Making ethanol production efficient – Audio

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Making ethanol production efficient
James Steele, Professor
Department of Food Science
UW-Madison College of Agricultural and Life Sciences

2:55 – Total Time

0:11 – Role of bacteria
0:22 – Describe ethanol making process
0:45 – How is bacteria currently managed
1:02 – Current control process
1:15 – Solution to controlling bacteria
1:42 – Other benefits
1:55 – Will it improve yield
2:03 – How long before this technology is available
2:30 – What will your biotech company look like
2:40 – What is the market for this product
2:48 – Lead out

Sevie Kenyon:
Changing the efficiency of ethanol production. We’re visiting today with James Steele, Department of Food Science, University of Wisconsin-Madison in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and I’m Sevie Kenyon. Jim, start out by giving us an idea what the role of bacteria is in the ethanol process.

James Steele: Nothing good today. Yeast is there to be able to make the ethanol and the bacteria kind of steal from that yeast.

Sevie Kenyon: Can you describe, then, how that chokes the process of making ethanol?

James Steele: Well we have sugar in an ethanol plant that comes from the corn. And what we’re trying to do is then convert that sugar to ethanol using the yeast. If the bacteria competes with the yeast for that sugar it takes it to lactic acid and that’s bad because that’s not the product we want. Additionally, if enough lactic acid is produced, it will actually inhibit the yeast and stop the fermentation.

Sevie Kenyon: At this stage Jim, how is this lactic acid bacteria problem managed in an ethanol plant? Continue reading

Three UW-Madison student teams to compete in national food competitions June 25-27

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012

When eighteen UW-Madison food science students head to Las Vegas later this month, they’ll be packing some delicious luggage: samples of a fruit smoothie, PB&J popsicle and cranberry-filled pretzel snack they painstakingly developed over this past academic year.

Three teams of UW students will be competing in the final rounds of the nation’s most popular collegiate food product development contests, held during the Institute for Food Technologists (IFT) annual meeting, June 25-28.

This is not the first time that Badgers have turned up in force at the event. “It’s unheard of to have three teams make it to the finals, yet we’ve managed to do it two years in a row now,” says Amy DeJong, president of the UW-Madison Food Science Club.

Two of the UW teams will face off in a contest co-sponsored by Disney that focuses on creating healthy snacks for kids. One will compete with Peanut Butter Jamsicles, a popsicle version of the classic PB&J sandwich. The other team created Pit Stop, a Cars movie-themed smoothie that kids can shake up themselves, mixing a purple layer of fruit and vegetable juices with a white layer of Greek yogurt.  “It’s interactive, and children will enjoy relating it—in the context of the Disney movie, Cars—back to whatever race their day may bring,” says Teresa Tierney, Pit Stop team captain.

The third Badger team will compete in a different contest with a microwavable snack called Cranberry POPlers, made of sweet potato-enriched soft pretzels stuffed with cranberry filling. “There are four little POPlers in a 200-calorie serving,” says team captain Tim Grady. “They’re bursting with vitamin A, and they go from the freezer to your plate in just a few minutes.”

Each year, students inevitably face a number of challenges as they turn their ideas into real products. The first few runs of Peanut Butter Jamsicles turned out rock hard, with air pockets and huge ice crystals. But the team got access to a small batch freezer that allowed them to turn their ingredients—peanut butter, grape jelly, Greek yogurt, milk and sugar—into a smooth and delicious treat.

They also had to figure out how to ramp up the peanut butter flavor without adding too much saturated fat. “With the Disney competition, nutrition is very important. Lower fat, lower sugar, low calorie—the judges really look for that when evaluating the proposals,” says Kristen Doster, captain of the Jamsicle team. “So we decided to just add some natural peanut butter flavors to bring that intensity up.”

A major challenge for the Cranberry POPlers team was sweetening the cranberries without adding too many calories. After trying a number of artificial sweeteners, the team opted to add some apple puree to the cranberry sauce. “This let us cut the artificial sweetener in half, but keep it sweet,” explains Grady.

Each team that makes it to the final rounds will have spent the entire academic year plus a bit of the summer preparing for the competition. They brainstorm in the fall, and once they settle on a product, they prepare dozens of batches to fine-tune the recipe. In late winter they assemble a written proposal, and once they make the cut they must expand that into a written report and prepare presentations for the judges. It’s a lot of work, but the students are excited to compete and take a lot of pride in what they’ve accomplished.

“Disney owns the intellectual rights to the products in the Disney competition,” says Grady, “so you could actually see these products on store shelves someday.”

The competitions run June 25-27, and the results will be announced on the evening of June 27.

For more information, contact Kristen Doster,, (920) 655-2755; Tim Grady,; Teresa Tierney,, (651) 325-7402; or Amy DeJong,, (847) 804-0658

Rising to the top: Brewing up a fermentation science program

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Imagine, as a young biology student, trying to explain stem cells to Jamie Thomson, the UW scientist who first isolated them in a lab. Or, as a budding computer scientist, pitching an iPhone software upgrade—in person—to Steve Jobs. That will give you some idea of how students in “Microbiology 375: Introduction to Brewing” felt about their final project.

After delving into the science of brewing, the class broke into small groups to concoct their own beers from scratch using state-of-the-art microbrewery equipment—a capstone project that made them the envy of their peers. And as a final exam, the students presented the suds of their labors—a Scotch ale, an Irish red ale, an American lager and a bock—to an expert panel of brewing heavyweights. The panel included experienced homebrewers, brewmasters from Wisconsin’s Capital Brewery, Lake Louie Brewing and New Glarus Brewing Company, and perhaps most intimidatingly—here’s where the Jamie Thomson/Steve Jobs thing comes in—David Ryder, vice president of brewing and research at MillerCoors and a world authority on fermentation and yeast physiology.

Drawing on all they’d learned about microbiology, biochemistry and engineering, the students described the ingredients they chose, the time and temperatures they used for each step and how they treated the brewing yeast. “Although they were nervous about it, that experience was a highlight for them,” says Jon Roll, a CALS faculty associate in bacteriology who led the brewing lab. “Having that audience in that situation was an incredible opportunity.”

Of the experts on the panel, no one was more engaged than Ryder. For him, it was a shining moment in the course of a strategic partnership in which the Milwaukee-based brewing giant is helping the college ramp up its offerings in fermentation science. That field underlies the production of not only beer but also other products critical to the state’s economy—including cheese, sausage, sauerkraut, soy sauce and bioethanol, to name a few. As an overture to the budding alliance, in 2007 Ryder arranged MillerCoors’ donation of more than $100,000 worth of pilot-scale brewing equipment to the college—the guts of Roll’s brewing lab. Now, with a lecture-style fermentation course available, CALS is gearing up to offer an undergraduate certificate in fermentation science.

“This will give UW students an opportunity to see what’s out there in the fermentation industries,” says Ryder. “They don’t have to come to Miller-Coors, but what helps the industry helps us, by implication. The program will help MillerCoors find great people for the future.”

The certificate is just the first step. Down the line, Ryder and leaders in the food science department hope to establish a Food and Beverage Fermentations Center to help focus and expand the university’s teaching, research and outreach in this field. While the spark came from the brewing business, the center will serve all of Wisconsin’s many fermentation-based industries and help prepare students for careers in the state’s cheese plants, food processing facilities, breweries and biorefineries alike. It’s an ambitious plan, but there’s no doubt that Ryder, known affectionately as “Dr. Bubbles” in the brewing world, will see that it happens.

“David is the champion of getting brewing on campus,” says food science department chair Scott Rankin. “He’s a man of action, and it’s his personal mission to see this through.”

The nickname “Dr. Bubbles” reflects not just the products that David Ryder creates, but also his manner. With his charming British accent—Ryder was born and raised in London—and easy enthusiasm, Ryder can be effervescent, particularly when he’s bantering about his favorite topic: happy yeast. “Our yeast has to be happy. Under no circumstances can it be sad,” he explains. “Happy yeast is good yeast because it enables us to create superior beers, so we always look to the yeast.”

Ryder got into the brewing industry by chance when he took a job at Associated British Maltsters during college. Throughout graduate school he worked and traveled, troubleshooting and conducting research for South African Breweries in South Africa and Zimbabwe and Artois Breweries in Belgium. By the time he completed his doctorate in biochemistry in 1985, he was already a sought-after commodity. In 1986 he took a position at Chicago’s J.E. Siebel Sons’ Company Inc., a brewing research, analysis and education outfit, where he served as vice president of technical services and education director of the company’s brewing school, the Siebel Institute of Technology.

Ryder joined Miller Brewing Company in 1992, which in 2008 merged with Molson Coors Brewing Company to form MillerCoors, the nation’s second largest brewing company. In labs in Milwaukee and Golden, Colorado, he leads a crew of brewers, microbiologists, chemists, biochemists and engineers who spend their days examining the brewing process in excruciating detail. The tiniest thing that affects beer’s 3,000 chemical compounds and 97 detectable flavors is fair game for study. Among the endless list of research targets, Ryder’s team has figured out why beer turns “skunky” in sunlight, developed a colorless beer, and come to understand a head of beer so well that they can now dial the foam up—or down—with pinpoint precision. In 19 years, Ryder has published more than 32 scientific articles and racked up 19 U.S. patents, all centered on improving or diversifying the company’s products.

“Brewing is one of these things that can keep a curious mind very interested and very active,” Ryder says.

When Ryder moved to Wisconsin, he was bothered by the lack of ties between one of the state’s signature industries and UW–Madison. MillerCoors needs scientists, he says, if not for Milwaukee’s research division or brewing plant, then for the company’s seven other breweries around the nation. “I was surprised to learn that brewers in the state hadn’t taken more interest in UW–Madison in the past, to have a brewing school in Madison or a school of fermentation science there,” he says. “It makes a lot of sense to take advantage of it, because it’s just down the road and it’s such a great university.”

So when Anjali Sridharan, a university-business liaison at the UW–Madison Office for Corporate Relations, reached out to Ryder to explore opportunities, it didn’t take the brewing expert long to lay out an ambitious plan. “My big dream is to have UW–Madison be the preeminent brewing university in the world,” he says.

Ryder’s idea sparked the food science department’s plan to create a broader Food and Beverage Fermentations Center, which will house the brewing program. The center will capitalize on the department’s strong ties to industry, plus the extensive scientific expertise available across campus—in food science, the Center for Dairy Research, the bacteriology department, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and the College of Engineering—to help prepare students for jobs throughout the state’s vibrant fermentation sector.

About one-third of what the world eats consists of fermented foods. And in Wisconsin, thanks to the state’s cultural history, the proportion is much higher, says Jim Steele, professor of food science, who studies the microbes that grow in cheese. “Cheese, beer, sausage, sauerkraut—any of those ring a bell?” Steele asks. “Fermented foods are a significant portion of a typical Wisconsinite’s diet.”

People have been fermenting food and drink for thousands of years, often to help preserve foods with a short shelf life, such as milk and juice. It wasn’t until 1854, however, that French chemist Louis Pasteur discovered that tiny microbes are what drive the process. Yeast cells, he found, control the most important step in beer making: converting the sugars in malted barley into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Cheesemakers, in much the same way, rely on bacteria to turn milk sugars into lactic acid, which helps milk curdle.

Fermentation’s primary value today is in creating complex, palette-pleasing flavors. In addition to beer, wine and cheese, fermentation brings us whiskey, vodka and bread (from grains); vinegar, cider and brandy (from fruit); mead (from honey); miso and tempeh (from beans); pepperoni and salami (from meat); and crème fraiche and yogurt (from milk). Thank you, microbial metabolism!

But Wisconsin doesn’t just eat and drink fermented products. The Badger State makes them, in a big way. The state’s dairy industry, where 90 percent of milk goes into cheese, contributes about $20 billion to the state’s economy. The beer industry adds another $6 billion. In the southern Wisconsin village of Walworth, a Kikkoman soy sauce fermentation plant—one of the largest in the world—produces more than 33 million gallons of the salty condiment each year. In Waupaca County, one of the world’s largest sauerkraut producers, the Great Lakes Kraut Company, goes through a lot of cabbage.

“This is a fermented foods-rich state,” says Steele. “Incredibly rich.”

But fermentation isn’t just about food. It turns corn waste into silage, an important feed for Wisconsin’s dairy cows. Fermentation also drives Wisconsin’s corn ethanol industry, which generates more than $1 billion annually by using yeast to turn corn sugar into fuel. It will be equally important for creating cellulosic ethanol, a next-generation biofuel made from stalks, wood chips and other non-edibles, which is now under development at the UW-based Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center. And a number of Wisconsin’s biotech companies, including Promega Corporation, Cardinal Health and Bio-Technical Resources, use microbial fermentation to produce drugs and other valuable compounds.

If all goes according to plan, a new undergraduate certificate in fermentation science—followed by a master’s program—will soon help open up new and better jobs for UW–Madison students in a variety of departments. “In food science, we currently place 100 percent of our undergraduate majors already, but I think that we can place them at higher-level positions and at places that have even stronger career tracks,” Steele says. “And for students in microbiology and other fields, going through the certificate program will provide much broader exposure to the basic food chemistry and food engineering principles that people need to work in industry.”

The shiny, stainless steel microbrewery equipment donated by MillerCoors currently sits in the bacteriology department’s Kikkoman Fermentations Laboratory, where it’s clearly visible to diners in the Microbial Sciences Building’s atrium cafe. This is where Roll ran his brewing lab in spring 2009 and spring 2010, with about 10 enthusiastic students each time.

“Brewing is such a great hook to get students into deeper science,” he says. “When they taste something surprising in a beer they made, they ask, ‘What is that? Oh, it’s this chemical compound. Well, where does it come from? It comes from this biochemical pathway in yeast.’ It makes what they learned in biochemistry tangible and gives them a genuine interest in why various chemicals appear.”

To give more students a taste, this past spring Jim Steele offered a lecture-style course on fermentation science while the brewing lab took a hiatus. “Food Science 375: Beer and Food Fermentations” quickly filled to 95 seats. “The interest has been overwhelming,” says Steele, who is leading the college’s push into fermentation science.

Starting next spring, the food science department will offer Steele’s course alongside an expanded lab course with both brewing and cheese-making units. By then, MillerCoors’ microbrew equipment will likely be installed in a larger, food-grade-certified classroom in Babcock Hall and the department should have a new associate faculty member on board, selected with an eye toward building the department’s fermentation science program. “This hire will have a big impact on the direction that our department goes,” says Steele.

This past fall, the food science department also hired David Ryder as an adjunct professor, enlisting his help right away in Steele’s fermentation course. During the brewing section, which spanned five weeks, Ryder drove out to Madison to give a lecture on hops and another on the future of the brewing industry. He clearly enjoyed sharing his knowledge with the students and stayed late both times to answer a long string of questions, even sending home two bags of pungent MillerCoors hops with an inquisitive homebrewer.

The pleasure Ryder gets from teaching mirrors his enthusiasm for the whole effort to bolster fermentation education on campus. He’s excited about creating new opportunities for UW–Madison students to follow a path that he’s found to be challenging, fun and fulfilling. “If those students want to come to MillerCoors, great,” he says. “But if they want to do something else in the fermentation industries, that’s fine, too. They will have this really great grounding that will help them along—whatever they choose.

“It’s fantastic to think that we’ll have graduates from UW–Madison going into the brewing industry worldwide,” says Ryder. “That’s great. That’s what it’s all about.”

UW study finds larger dairy farms tend to have better milk quality

Friday, July 29th, 2011

Wisconsin’s larger dairy operations tended to fare better than the state’s small farms in a UW-Madison study of milk quality, although all of the state’s farms–large and small–produced milk that easily met federal food safety guidelines.

“I wanted to test this belief that I’ve heard a lot—that little farms are better,” says Steve Ingham, who led the study while working as a UW-Madison food science professor. Ingham is now the food safety division administrator at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.“The take-home message is that when you group farms according to size the way we did, small doesn’t appear to be better in terms of milk quality.”

The study, published in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Dairy Science, considered milk quality data from 14,591 dairy operations around Wisconsin, of which 12,866 were classified as small farms (fewer than 118 cows); 1,565 as large farms (between 119 – 713 cattle); and 160 as confined animal feeding operations (or CAFOs, with more than 714 cattle). The team used two common metrics of milk quality: reported bulk tank standard plate count (SPC) and somatic cell count (SCC), which together are also seen as good indicators of farm sanitation and animal-handling practices.

Across the board, CAFOs reported the lowest—and best—mean milk quality scores for both SPC and SCC. Mean SPC (reported in colony forming units per milliliter or cfu/mL) was found to be 35,000 cfu/mL for the CAFO group; 36,300 for large farms; and 58,700 for small farms. Mean SCC (in cells per milliliter or cells/mL) was found to be 240,000 cells/mL for the CAFO group; 273,000 for large farms; and 369,000 for small farms. In all cases, mean SPC and SCC scores were far below the grade A maximum values, easily meeting the federal standards for milk intended to be pasteurized and sold for fluid consumption.

“The CAFO category had the lowest counts. It could be that they have more money to spend on good equipment. It could be that they have the ability to cull out cows with mastitis more quickly,” says Ingham, who is aware that some groups may take issue with the farm size categories he created or the milk quality measures he chose to use.

“Overall, I feel the numbers speak for themselves. They give a good snapshot of the industry right now.”

For more information, contact Steve Ingham at (608) 224-4701 or

Research establishment spawns research-supply spinoffs

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

For a century, Wisconsin’s traditional metal-working industries spawned a broad and profitable series of tool-and-diemaking firms that marketed nationwide.

Now, the immense variety of biological research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has spawned a range of companies that produce the complex supplies, materials and expertise needed by food, health and pharmaceuticals companies, and by basic researchers.

Only now, the market is not nationwide. It is worldwide.

These spinoffs range in size and focus. TRAC Microbiology, a specialist in food regulation and safety, was formed by Virginia Deibel in 2001, who says she “was getting a Ph.D. in food science and microbiology and decided to open my own business.”

TRAC is typically summoned after a plant has been shut down by regulators, and businesspeople are frantic, Deibel says. “They are worried about jobs; they are not in operation and they have not been able to identify the microbiological problem. Producers need to identify the pathogenic or spoilage microorganism in their product and how it got there before they can begin correcting the problem.”

With multiple capacities for identifying pathogens and refining production processes, TRAC satisfies “a need to focus on the ways pathogens enter into food plants,” Deibel says. “My form of investigative microbiology is still rather rare in the industry.” With headquarters in Madison, TRAC has about 20 employees.

Making toxin rather than detecting it is the focus at Metabiologics Inc., a spinoff by bacteriology professor Eric Johnson. When he arrived in 1985 to UW-Madison’s Food Research  Institute, he already had knowledge of Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that makes the nerve toxin now marketed as the wrinkle-eraser Botox, Johnson says.  “I was fortunate to enter an environment with three top experts, including Ed Schantz, who helped me make my first batches of botulinum toxin. We provided them to a doctor in San Francisco who wanted to test it for de-activating nerves, but Ed never got credit for it.”

Because tiny doses can temporarily deactivate nerves, botulinum toxin became useful in neurology, and Johnson began supplying toxin from his university lab, which led to the formation of Metabiologics in 1998. Botulinum toxin is also a key product at Mentor Biologics, a Madison firm now owned by Johnson & Johnson. “Directly or indirectly, my lab has been responsible for two businesses in Madison,” Johnson says.

Just as manufacturers require precise machine tools, researchers require reagents – tiny quantities of highly specific molecules – for a wide range of research procedures. Promega, one of the largest privately held suppliers worldwide, was founded in 1978 by Bill Linton, who had been a graduate student in pharmaceutical chemistry in the mid-1970s. The company started by producing enzymes for researchers, but in response to the market, now offers more than 2,000 products for basic research, drug discovery, forensics, paternity testing and medical diagnosis. Promega has headquarters in Fitchburg, Wis., and offices in 15 countries. About 650 employees work in Dane County and 550 elsewhere in the world.

Tiny quantities of molecules called antibodies are used to study how proteins interact in biological systems, and to help detect and treat diseases such as breast cancer and multiple sclerosis. NeoClone, based on technology spun out of UW-Madison’s oncology department, has been developing and commercializing antibodies for about 10 years and has grown to 15 full-time employees, with more than 600 customers in 30-plus countries.

According to CEO Deven McGlenn, “We have a catalog of antibodies and a custom antibody-development service for clients, many of whom are focused on the potential that antibodies have as diagnostics and drugs for cancer, flu and other diseases.” NeoClone also continues to license antibodies invented at UW-Madison, particularly in the lab of Richard Burgess, an oncology professor who founded the University’s Biotechnology Center in 1984.

NimbleGen, a maker of high-speed DNA analysis equipment, is one of the spinoffs that emerged from collaborations among the diverse of scientific and engineering departments at UW-Madison. The company was a response to the revolution in reading the DNA code, says company co-founder Michael Sussman, a professor of biochemistry.

“I was appointed director of the Biotechnology Center in 1998, when the first human genome was getting sequenced.” With the “spelling” of human DNA finally being read, scientists needed to know when the instructions carried in each of roughly 30,000 genes became active. One approach, called the “gene chip,” had started to reach the market, but they were slow and laborious to produce.

Sussman wondered if chips could be produced using techniques like those that made computer chips, and John Wiley, then the UW-Madison provost, suggested he contact engineering professor Franco Cerrina, an expert in a new technique for making chips.

“Franco did not know anything about DNA, and I did not know anything about making chips, but we started teaching each other,” says Sussman. Soon, with help from third co-founder Fred Blattner, a professor of bacteriology and a veteran Madison entrepreneur, NimbleGen was formed to produce DNA chips.

The chips can simultaneously detect activity in 30,000 genes on a glass surface just two centimeters square, says Sussman. “We could measure the entire genetic expression of a newly sequenced organism in an afternoon. With other chips, you have to wait a month, and the chips would cost $100,000.”

Gene chips are revolutionizing medicine and biology, says Sussman. “When you run a tumor sample through a chip, it may show that 300 genes have changed their expression – have become more or less active – so they must have something to do with cancer.” Gene chips have helped explain why 10 percent of breast cancers failed to respond to drugs, Sussman adds. “This meant they were somehow different. You could not see that under a microscope, but gene chips showed that genetically, there were two subsets of tumors.”

The ability to do such analyses quickly and relatively cheaply helped convince pharmaceutical giant Roche to buy the business for $272.5 million in 2007. RocheNimbleGen continues to operate a development lab in University Research Park in Madison.

“It’s hard to imagine a better place than UW-Madison for scientists to become an entrepreneur,” says Sussman. “I had a professor’s salary, I was doing OK, and we had this idea, and we sought out the people who could help. At Wisconsin, you have anything you need. I’ve had offers for much more money, but those campuses were not as strong in engineering or chemistry. I know a lot of biology, but I need others around me who know these other areas. Having a place like this, with everything in walking distance, is rare – and priceless.”

Saturday Science at Discovery: June focus on ice cream

Friday, June 3rd, 2011

You start with milk, but then what? Get the scoop from 10 a.m.-noon Saturday, June 4, in the Town Center of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery.

“The Science of Ice Cream” is the topic for June’s Saturday Science at Discovery event, scheduled to coincide with National Dairy Month.

Attendees can explore how scientists create the taste, texture and consistency of ice cream; engage with University of Wisconsin-Madison Babcock Dairy and food science experts; discover how flash freezing creates crystals in ice cream and how fat content determines its taste, mouth feel and melting time; and take a taste test at Rennie’s Dairy Bar-newly opened in the Discovery building.

Saturday Science at Discovery is a series of free science exploration and education programs aimed at families and learners of all ages. Held on the first Saturday morning of each month, this series encourages the community to engage with the university and provides a window into the process of discovery.

The Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery is located on the UW-Madison campus between University Avenue and Campus Drive at 330 N. Orchard St. Nearby parking is available most Saturdays in lots 20 and 17.

Crafted with care

Monday, April 18th, 2011

Cheese curds are oddly soothing. This is evident on a recent morning inside the CALS Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, where a few hundred pounds of springy ivory cheese curds are being stirred and drained of whey inside a long gleaming vat.

Within a few hours, those curds will be transformed into juustoleipa (joost-oh-LEEP-ah), or “juusto” for short, a firm, baked Finnish cheese with a browned exterior speckled with creamy white. A barely cooled corner piece is a satisfying blend of fresh, sweet dairy flavor inside and savory caramelization outside—rather like the bubbly cheese part of a pizza without all that pesky pizza.

For now, however, the curds are still curds. Periodically, Babcock’s master cheesemaker Gary Grossen pauses from his constant circuit around the cheese production area to scatter a handful of salt or to cup a few curds in his palm, thoughtfully testing their texture. The cheese curds go from creamy and moist to drier, lighter, with a good portion of finer-grained curds to the egg-sized clumps. The constant motion inside the vat is rhythmic, even mesmerizing.

But for Jay Noble, who is visiting Babcock that day, the morning’s observation is all business. He had traveled from Noble View Creamery, his 400-cow dairy farm in Racine County, to observe Grossen at work. A sixth-generation dairy farmer—“Born with a pitchfork in my hand,” he says—Noble is curious about expanding into specialty cheese, such as Hispanic-style cheeses or possibly juustoleipa.

Noble’s reasons for considering specialty cheese echo a common refrain. In the face of volatile milk markets and dwindling prospects for passing a dairy farm to the next generation, cheesemaking offers a dairy farmer the chance to set his or her own prices and carve out a more stable niche in a growing market. Twenty years ago, a dairy farmer might have seen little cheesemaking opportunity in a Wisconsin landscape composed mainly of struggling commodity cheese manufacturers, all being squeezed out by far larger and ever-growing companies, while California threatened to snatch Wisconsin’s dairy industry mantle.

“Artisan cheesemaking is part of our unique heritage,” says Norm Monsen, senior agriculture markets consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP). “In the 1980s or 1990s, we were getting a little bit away from the lessons of our heritage. Since the early 2000s, there’s really been an effort and drive to get those lessons back.”

Today you’ll still find plenty of commodity cheddars and mozzarellas—but you’ll also find a wealth of specialty cheese, be it the savory, golden Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese, fresh, tangy Fantôme goat cheeses, or Bleu Mont’s bold cave-aged originals. There are crumbly, well-aged artisan cheddars, smoky blues, sticky, green-veined Gorgonzolas and a slumping, velvety sheep’s milk Brie. The list goes on and on.

Clearly, the state’s specialty cheese numbers have exploded. Ten years ago Wisconsin had six artisan cheesemakers, whereas today that number is a little above 30, according to Jeanne Carpenter, communications director of the Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC). In 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, Wisconsin produced 477 million pounds of specialty cheese, 18 percent of its total cheese production. That’s a 40-million-pound leap over 2008 figures, courtesy of both newly minted cheesemakers and existing manufacturers who’ve adopted specialty items.

The most successful of Wisconsin’s artisan cheese producers are winning international awards and commanding top dollar in a market increasingly willing, even delighted, to expand its culinary repertoire. “People are beginning to appreciate different flavors in cheese beyond traditional cheddars, Muensters, and Monterey Jack. They want more intense flavors,” notes Mark Johnson, interim director of the CALS Center for Dairy Research. The shift into artisan cheese is so marked, and so needed, that Johnson is willing to call it a “salvation” for the small cheesemaker.

He’s not the only one to view it this way. The growth of the artisan cheese industry has resulted from a coordinated and ongoing effort involving not only the cheesemakers themselves but government, academia and nonprofits. Wisconsin’s artisan cheese renaissance may be a happy miracle to a cheese lover, but it’s no accident.

Before  the 1990s, a hopeful cheese artisan had little to guide her. “Now, if you want to become an artisan cheesemaker in Wisconsin, it’s like there is a handbook to do it,” says DBIC’s Jeanne Carpenter. “Whereas there was a handbook before, but it was in French.”

The CALS Center for Dairy Research (CDR) has been offering courses in cheese technology for years, but as John Jaeggi, the cheese industry andapplications coordinator there, points out, “Originally it was just us with cheese help, but we didn’t bring the full package.”

Now, by design, the artisan dairy players are several and closely entwined. CDR provides a number of educational programs to the dairy industry, be it classes for the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, numerous short courses, or more individualized research. The Center also works directly with new and established manufacturers on product development and trouble-shooting, often calling on the CALS food science department down the hall for basic science to complement the applied science of dairy production.

The Babcock Hall Dairy Plant, once known solely as a source for tasty ice cream, now employs Gary Grossen, a master cheesemaker in brick, Muenster and cheddar—and No. 2 in the world in Gouda, the sole American in an otherwise Dutch top three. Grossen not only makes Babcock Hall’s cheese and provides income, but serves as a resource to industry members like Jay Noble and a mentor to apprentices logging the required 240 hours with a certified cheesemaker to obtain a license.

Outside of the university, DATCP regulates the dairy industry, placing food safety and quality as its No. 1 goal. As a government agency, DATCP also tends to be a first point of contact for dairy industry members, and therefore its role includes connecting a cheesemaker or dairy crafter facing a challenge with the necessary resources to help resolve it. “If they need some great assistance for developing a new product, they should go to CDR—but they may not know that,” Norm Monsen notes.

Cheese manufacturers have the opportunity to meet with the regulators and food safety inspectors from DATCP—a chance to build relationships and ask questions before breaking ground on a facility, thus avoiding any unpleasant surprises at inspection time. It’s a state of affairs that Jeanne Carpenter, who used to work for DATCP, calls “a total 180 from 2003 or 2004, when I first started there.”

The Dairy Business Innovation Center (DBIC), too, connects resources and dairy crafters and provides business support, be it through business plans, sourcing or financial guidance. And the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB) works the public relations angle, keeping Wisconsin cheese in the sights of magazines, chefs, home cooks and retailers.

WMMB played a key role in another early part of this initiative—the creation, in 1994, of the aforementioned Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, which is funded by dairy farmers represented through WMMB and administered by CDR. The program, comprised of a rigorous series of courses and a three-year apprenticeship, is open only to a cheesemaker who has amassed 10 years of licensed cheesemaking experience and five years making a particular type. The goal was to recognize and publicize—both in the industry and the marketplace—the state’s cheesemaking expertise.

By 2004, each of these entities—CDR, DATCP, DBIC and WMMB—had taken up its own tasks in growing and supporting the specialty cheese industry. They work together and with the industry, and that cooperative spirit either has filtered down or else reflected a unique characteristic the industry already had. For while Wisconsin dairy is justifiably known for its infrastructure, its other great strength is that cheesemakers—veterans and novices—work together and share ideas.

“Now, everyone talks,” says Mark Johnson, describing the cheesemaker culture. “The openness, the camaraderie is there. They are competitors, but I think they try to help each other out. Especially the smaller artisan cheesemakers are talking this way, but that camaraderie is all over Wisconsin.”

Heather Porter Engwall, director of national product communication for WMMB, concurs. “I can’t think of one cheese that’s been created by only one person,” she says.

Certainly that’s true of juustoleipa. In the winter of 2001, Jim Path, then a researcher with CDR, was hunting down intriguing new specialty cheeses to share with the state’s small cheesemakers. But when he received a call from a county agent in Hurley urging him to travel to northern Wisconsin to taste “squeaky cheese,” Path was reluctant to go. “Squeaky” sounded like plain old cheese curds to him, plus, it was winter on the Upper Peninsula. So he put off his trip until summer.

But the cheese, which was being made in homes and farmstead kitchens and sold neighbor to neighbor, turned out to be a unique one. It was made without a starter culture, it softened with heat but did not melt, and it was baked and browned in an oven. More research revealed the Finnish name of juustoleipa. Path traveled to Finland and found that juusto was quite popular, eaten warm with coffee or cloudberry jam, and even boasting its own section in Finnish supermarkets. “It’s not the cheddar of Finland,” Path says, “but maybe the Monterey Jack or colby of Finland.”

The Finland visit demonstrated that a genuine market could exist for juusto—but that wasn’t the only reason the cheese had grabbed Path’s attention. Juusto was not only singular in appearance and flavor, it was nearly indestructible, impervious to extended refrigeration and even freezing. Best of all? For once, a small cheese manufacturer might find its size an asset. A small factory, Path points out, will have a small vat and can likely obtain one pizza oven and try out a little batch at lower risk. But for a big factory to economically make juustoleipa, the batches and the risk must be far larger, and the necessary new equipment is more like four or five ovens. Path assumed the larger manufacturers were likely to hold off until the market was proven, and in the meantime, he hoped, the little guy would wedge a foot firmly in the door.

But first, juusto required a few introductions. Path had tweaked his recipe and procedures to fit the industry and asked Babcock Hall Dairy Plant’s then-cheesemaker to try it out. He then brought the idea to Bass Lake Cheese’s Scott Erickson, who had also encountered juusto through the Master Cheesemaker program (he is certified in cheddar, colby, Monterey Jack, Muenster and chevre).
Erickson liked its versatility and felt juusto could cross over into the Hispanic market, so he and Path developed a technique at CDR that improved the shelf life and safety while retaining the traditional characteristics. Early on, Erickson estimates, sales might have averaged about 500 pounds per week; today, an average month’s output from March to September might be 1,000-1,500 pounds, while during juusto’s peak season around the holidays he might sell 2,500-3,500 pounds per month.

CDR also spotlighted juustoleipa in a 2002 fresh cheese seminar. Among the cheesemakers who took note was Steve Bahl, then-owner of Fennimore Cheese. Here juusto got a boost from that surprisingly cooperative spirit among the state’s specialty cheesemakers: Bahl asked Karl Geissbuhler at Brunkow Cheese if he’d be interested in partnering on juusto, with Brunkow making the cheese and Fennimore baking, packaging and marketing it. As the cheese built a following, Brunkow began to manufacture and sell juusto on its own. Bahl, who died in 2010, sold Fennimore to Carr Valley, where Sid Cook, master cheesemaker in cheddar, fontina and mixed milk cheese, kept the cheese in rotation, too.

Every juusto devotee agrees on the most effective form of marketing. The buttery, caramelizing fragrance of juusto being warmed on a griddle—at the farmers’ market, in the store, or at the trade show—seems to do the trick every time.

But each manufacturer has found a way to distinguish its offering, and has watched the numbers rise. Erickson stayed with traditional juustoleipa—very soft, sweet, high in lactose and very low in salt—and also offers ostbrod, a Swedish-style version made with goat’s milk. Grossen’s juusto is baked a deep, dark brown with only an occasional spot of ivory. Cook felt the Finnish name was a hindrance to sales, so he christened it “bread cheese,” trademarked the name, offered it in plain and garlic, and saw Carr Valley’s production rise from one vat of bread cheese every two or three months to two or three vats per week. And Brunkow’s Geissbuhler went with the hybrid name of “Brun-uusto,” added such flavorings as bacon, jalapeno and garlic, and has gone from 200- and 300-pound batches to 3,000-4,000 pounds per week.

Today, seven Wisconsin cheese companies sell juusto, and five of them produce it. This spring, the cheese reaches an important milestone: Erickson will be the first Wisconsin master cheesemaker to be certified in juustoleipa.

Juustoleipa may be a perfect example of CDR’s distribution of ideas, but the flow of information goes in both directions. “The ideas work both ways,” explains CDR’s John Jaeggi. “We either come up with ideas and push them out, or the idea is from the outside but they don’t know how to get it going.”

Jaeggi’s cheese industry and applications team works directly with the food industry in its many forms: established cheesemakers, restaurant chains, food service companies, culture manufacturers and others. They might tweak a recipe to meet a manufacturer’s goals for melt, or confront a blue cheese lacking sufficient blue-colored mold or blue flavor—precisely the type of endeavor in which access to the CALS staff of top food scientists proves invaluable.

CDR also lends support through product development, depending on how much a cheesemaker wants or needs. However romantic the life of a dairy artisan may sound, beneath the veneer is a demanding business. Scott Rankin, chair of the food science department, explains it thusly: “To go from dairy farming to dairy manufacturing is like going from driving a car to building a car. It is a very complex culture to navigate.”

For this reason, the would-be cheesemaker must commence less with a dream than with a business plan, and perhaps training from DBIC in obtaining financing, sourcing equipment or building a facility. And the future artisan has some education ahead of her. Courses include CDR’s core curriculum and its changing selection of short courses, such as cheese and dairy technology or Marianne Smukowski’s classes in food safety geared especially for farmsteads. In sensory courses, students can learn to evaluate good and bad cheeses firsthand, so that “when we say something has gone rancid, acid, buttery, they know what we’re talking about,” says Mark Johnson.

And when it comes to the nuts and bolts of product development and troubleshooting, three or four artisans each year might finally begin to work with Jaeggi’s cheese industry and applications program.

That process, which can take two or three years, begins with a sit-down at which artisan and CDR staff sample a cheese they hope to use as inspiration. Next, they set up a cheese trial, using specific milk if needed.

The researchers design four to 12 recipes, using different combinations of procedure and ripening. They make the cheeses, age them out, and finally gather to taste with the cheesemaker and narrow down the recipes that meet the cheesemaker’s intention. Then they repeat the manufacture again, at which point the cheesemaker decides if this is the cheese he wants to make and market. Many artisans then work with incubator plants, who make the new cheese during times of open production capacity.

Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist on Jaeggi’s team, sums it up: “What sets the CDR apart from any other group in the U.S. is this: we can essentially provide the whole technical package.” After Jaeggi’s group makes the cheese, after the sensory group evaluates it, and after the analytical group tests for information such as composition and microbiology, “We’ll go with the people to their plants, elbow to elbow, any time of the day or night, and make cheese with them side by side. That gives them a tremendous comfort level. Because you can talk about it, you can tell them till you’re blue in the face,” says Sommer, “but when you have to do it on your own, that first or second time, it’s like—” He mimics a terrified scream.

Wisconsin may be producing more than 600 kinds of cheese, but there’s room for plenty more, say those close to the field.

WMMB’s Heather Porter Engwall hopes for more raw milk cheeses that fit the state’s strict regulations but still rival their European counterparts. CDR also hopes for more funding for sheep’s and goat’s milk dairy; currently they are funded by a dairy check-off program that is overwhelmingly from cow’s milk. Another future trend, Carpenter and Sommer believe, is bloomy rind cheese. Wisconsin produces very few, the minimal presence of French immigrants showing in a correspondingly tiny number of traditional Bries and Camemberts.

That opportunity illustrates another issue for CDR. “You’ve got to have the curing room for that,” says Gary Grossen. “It’s like making blue. You have to be careful with blue mold- and smear-type cheeses.” A volatile bloomy rind mold could contaminate every other cheese in CDR’s small facility.

But if CDR’s fundraising efforts go as hoped, a facility expansion might help them serve the dairy industry in a number of new and expanded ways. The Babcock Hall facility is 60 years old, says Rankin; there are major infrastructure issues and the rooms are grossly undersized. Rankin has hopes for a new facility in the next three to five years. Without it, he says, “We can’t keep providing the scale, number and caliber of programs.” The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association recently announced a $500,000 gift toward that project.

For the dairy industry to remain healthy, growth in new and diverse directions is crucial, as is a balance of plants of all sizes. Smaller artisans pop up, closed factories return to life. As both grow into larger entities, the next wave of new ones must sprout. “Anything we can do to augment or help that in any way is a positive,” says Sommer.

Mark Johnson concurs: “We work with so many folks, and are so proud of them. I don’t know how much we’ve helped them, but we take pride in seeing Wisconsin cheesemakers stand out. And we know every one of them.”