World Class Wisconsin Cheese, Saxony Roots in the Soil

World Class Wisconsin Cheese, Saxony Roots in the Soil

Saxony, The Featured Cheese

Jerry Heimerl

Saxon Homestead Creamery may be the next frontier for a unique understanding of the terroir of Wisconsin. The combination of location, geology of the soil, average humidity, rainfall, wind, and other climate conditions that can make a wine distinctive, also make the creamery’s namesake cheese, Saxony, distinctive.

“I never really believed it when people talked about the terroir of foods, or recognizing the region of origin of a cheese just by its taste, but now I know it’s true,” Jerry Heimerl admits. He adds, “Cheese is a living food.” It needs attention, not unlike wine. At the creamery, Jerry has multiple refrigerated, walk-in coolers that are the size of large caves to age the cheeses after they have been made.

Can milk, like wine, have exceptional vintages? As with wine, there are years that have more favorable conditions for producing milk and cheese. This summer, the pastures flourished under the stewardship of the Klessig-Heimerl and Klessig families, the fifth generation descendants of a family of farmers from Saxony, Germany. In turn, the cows produced milk with notably high butterfat content. Steady heat and dryness followed by short periods of rain supported the perfect blooming of beneficial bacteria responsible for the Saxony cheese.

The young 2012 Saxony cheese is mild, sweet, and nutty. It is reminiscent of a Swiss cheese, yet rounder in flavor and creamier. When melted, Saxony cheese has the consistency of fontina. When sliced thinly and tasted at room temperature, the cheese conveys a unique flavor that is as powerful and immediate as the joy of catching snowflakes on the tongue for the first time.

The Family

Jerry is part of the Klessig family through his wife, Elise, daughter of “Big Ed,” a stalwart steward of the land. Big Ed is the iconic face of the American farmer photographed by Eve Arnold on the cover of In America. A poster of the cover sits in the corner of the retail store at the creamery, as if Ed is still watching over the family with pride. Pictures of other ancestors and scenes of the farmstead line the walls like a timeline of the family’s stewardship.

Big Ed

Pictures of other ancestors and scenes of the farmstead line the walls like a timeline of the family’s stewardship.

With Ed’s encouragement, Jerry moved forward with the idea to make cheese like some Klessig ancestors had done. He knew then that “the care of the land, and the quality of the soil is important,” because it affects the crops, the milk, and the cheese.

On the farmstead, the soil is rich with glacial deposits. The grasses and the cattle look hearty, full of life and color, connected with the land. Everything is robust, and the cheese follows suit.

Jerry now runs the creamery full-time while his brothers-in-law, Karl and Robert, operate the dairy farm not far from the shores of Lake Michigan inCleveland,Wisconsin.

The Cycle of Soil, Cattle, and Milk

Blending milk from multiple farms is a common practice for most cheese-makers, but Jerry thought the true flavor of the milk from their farm was lost when he tried this method initially.  To preserve the richness of flavor that comes from the soil, Jerry made the decision to use only milk from the family’s herds of cattle. He wanted the Saxon Homestead Creamery cheeses to be uncommon and world class.

Jerry says, “The cattle are healthy. They live almost two years outside before they see the inside of a barn.” There is indoor shelter for them in very inclement weather. “Neighbors didn’t like it a while back. They felt bad about the cattle being outside, until they learned that the cattle were healthier in the fresh air. They were created to live outside. Barns were built by farmers to make it easier for them to collect milk.”

Cattle grazing

The herd is rotated through different paddocks to graze on grasses. The cattle fertilize the soil; and as they eat, they keep the grasses at a manageable height, better than a lawn mower. The land used for grazing is replanted in different years with crops that replenish the soil, so that the land’s nutrient composition is not depleted through monocropping.

Of the family farm’s philosophy, Jerry says, “We follow nature.” The philosophy is evident in Jerry’s description of how his brothers-in-law and he breed cattle, “We synchronize our cows to have their calves in the early spring, the way most animals would if they bred naturally. The cows follow a natural lactation curve that follows nature. For the farm, this natural cycle means that the milk production fluctuates [in quantity] and butterfat content, and that most of the milk is produced during the grass growing season when the cattle can eat fresh grass.

A Boy’s Passion

Jerry fell in love with cheese while running deliveries to a Sicilian-owned market where cheese was made with milk from his dad’s farm. His youthful excitement and passion to make high quality, world class cheese has remained constant since those days. His constant pursuit of quality has also led to hiring an on-site master cheesemaker who manages the science and art of making the different varieties of cheese that Saxon Creamery sells online, at retail stores, and through farmers’ markets.  Click here to find out more.

A Man’s Mission

Like a vineyard owner, Jerry faces new demands for products from consumers each year. Growth requires Jerry to consider milk production, the size of the herd, and the number of caves and shelves in the caves to house aging cheeses. Making artisan cheese is tough work, especially when the quality standards are as high as Jerry’s. As Saxon Homestead Creamery expands, Jerry acts as an ambassador of good tastes, as he takes and showcases the bounty of Wisconsin soil in more corners of the nation, with our local terroir in each bite of cheese. To learn more about Saxon Homestead Creamery and its other cheeses, click here.

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