How a Fourth-Generation-Owned Family Cheese Business Built Its Legacy, Brick by Brick

Trust us, that’s a lot of cheese.

May 10, 2024
Photo by Dusan Harminc

We’ve teamed up with Wisconsin Cheese for an interview mini-series called Meet the Makers, featuring a sampling of the state’s finest cheesemakers and their award-winning creations.

When you grow up in a family that owns a business, there are typically two outcomes when it comes to your future: you either run as far as you can in the other direction and never look back, or you fall in step with the generations that came before you and eventually take the reins. Of course, both paths have merit, especially when there’s delicious food involved.

Joey Widmer is one such family businessman. He followed in his father Joe Widmer’s footsteps, and that’s a very good thing—that’s because his family business, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, involves making Wisconsin’s finest Brick and Colby cheeses. As a fourth-generation cheesemaker, Joey is no stranger to early mornings and manual labor, but it wasn’t always clear that cheese would be his path. I sat down with him to learn more about his family’s dairy-filled history and how he landed in the same position his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather occupied before him.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you tell me who you are and what you do?

JOEY WIDMER: I’m Joey Widmer and I'm a fourth-generation cheesemaker. I've been making cheese since I was about 12 years old here at Widmer's, born and raised above the cheese factory.

That’s a lot of generations of cheesemaking! What does Wisconsin’s cheesemaking community mean to you?

The Wisconsin cheese making community means a lot to me—the people are so friendly and accommodating. It's not like we're really competitive against each other. We all have different products that we offer and bring to the marketplace, and you can communicate a lot with the other cheesemakers and bounce ideas off of them.

Widmer’s offers a lot of cheeses these days, but it all started with Brick. How did that cheese come to be?

Brick cheese was invented in 1877 by a Swiss immigrant named John Jossi and the reason they call it brick cheese is because they actually use a brick to press the curds into a block.

Photo by Dusan Harminc

I bet a lot of people think it’s named for the shape of the cheese rather than the cheesemaking process.

It’s a great way to make cheese. When my great-grandfather—he's also a Swiss immigrant immigrant—came over, he bought our factory in 1922. He started making great cheese in our plant and [brick] was the first cheese that he made. He used the same methods that John Jossi used with the bricks, and he started with washed-rind brick cheese…[that’s] a European-style cheese [with] a stronger flavor and aroma. For that cheese, we put it in a room and we wash it every day with the culture bacteria that gives it the surface rind. He realized that not everybody likes a strong, stinky style of cheese, so then he came up with a mild brick, [which is] the same cheese but it has annatto coloring and we don't add the culture bacteria and wash it so it doesn't get that strong, stinky flavor or aroma.

So how exactly do the bricks come into play?

You actually use a brick to press the curd together and [into] approximately a five-pound block.

Very cool. How many bricks does Widmer’s have?

We have about 450 bricks here on premises, and those are the original bricks that my grandfather used. Some have been taken out of circulation due to wear and tear, but most of them are the original type of baker's bricks derived from a plant out of Ohio. There's a lot of cleaning that has to go into maintaining the bricks, so it's very labor intensive to make it that way. We're the only ones that I know of that are actually using a brick for pressing.

Do you keep using them to stick to tradition or is there another reason?

Yes, we're trying to stick to our traditional methods of cheesemaking as much as possible. Everybody else is kind of going automated and breaking away from that tradition, but we feel that our niche is to stick to traditional methods as much as possible and preserve the history.

Photo by Dusan Harminc

You’re a fourth-generation cheesemaker—did you always know your path would lead to cheese?

I didn't always know that I wanted to make cheese. I saw some of the struggles that my dad went through and in a sense [that] kind of scared me, but at the same time, he took a lot of pride in what he did and I realized that anything worthwhile in life is going to be challenging.

In many ways you’ve stayed true to tradition by keeping the family business alive and sticking to certain production methods, but you’ve also innovated along the way—can you tell me about this evolution at Widmer’s?

My grandpa did start with the washed-rind cheese, but one way that he followed the palate of other customers is he came up with the mild brick cheese that was just the mild, creamy version of the original type of brick cheese. Now we also offer different flavor varieties [of Brick] like Jalapeno Pepper and Caraway Seed. My great-grandfather also started making cheddar because cheddar was so universally known throughout Wisconsin. As we saw more and more cheeses being developed with different cultures and flavor additives, we decided to add to our Wisconsin Originals. In the late 2000, I believe 2019, my dad and I came up with Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar, which is our original cheddar recipe, but then we added alpine cultures to that. It ended up being a really good cheese and it actually won a first place best of class in the United States cheese contest last year in the cheddar category, aged six months to a year.

Just this past year, we started making a Butterkäse, [which] kind of plays upon my family's heritage of being from Switzerland. It's a cheese that was invented on the German-Swiss border in the 1870s, and it has a similar process to our brick process, but just different cultures. So those are some of the ways that we've innovated just, you know, sticking to tradition, but also coming up with other cheeses like the Butterkäse and Matterhorn.

What does the future look like for Widmer’s?

I don't know what the future looks like exactly for Widmer's, but I do know that we would like to stay true to what we're doing currently—producing traditional cheeses in a traditional manner and using traditional recipes that were passed down for 100 years [across] four generations. I feel like when I get up, I'm excited about going to work and starting my day and getting to create a great cheese product and knowing that in Wisconsin there's a community of dairy farmers and cheesemakers that are also starting their day at 3 or 4 a.m. Knowing you're not the only one getting up that early and being a part of that hard working community of individuals, I think that's important and it makes you want to get up every day and do your job to the best of your ability with enjoyment.

What’s your favorite flavor of Widmer’s Cheese? Tell us in the comments below!

Our friends at Wisconsin Cheese are committed to showcasing all the amazing cheeses the state has to offer—and there's a lot of them. Wisconsin has more flavors, varieties, and styles of cheese than anywhere else in the world. From Italian classics like Parmesan and ricotta to Wisconsin Originals like Colby and Brick, this cheese-obsessed state has a little something for everyone. Find out more about Wisconsin Cheese by visiting their site.

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Madison Trapkin

Written by: Madison Trapkin

Former Associate Editor, Food52

1 Comment

AntoniaJames May 10, 2024
What an interesting article! I'm delighted to see that Widmer cheeses are available here in Boulder County. ;o)