really a special experience. My folks still live on the farm but retired from dairy farming. Although there are no cows, they still enjoy the beautiful setting and remain dedicated to regenerative and responsible land and energy management. This protects the soil, slopes and forests. Dairying can be a tough way of life, and they milked for precisely eight years and four days while raising three children.

CC: How did you end up pursuing a food science degree?

M.K.: At the end of high school is when I decided to pursue a food science degree and career. The University of Wisconsin in Madison has a highly-respected food science department with experts in several food science topics, so it made sense to go to school there. Also, my dad is an alumni of the school, so I was interested in following that same route that he took. And I was thrilled to be accepted there, and go to my dream school. Unlike many freshman, I didn’t flip flop my major. I happened to have a clear sense of what was for me.

When I approached graduation, I felt the same way. I was still very interested and excited about food science. Before I graduated in 2017, I had contact with advisers in the school’s food science department who were interested in preparing students for productive and active careers in the field. I was coming from a small class in high school and a tiny town, so it was important to me to have guidance and people in my corner. That definitely played a big role in my success and time at school. I had advisers and professors who would go above and beyond to give students the kind of support they needed. Because food science was a smaller department at the time, they could do that. Other specialties didn’t have the same ability. I felt supported and encouraged. If you find yourself in that environment, you’re better situated to explore the field and the type of work or projects that speak to you, and I was able to do that. I was fortunate. I also greatly enjoyed and appreciated the actual dairy part of the department. The University of Wisconsin, Madison, has an excellent dairy-focused program and resource facility. They also have a pilot plant on site that runs jointly with the Department of Dairy Research. Here, they make cheese, bottle milk, make ice cream, etc. It’s not only a place for students to do part time work but also designed for learning and labs and getting experience with the hands on part of dairy and the dairy industry. It’s a great resource to have on site for students. I had my sights on food science and taking that path, but I couldn’t have guessed or imagined I would end up in the dairy or cheese industry.

CC: How did the opportunity at Emmi Roth come about?

M.K.: I was feeling very lucky to have something lined up after graduation. Like my classmates, I was seeking any and all jobs to apply for. At the time, the job prospect market for those with a food science education background was a bit tight. As new graduates, we were competing with those who had graduate degrees and PhDs. That was always a concern. So amongst my applications was a position at Emmi Roth as a research development technician. It was R&D focused, and I thought that was interesting. Also, it was cheese and dairy with a well-known and highly regarded and awarded company. I was encouraged when I heard back from them, then meeting with my future manager I felt even more like this had some legs. It seemed like a great place to start my career. I was even more excited to be offered the job, which I accepted and became a part of Emmi Roth.

CC: How has your career at Emmi Roth unfolded?

M.K.: I’ve been working for Emmi Roth for over four years, and a lot has happened in that time. At our creameries in Wisconsin, we focus on creating and innovating products for our Roth brand of cheeses. The business has changed and so has the structure of our department. I’ve had a lot of great experiences. As part of the R&D team, I focus on new product development. I play an active part in the ideations of new items, building the recipe, formula and process to go with products and bringing it to production to present to our customers and consumers. The second half of my responsibilities is continuous improvement, anything and everything involved in helping our award-winning products be the best they can be. This includes solving and addressing any quality or production issues. I’m also a licensed cheesemaker. I achieved this certification in my first year with the company. To do so, I completed work experience and course work, then passed the exam. Wisconsin is the only state that requires a license to make cheese. We have a dedicated team of licensed cheesemakers on staff. The licensing was important for me because I’m developing new products.

CC: Talk about your proudest career accomplishments.

M.K.: I’ve been involved in several successful new product launches since I’ve been here. Early in my career at Emmi Roth, I inherited a project to bring to market. This was a soft-ripened cheese that later became known as Roth Monroe cheese. It’s a beautiful, smear-ripened, small format cheese. There were some unique considerations to make that product in our current facility due to the size and amount of attention and care it required. It was a unique project to tackle. We went on to produce and sell this cheese for over two years, but it is temporarily not available. That was my first new item success story. I like to go after those unique varieties, and this was a passion project.

CC: What are you working on now?

M.K.: We’re always working on something. We just had a busy season. Recently, we launched the new Roth Aged Gouda, which was something I worked on for three years. That is one of my favorite cheeses we make, and it’s a recipe of mine. At the same time, we were working on developing some new flavored Goudas to add to our current portfolio. I was involved in a project that was a consumer-driven campaign. Our team did the legwork to develop new Gouda recipes, then rolled it out to our social media fans online and let them vote on their favorite flavor. Then that would be the one we’d make. It was a unique campaign that was crowd sourced; Roth hasn’t done that before, so it was exciting to be a part of it. The result was our Roth Spinach Artichoke Gouda that is currently available online through Amazon Fresh. We went on to keep the momentum from our flavored Gouda campaign to work on new exciting flavors for the Roth line. Now some of these varieties are available, like Hot Honey, Buffalo Ranch and Serrano Cilantro, and we’ll have more coming through the rest of the year. That is an ongoing project, and we’re just getting off the ground on those new items. Flavored cheese gets a lot of people’s attention. We have great flavored cheeses already so it’s natural to keep building on that.

CC: Talk about your involvement in the industry and importance of this.

M.K.: I attend conferences including ACS (American Cheese Society), and we enter in as many contests as much as possible. My involvement in that is to help select cheeses to send to contests. It is less about winning than about the judging process, which we can learn from to better our products. We try to keep our presence in contests as much as we can, while reminding people that winning isn’t everything. Sure, it’s nice to win awards, but we need to use the opportunity and feedback to be better at what we do. The good thing about the cheese industry is there are incredible people involved in contests who really just want to help the producers. They are there to do a service for them, and we should take advantage of that when we can.

Also, I’m a member of the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, which is active in events, conferences and education. They offer opportunities to network and keep people involved. I try to stay involved with that. It’s important in this industry to use those outlets as much as I can and be a part of that community. The Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association puts an emphasis on that. It caters to and offers outreach and activities for everyone, but especially to young professionals in the cheese and dairy industry. That’s encouraging to me.

CC: What do you like best about the cheese industry?

M.K.: I couldn’t imagine I would work in the dairy industry growing up, let alone the cheese industry. I’m thankful I had this experience and entry with Emmi Roth. It showed me the level of dedication and passion that is involved in producing cheese in Wisconsin and just how that attention to detail and the use of technology and science was intimately intertwined with the art and craft of producing cheese. That really spoke to me. I always considered myself to be a creative, artistic person with scientific motivation and an understanding of how things work as well as how physical transformations happen. To find an industry that combines those things was huge. Science and art are still my favorite parts of cheese, but I like to go deeper into the cheesemaking principals. Cheese is a historic food that has been produced all over the world for centuries, so the principals of making cheese have not changed a lot. We can use technology and tools to understand the process and principals but the actual process hasn’t changed. There is a lot to learn being in a segment of the industry in R&D to play around and tackle problem solving and dig into challenges. Sometimes cheese can be frustrating but it is very rewarding for me.

CC: What are your career aspirations?

M.K.: I hope to continue to bring inspired creations to Roth. I see this as a great place to serve our customers with approachable but elevated cheese. That’s important because cheese is an indulgent food but it can still be a bit intimidating. I appreciate Roth is living in the elevated but approachable space, and I like living in that space, too. I look forward to continuing to participate in the future of the industry, in general, as well as offer new products moving forward for a healthy cheese industry. It’s timely and very important for young people in this industry to get involved and participate and continue innovation and sustainability. These are things that will be scrutinized even more in the future. I’m hoping to be a part of that and to show how this very traditional historic industry is changing and the opportunities that come with that.

CC: Talk about the opportunity for diversity in the cheese industry.

M.K.: I would agree that in Wisconsin especially where we have a registry of licensed cheesemakers and a renowned program that supports master cheesemakers, which is the next level, you can see there is disparity there. Because there are not that many women, there are many opportunities, but I see it out of necessity. After decades of hard work and dedication in the cheese world, we have cheese pros retiring or leaving the cheese industry. In order to preserve the traditions and artistry of cheesemaking and tackle hot topics like continued innovation and sustainability, we need infusion of new energy; that is essential. We need people with diverse life experiences with different trade backgrounds, and those who don’t come from traditional dairy or ag roots like me. There aren’t that many of us, so it’s a huge opportunity to increase diversity in all levels of the industry, not just women but others from different life circumstances. We need as many people as we can. I can’t define what that looks like but I look forward to how they learn and remaster this ancient craft and bring it into a bright future. I also look forward to playing an active part in it. It’s helpful to have people bring in an alternative view. How do we help our career dairy farmers step back and get a better perspective on what we currently have in producing dairy? Where are the opportunities? It’s helpful to step back and bring in different perspectives; at the farm level that is hugely beneficial for even the established folks who’ve had a very rich and rewarding career in the industry. It’s okay to shake it up when we have to.

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