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MADISON - When someone mentions Babcock Hall, people immediately think "ice cream." But the campus dairy plant is starting to make a name with another signature product: award-winning cheese.
That's because the cheeses sold at the Babcock Deli are made by Gary Grossen. Grossen is one of only 43 cheese whizzes to undergo the rigorous certification process required to earn the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, which gives him the right to display the "master mark" on his Brick and Muenster, the cheeses for which he earned certification.
The Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker program, the nation's first and only advanced training certification for cheesemakers, is administered by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Research and funded by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.
Since joining the university in January 2005, Grossen's cheeses have received numerous awards. Not only did his Gouda take top honors at the Grant County Fair, Green County Fair and World Dairy Expo in 2006, but the same cheese also ranked eighth in the world at the 2006 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. It did that by surpassing no fewer than twelve Goudas from the Netherlands, where the creamy cheese originated.
His Monterey Jack with chives has received similar accolades.
"Gary is dedicated to quality. It doesn't matter how much work it takes," says Bill Klein, manager of the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant. "He was used to hard work [from his previous job]."
It's not much of an exaggeration to say that every day of Grossen's life has helped prepare him for the job he now holds. "I was born and raised in a cheese factory," says Grossen. "I lived above one for 51 years."
When Grossen was born in 1951, his parents had already been running the Prairie Hill Cheese Factory in Monroe for two years. The family lived upstairs. As a kid, he remembers wrapping and boxing 90-pound cheese blocks with his sister in order to help out.
"It was comparable to running a family farm," says Grossen. "I had things to do at a very young age."
Grossen eventually went into the business with his father, and then took over the factory with his wife, Corie, in 1990. They raised their three children there, and were processing around 100,000 pounds of milk per day. They sold the business in 2001, says Grossen, so that they could "walk away from the seven days a week of running a business for 30 years," but continued to manage the plant for another three years.
To this day, Grossen still moves around like he is responsible for running a big dairy plant. Watching him make a batch of cheese brings the word "nimble" to mind. In between stirring cheese curd and jotting down notes, Grossen describes himself as "fussy" when it comes to cheese making. His energy and attention to detail help explain why his cheeses turn out so wonderfully.
Grossen is both humble and proud of the high-quality cheese he makes. He gives credit to everyone up and down the line from him, including dairy farmers, milk processors, milk chemists, and the assistants who help him create and age out his cheeses. One of his favorite sayings, which is prominently displayed on the wall near his cheese vat, reads: "It's an accepted fact in the cheese industry that the cheese can be no better than the milk from which it is made."
He's also not afraid to accept credit where it's due. "It takes a good cheesemaker to turn a make procedure (cheese 'recipe') into a good cheese," says Grossen, who makes more than 15 different kinds of cheeses. "You must be careful to pay attention to each batch."
As for his award-winning Gouda: "This Gouda is a quality, quality product. It's just a beautiful piece of cheese. I can't say more than that."
His job gives Grossen the opportunity to help others learn the art. He's training university students as well as participants in a statewide artisan cheese program supported by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
"The whole thing is about education. At my cheese factory in Monroe, I had student help, and some of them went on to be cheesemakers. So, I was teaching there and I still am here," he says.
He also works alongside Center for Dairy Research researchers who study new cheese formulations for industry clients. The proximity and mutual interest fosters a ready exchange of ideas and advice. He also provides whey and other cheese products to students conducting research in the UW-Madison's food science department.
It's people like Grossen that help keep Wisconsin at the nexus of the nation's cheese industry, a spot that Grossen believes Wisconsin will continue to hold.
"We don't care that California makes a larger volume of cheese than Wisconsin. We (in Wisconsin) are looking at artisan cheeses," says Grossen. "We're going to lead in that area, and lead for a good, long time."