Interview With Wisconsin Cheesemaker Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese
We’ve teamed up with Wisconsin Cheese for an interview mini-series called Meet the Cheesemakers, featuring a sampling of the state’s finest makers and their award-winning creations.
The world of cheese is made up of many colorful characters. There are the knowledgeable mongers who’ll help you pick out your new favorite wedge while regaling you with more facts about the cheese in question than you knew existed. There are the cheese cave-dwelling affineurs whose precision and detail-oriented nature produces perfectly aged cheeses of all shapes and sizes. There are the dairy farmers, who are stewards of the land, masters of terrain, and typically have a herd in tow. There are the cheesemakers, who tend to be equal parts artist and scientist, harnessing the power of milk and cultures to craft each wheel. And then, there are the unicorns like Uplands Cheese who do it all—they milk the cows, make the cheese, age it on site, and ship directly to consumers. Farmstead operations like theirs are few and far between, even in America’s Dairyland (aka Wisconsin). I sat down with Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese to chat about what it’s like to be a Wisconsin cheesemaker, their artisan cheeses, and camaraderie in the dairy community.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MADISON TRAPKIN: Can you tell me who you are, what you do, and where you work?
ANDY HATCH: My name is Andy Hatch. I’m the owner and cheesemaker here at Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville, Wisconsin.
MT: Did you always know that cheese or dairy would be your path?
AH: No. I grew up in town, so dairy farming for me was sort of like a teenage pastoral fantasy. I went to University of Wisconsin for dairy science, wanting to milk cows, and sort of stumbled into cheesemaking. I took to it right away, and I’m good at it. It just suits my personality.
MT: What makes Wisconsin so ideal for cheesemaking?
AH: [After college], I left Wisconsin for a couple of years. I worked all over western and northern Europe as a cheesemaker, and thought I would never come back. But [eventually] I did, and after having that experience [in Europe] I saw pretty quickly that—and I mean this—there’s no place in the world I would rather milk cows or make cheese than southern Wisconsin.
We have a deep [cheesemaking] legacy here, but we also have a progressive attitude that you can’t find in the Old World, really. There’s a sense here that new things are always possible. A little business like Uplands, only 20 years old and making original cheeses, you don’t see that in Europe.
MT: How did Uplands Cheese come to be?
AH: We’re [located] in the southwest corner of the state, which is really hilly. In particular, we’re up on Pleasant Ridge, which is very steep, has thin soil, and isn’t an easy farm. [This land] passed from family to family, mostly Norwegians, until the ’90s when our predecessors planted all these steep hillsides into pasture, which is really probably what they were meant to be all along, and started grazing their cows. So, as any dairy farmer who puts cows out onto fresh grass knows, the milk tastes different. [The original owners] started to look at cheesemaking 25 years ago as a way to take advantage of the flavor of that milk. They made their first batches of cheese in the year 2000 and started slowly.
I showed up right out of school in 2007. You have to serve apprenticeships to become a cheesemaker in Wisconsin and go to school and ultimately take a test. This was the last apprenticeship I served, and I just never left.
MT: How does Uplands fit into the larger cheesemaking community in Wisconsin?
AH: Well, our operation isn’t typical of what you’ll find in Wisconsin. We’re a farmstead producer, which means we milk cows and turn our own milk into cheese. When cheesemaking started down in this part of the state right after the Civil War, there were small cheese factories buying milk from neighboring farms, then pooling the milk. There were cheese factories around here every four or five miles, and most of them have since closed over the last 150 years. Cows have been milked [in this area] since just after the Civil War, but Uplands didn’t start making cheese until about 20 years ago. In the early 2000s, we were part of a resurgence of small-scale cheesemaking in Wisconsin, and with that came some reawakening of traditional cheesemaking techniques [plus] a more progressive bend to how people were looking at it. Our operation combines both of those things.
We’re very small, and some of the ways we approach dairy farming and cheesemaking aren’t common here. But we’ve still always been welcome at the table with the bigger companies. We fit in, along with a lot of the other small producers in this part of the state, and when our voice needs to be heard, it’s heard. I’ve always appreciated that.
MT: Your cheeses, Pleasant Ridge and Rush Creek, have won so many awards. What makes them so unique? Why do they keep winning awards?
AH: We bribe the judges.
MT: Perfect, that makes sense.
AH: I think they get a lot of attention because they’re distinctive, and that is really our whole goal here. We don’t aim to make cheese that wins awards, but we aim to make cheese that tastes like our farm, which obviously sounds like generic brochure copy but it really is sort of our strategy as a cheesemaker. We want to make something that nobody else can make. To do that, we use unpasteurized milk from a single herd of cows and we only make certain cheeses during certain times of the year to reflect the character of the milk. That’s how we’ve always approached it here.
We make our aged cheese [Pleasant Ridge] in the summer months when the cows are on pasture, and in the fall when they start eating hay, we make our small soft cheese [Rush Creek]. We like to say that Pleasant Ridge is made in the field and Rush Creek is made in the caves because it’s reflective of our attitude when we’re making the cheese. Pleasant Ridge is meant to show off the character of that milk, and like aging a red wine, it takes a long time for that character to reveal itself. They’re cheeses that couldn’t exist anywhere else, and it’s always exciting.
MT: It is exciting! It’s also pretty incredible to let the milk speak for itself in that way.
AH: Yeah, it takes many months of aging a cheese for that native character of the milk to reveal itself. Pleasant Ridge really doesn’t have anything interesting to say for six, seven, eight months of aging. But when it does, what you see is the character of the milk itself. We take a very light-handed approach as cheesemakers with that cheese.
Rush Creek, on the other hand, is made with milk that isn’t as interesting, if I’m being honest. It comes when the cows are eating hay instead of fresh pasture, but what it does have is a lot more weight and texture to it. The fat content is a lot higher. When making Rush Creek, we look at the milk more as a canvas onto which we can coax or create flavor. It’s a much more heavy-handed approach from a cheesemaker, particularly with the way it’s ripened. We pull out all sorts of tricks in the cheese caves.
MT: Both cheeses are really beautiful, but Rush Creek seems to have a bit of a cult following. What makes it so special?
AH: Soft cheeses like Rush Creek are uncommon in Wisconsin, I think mostly because the immigrants who settled here brought with them their traditions of [making hard cheeses]. When I came up as an apprentice [in Wisconsin], I learned cheddar, colby, and Jack. I first learned how to make a soft cheese like [Rush Creek] in France as an apprentice and brought that back here, so I [started] playing around with it on this farm. It’s an entirely different way of thinking about cheese.
It’s also become a special cheese because the time of year it’s released, November and December—people are ready to be indulgent and this is a purely indulgent cheese. It’s meant to be eaten all at once, and it’s great for sharing. I think it’s a splurge for the holidays for a lot of people, like the one time of year you buy a nice bottle of Champagne. A lot of things sort of came together perfectly for that cheese: the character of the milk that time of year, the fact that I stumbled into a cheesemaker in France who taught me how to make it, and now it’s become a seasonal classic for people around here.
MT: Do you ever feel like you’re really competing against other Wisconsin makers when it comes to events like the American Cheese Society Competition, or does it feel like more of a community?
AH: Honestly, the only time I feel like I’m in competition with neighboring cheesemakers is at the cheese competitions themselves, and it’s all pretty back-slappy, winner-has-to-buy-beers. The next day, it’s back to work. Particularly in this corner of the state, I work really closely with the other neighboring cheesemakers, and we share almost everything.
MT: What does the future look like for Uplands?
AH: The future here at Uplands is probably slow, steady growth, which is how we’ve spent the last 20 years. What’s unusual about our model is that we’ve managed to grow slowly and steadily without compromising any of those original principles behind how we farm and make cheese. Our cows are still all seasonal, all pasture-based. We only use milk during the season, and it’s raw milk, fresh every day, then aged with a natural rind. We’re pretty committed to doing things that way.
But, we’ve run out of space in our building, so we need to put up a new building, which is a chance to do something new and different. The next frontier for us is probably starting to engage more with the public, trying to find ways to bring people onto the farm and get close to cows and get close to cheese. I think that’s going to be a good thing for our business, but I think it’s also going to be a good thing for Wisconsin dairy.
What’s your favorite type of Uplands 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 muenster, this cheese-obsessed state has a little something for everyone. Find out more about Wisconsin Cheese by visiting their site.