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Move Over, Cheddar

Everyone knows that Wisconsin is the Big Cheddar in U.S. cheese production. And now we”re on our way to becoming the First Feta, the Major Manchengo, or the Radical Roquefort.

Since Wisconsin is getting into milking sheep, it follows that we”re also getting into manufacturing sheep”s milk cheese. It”s a market worth tapping. In 1994 the United States imported 66 million pounds of sheep”s milk cheese valued at $118 million. That”s twice what we”d imported ten years earlier.

But it”s no beginner”s market. Cheesemakers can make twice as much cheese from a pound of sheep”s milk as they can from a pound of cow”s milk, but the sheep”s milk costs about four times as much. That makes the end-product pricey. And consumers willing to pay the premium prices this cheese commands expect premium quality.

Getting into such a market takes more than nerve, says Jim Path, a cheese researcher at the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Research: “You need a smaller plant, and you need experience. You need someone of master cheesemaker caliber.”

Fortunately, that”s where Wisconsin is way out in front, Path adds.

“We literally have generations of master cheesemakers. Some of these families have been making cheese for three or four generations,” he points out. “And the university has been educating cheesemakers for more than a century. This rich heritage makes a difference.”

Path says there are many good cheeses in the world being made either from sheep”s milk or from blends of sheep”s, goat”s and cow”s milk. Scientists at the Center for Dairy Research are researching these cheeses looking for varieties that might work here. They are also making cheese both from sheep”s milk and from blends.

Path suspects the real future for sheep”s milk lies in the blends.

“Specialty milks add the unique flavors savored by specialty-cheese connoisseurs. Adding the cow”s milks keeps down the cost of ingredients, which holds down the price you have to charge.

“If you can lower the price without disturbing the integrity of the flavor, you expand the market for both sheep”s and cow”s milk,” he notes.