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Making Cheese in Copper Kettles

Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman and learn about the science of copper cheese vats from expert Neville McNaughton on Cheese Underground Radio:

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A bit of the backstory:

In a world full of stainless steel, just a handful of the world’s most iconic cheeses: Parmigiano Reggiano in Italy, Emmental, Raclette and Gruyere in Switzerland, as well as French Comte, are all crafted in cheese vats made from copper. What difference does copper make in these cheeses? To find out, we tracked down one of the only American cheesemakers making cheese in a copper vat: Master Cheesemaker Bruce Workman at Edelweiss Creamery near Monticello, Wisconsin.

We caught Bruce last week when he was operating on only about three hours of sleep over the course of two days. That’s because the computer that helps run much of his equipment had broken down the day before, and he was still trying to catch up. But he was happy to sit down, take a break and talk cheese.

Bruce has been making cheese for 46 years and has 11 Master Cheesemaker titles under his belt. At Edelweiss Creamery, the cheesemaking starts every weekday at 1 am and finishes up by 4 pm. That’s because Bruce is old school – when he started making cheese years ago, he didn’t have enough capacity to cool milk for more than a few hours, so he got used to a schedule of making cheese at night. Today, it’s all about efficiency – by making cheese during “off peak” hours for electricity, he saves a “boatload of money.”

When Bruce talks about being old school, the factory that he owns and operates – Edelweiss Creamery – is old school. It’s a historic cheese plant, one of more than 200 originally built in Green County, Wisconsin, more than 100 years ago. It started as a Limburger plant, but was converted to making Big Wheel Swiss by 1951. A total of 13 copper kettles, each making one wheel, were once housed inside Edelweiss Creamery. Those kettles are long gone, but a large, modern copper kettle – imported from Switzerland and capable of making four Big Wheel Swiss wheels – now sits in their place, along with several open vats where Bruce makes more than 20 varieties of cheese.

“Big Wheel Swiss” is what the Swiss call Emmental. Wheels weigh 200 pounds and contain eyes – or holes – the size of 50-cent pieces. Bruce ages his wheels and then ships them to retail stores across the country. Not only is he one of a handful of folks making cheese this way in America, but he is one of only two American cheesemakers making Big Wheel Swiss in a copper kettle.

I asked Bruce why he uses a copper vat. He again chalks it up to old world cheesemaking. A copper vessel heats evenly and makes a difference in the flavor when making old world Swiss cheese. But of all the cheeses Bruce makes, the copper kettle is reserved for only his Big Wheel Swiss. Everything else is made in stainless steel.

I asked Neville McNaughton about the science of copper vats and why they’re reserved for making alpine cheeses. Neville owns a company called SDI, which makes specialized equipment for cheesemakers. He’s also a consultant for cheesemakers in the United States, and since 2000, has developed recipes and equipment design for some of the most famous artisan cheesemakers in America. And if you listen to the podcast, you might be able to tell from his accent that he’s a native to New Zealand.

Neville says historically, copper was an easy metal to work with, and it heated uniformly. Compared to steel, it didn’t rust. “I don’t know that anyone sat down (hundreds of years ago) and created a designer cheese that had to be made in a copper vat, but there are certainly things that are unique about the cheeses that are made in copper vats.”

Many of the cheeses historically made in copper are cooked at higher temperatures – Parmigiano Reggiano, Emmental, Gruyere, Comte. One of the things that all of these cheeses have in common, is that at the point the whey is removed, the pH is still very high – at 6.5, compared to 6.2 for a cheddar. That means many of the minerals are retained in the milk. A copper vat will also contribute micro levels of copper to a cheese. “The copper is working on the fat in the cheese and creating a note at low levels that is very pleasant.”

I asked Neville if one can make cheddar, for instance, in a copper vat and his answer was clever. “Well you certainly can, but the answer is: should you?” He knows of one cheesemaker making cheddar in a copper vat, but it doesn’t taste as good as cheddar made in stainless steel.

A few years ago, I spent a day making cheese with Bruce Workman. You can read about that adventure by clicking here.

Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.

The Masters of Green County Cheese: Mustaches, Biceps & All

One tends to underestimate just how big a giant wheel of Emmentaler is until – if you’re like me – you try and fit one into the back of your car.

Bruce Workman, Master Cheesemaker at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, knows exactly how big – and how heavy – a “Big Wheel Swiss” is, and he’s smart enough to know a loading dock and two strong men are instrumental to transporting it from an aging warehouse into the trunk of a Honda Accord. That’s because he’s the only cheesemaker left in America crafting 180-pound wheels of Old World Emmentaler, and he’s got the biceps to prove it.

One photo shoot and a strained back later, I had a lot more respect for this jumbo cheese, and for the man who spends 14 hours a day making it in an original Swiss copper vat he imported from Europe. “There used to be 200 little cheese plants in Green County, all producing authentic copper-kettle Swiss,” Workman says. “Over the years, as cheesemaking became industrialized and companies worked to reduce their labor costs, it was abandoned. I’ve set out to bring it back.”

As one of 10 Master Cheesemakers who call Green County home, Workman is considered by many as one of the state’s most innovative cheese geniuses. He’s certified as a Master in nine – yes nine – different cheese varieties, and routinely wins national and international cheese contests with his Gouda, Havarti and Muenster. In a region where the number of dairy cows rival the number of people, Workman is one of the reasons Green County is considered Wisconsin’s epicenter of cheesemaking.

When you’re talking about the cheesemakers of Green County, three words immediately come to mind: innovation, craftsmanship and tradition. Cheesemaking goes back more than 150 years in this region of southwest Wisconsin, where Holstein and Brown Swiss cows eat grass sprouting from the region’s sweet soils and limestone-filtered water. In fact, grass in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin – home to Green County – is considered to be some of the best grass in the Midwest for cheesemaking. In what could easily pass for a Bud Lite commercial with Clydesdale horses frolicking in the background, the cheesemakers in Green County have a saying: “Have patience. In time, grass becomes milk, and milk becomes cheese. And if you’re lucky, it becomes Green County cheese.” This “cheesy” saying happens to be true: cheese made in Green County is routinely judged as some of America’s best.

Indeed, Green County is routinely touted as Wisconsin’s cheesemaking hub. In fact, 100 years ago — in the days of metal milk cans, horse-drawn wagons and cheesemakers who could lift twice their own weight — this 585-square-mile region was home to a cheese plant on nearly every four-corner crossroads. Today, more than a dozen dairy processing plants, many still owned by farmer cooperatives and operated by third- and fourth-generation cheesemakers, continue to make up the backbone of America’s Dairyland, handcrafting award-winning cheese year after year.

Looking for the best of Green County cheeses? These plants offer retail outlets, often staffed by cheerful gray-haired ladies, who take a break from packaging to ring up your order with a pencil and paper.

Posts about edelweiss creamery written by Jeanne Carpenter and cheeseunderground

Edelweiss Cheese Shop

. because Wisconsin has the best cheeses in the world. Why go anywhere else?

The best in Wisconsin artisan cheeses are at Edelweiss Cheese Shop, New Glarus WI!

We started with our own award-winning Edelweiss Creamery cheeses, invited other local cheesemakers to share their products, and offer you 100 varieties of excellent Wisconsin cheeses. Each cheesemaker’s brand label is proudly displayed on their cheese products.

Great local craftsmanship is highlighted throughout our shop. We have excellent Wisconsin beers, award-winning sausages and meats, and other tasty crackers and accoutrements for your cheeses.

We have numerous gift items and cheese cohorts such as utensils and tools, recipe booklets, and books about the cheese making industry. Kids particularly enjoy our Fun Wisconsin corner!

Located 25 miles southwest of Madison, stop by the Edelweiss Cheese Shop in New Glarus WI for premium Wisconsin artisan cheese!

Award Winning Cheese

Edelweiss Creamery Award winning cheeses. Muenster, Butterkäse, Havarti and Dill Havarti.

Wisconsin artisan cheeses, Edelweiss Creamery cheeses, craft beers, and handcrafted cutting boards are featured at the Edelweiss Cheese Shop in New Glarus WI. 608-636-2155