WESTBY, Wis. — Some of the best cottage cheese in the world is produced by a 117-year-old cooperative in the rugged countryside of southwest Wisconsin.
The Westby Cooperative Creamery, located in downtown Westby, about 90 miles from the Minnesota border, won a gold medal for its 4% small curd cottage cheese at the World Championship Cheese Contest on March 7-8 in Madison.
Wisconsin cheeses shined in the event, as the state won gold medals in 45 of the 132 categories. This year's overall world champion cheese was a gruyere called Gourmino Le Gruyère AOP, which came from Switzerland.
The creamery, which is the city's largest employer, last won a gold medal for its cottage cheese in 2010.
Ryan O'Donnell, plant manager at Westby Cooperative Creamery, said they are the only manufacturer of cottage cheese in the state of Wisconsin.
Cottage cheese is made by draining the cheese instead of pressing it, which holds onto some of the whey and keeps the curds loose. Dressing is then added to the curds, giving the cottage cheese its taste.
O'Donnell said everyone at the creamery takes a lot of pride in its cottage cheese. He estimated that his own family goes through about 5 pounds of cottage cheese per week.
"(The gold medal) definitely underscores what a good product we have," said Thomas Schaub, president of the cooperative's board of directors. "All good products begin with good ingredients, and our farms provide the best quality milk."
Schaub's family is one of the more than 150 farms that owns and supplies the cooperative with its milk. The family operates a 500-acre organic dairy farm near La Crosse, Wis.
But Schaub gives the most credit to the creamery's employees, which he calls "the best in the world", for landing another gold medal.
He said Chris Dach, a cheesemaker at the creamery for 41 years, has been the driving force to bring the cooperative's cottage cheese into the national spotlight.
"He's a master at the craft," said Schaub of Dach.
O'Donnell said that Dach had "schooled everyone" who's made cheese at Westby Cooperative Creamery.
"It's the hard labor that goes into making it, everything is handcrafted," said O'Donnell "We're not very automated, so there's a lot of changes that can be made very batch."
Cheesemakers at the plant give a personal touch to the product that makes it distinct, said Schaub.
"We don't take any shortcuts, and do everything according to how it's supposed to be done," said Schaub. "We don't rush through anything, and that's what makes it a good product."
It takes a lot of time and hard work to "figure out exactly what the consumer likes", said O'Donnell. He said that's especially true when it comes to cottage cheese, a product that people in the Midwest have different preferences for than elsewhere in the world.
A lot of the products Westby Cooperative Creamery makes are kind of niche, said O'Donnell, and so if they have a customer who wants something special, they'll try it.
O'Donnell said the cheese industry has been on the rise each year. because of the growing milk supply.
"Cows are becoming more efficient," he said. "They want every cow to produce a little bit more milk, and that's happening from year to year."
Schaub said it's hard to separate the history and tradition of Westby without including the Westby Cooperative Creamery.
"It's been a part of the culture here in Westby for 117 years," said Schaub. "By supporting the local farms who in turn send their kids to the schools and support the other businesses in town."
"It's a huge part of Westby," he said.