Champions in Cheese
Bringing Home the Gold
When husband Dean Jensen bought his first dairy sheep in 2001, wife Brenda couldn’t wait to get her hands full of their milk’s whey.
Now her arms are full of trophies destined for their Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby, Wisconsin.
At this year’s United States Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wis., Brenda came home with four medals including two golds and in one class—for hard sheep’s milk cheeses—she took three of the top four placings.
Her Ocooch Mountain hard cheese was named best in class with a score of 99.20 out of 100. Brenda’s Timber Coulee Grande took third place with 99.05 points and her Ocooch Mountain Grande was fourth with 98.85 points.
A clean sweep was prevented by Dane Huebner of Grafton Village Cheese in Brattleboro, Vt., whose Bear Hill hard cheese entry came in second with 99.15 points.
Brenda’s Driftless Maple won the flavored soft and semi-soft sheep’s milk cheeses category with 98.65 points, edging out her Driftless Honey Lavender entry which came second with 98.15 points.
Organized by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the championship is the largest technical evaluation of cheese in the United States.
A panel of 38 expert judges from 16 states overseen by chief judge Robert Aschebrock, a veteran U.S. Department of Agriculture dairy grader, checked out the entries from 30 states in 82 classes at the event held at Green Bay’s Lambeau Field.
Aschebrock said it was the largest corps of judges gathered thus far for the biennial contest.
“The group also represents a vast range of knowledge, which is becoming more important as this contest grows,” he said.
In all, more than 30,000 pounds of cheese were entered in the contest.
The judges picked 16 cheeses from the 82 class gold medal winners and then re-evaluated them to determine the overall winner.
“Every medalist should be extremely proud of being recognized as the best of the best in the largest national cheese competition ever held,” Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association executive director John Umhoefer said.
The event is held every two years and Brenda has now been a winner at every championship since she started making cheese six years ago at their 76-acre farm 200 miles west-north-west of Milwaukee.
“We’re a small company and I believe people want to know where their food comes from,” she says on her website. “We care for the herd and make our sheep’s milk cheeses in ways that are harmonious with the people and farms that surround us. From the very beginning we planned to run a sustainable environmental and financial farm.”
The Jensens use draft horses for the fields instead of a tractor and they don’t use fertilizers or pesticides. The sheep are fed pasture-grazed natural grasses and are humanely treated.
“We believe the rich, unique flavors of our handcrafted farmstead sheep’s milk cheeses are enhanced by the deliberate way we care for our sheep, the land, and the community we call home,” Brenda says. “We say, take care of the herd and they’ll take care of you.”
Soon after Dean bought those first 50 sheep and started milking, Brenda says she realized their sheep’s milk was something very special and, “maybe we ought to be making cheese.
“I just didn’t know at the time that ‘we’ meant me.”
After a hands-on class with northern Wisconsin cheese maker Mary Falks, she fell in love with the process and knew this was something she had to do.
Their first flock of 50 sheep has grown to more than 400, a hand-picked mix of East Friesians and Lacaunes that Brenda calls the best milking sheep in the world.
The flock is milked year-round with the number dropping to 200 during the winter and rising to more than 400 by the end of the spring.
“Despite the fact, the herd now is too big to name all the sheep (as we used to do when we first started), we are attached to these animals as if they are family and treat them with the same care and nurturing,” she says.
Brenda’s cheeses are sold in Chicago, Ill., California, New York, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee and extensively in Wisconsin. There are also internet sales through a website promoting their wares: www.HiddenSpringsCreamery.com.
Their farm in southwestern Wisconsin is in an area that’s called the “driftless region” because the glaciers didn’t ramble through, leaving behind their familiar clutter of sand, rock and silt, or “drift.”
All the cheeses are named after the local area.
The farm also makes a Meadow Melody brand cheese that is a mixture of cow and sheep milk.
“We make it at the beginning of the season and the end of the season when the sheep milk is lower and we can’t hold the milk and we keep it as fresh as possible by adding the cow milk,” Brenda says.
The carved hills and valleys of the region make it the perfect environment to raise dairy sheep.
“You can be sure that the animals and the land are treated well, and our products are carefully crafted the old-fashioned way using only the best ingredients,” Brenda says.
The couple also has a year-round bed and breakfast operation. Guests are given a tour of the facility including the cheese-making area and the milking parlor, but are kept away from day-to-day operations.
“We have very high quality standards and systems in place to insure great quality,” Brenda says. “If someone is more interested in making cheese or starting their own milk dairy we can develop specific events or times to accommodate. These do come with additional costs and are by appointment only.
“Sometimes I feel the real story here is to leave mainstream society with its pay check and insurance and try something that you could very well fail at (with no background in cheese and sheep milk dairies) and be grateful to have made award-winning cheeses.
“However I do get to pick what ever 15 hours a day I wish to work, unless the customers, cheese or the sheep say otherwise…”
Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, Wisconsin