History: The Home of Colby Cheese
Contact: Joan Benner
----Source: Eau Claire Leader Telegram, Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
THE HOME OF COLBY CHEESE Location: 2 blocks west of Highway 13 in Colby WI
At his father's cheese factory about one mile south and one mile west of here, Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885 developed a new and unique type of cheese. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand, Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before. The town had taken its name from Gardner Colby, whose company built the Wisconsin Central railroad through here. Colby is a mild, soft, moist cheese. Its taste became known in the neighboring areas and an 1898 issue of the "Colby Phonograph" noted that "A merchant in Phillips gives as one of the 13 reasons why people should trade with him, that he sells the genuine Steinwand Colby Cheese." After the turn of the century this area became one of the great cheese producing centers in the nation and Colby cheese a favorite in countries the world around.
Colby cheese resulted from experiment
"At his father's cheese factory about one mile south and one mile west of here, Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885 developed a new and unique type of cheese. He named it for the township in which his father, Ambrose Steinwand Sr., had built northern Clark County's first cheese factory three years before."
"After the turn of the century this area became one of the great cheese-producing centers in the nation and Colby cheese a favorite in countries the world around."
"It's taste became known in the neighboring areas and an 1898 issue of the Colby Phonograph noted 'A merchant in Phillips gives as one of the 13 reasons why people should trade with him, that he sells the genuine Steinwand Colby Cheese." Excerpts from the Colby, Wisconsin Historical Marker
Ambrose and Susan Steinwand and
their children moved to Colby in 1875. They bought a
quarter-section of railroad land in Colby township and in 1882
built a cheese factory, a small wood building that produced 125
pounds of cheese a day.
Their eldest son, Joseph, assisted his father in the factory from age 16, quickly learning the cheesemaking process.
Joe Steinwand was inquisitive, and when his father sent him to a cheesemaking course in Madison, he began to experiment in the Colby factory.
He made minor changes in the cheese process, but these were enough to create a cheese both milder and moister than cheddar. The new cheese was named "Colby" and became almost instantly popular.
Today's Colby cheese is made world-wide but remains a major industry around Colby. About 65 cheese factories circle the community in a 30 mile radius, producing about 45 million pounds of Colby annually.
This is the dairy center of Wisconsin. Colby straddles the border between Marathon and Clark counties, first and third respectively in state milk production. In 1974, Marathon County cows produced 872.1 million pounds of milk, while Clark County accounted for 685.4 million pounds.
The original Colby cheese Factory still plays its part in cheese production. Now owned by Lawrence "Jake" Hoernke and Sons, the new modern factory, built on the site of the original one, is equipped to handle 100,000 pounds of milk and produce 10,000 pounds of cheese daily. (Ten pounds of milk make one pound of cheese.) The factory is currently producing 5,000 to 6,000 pounds of cheese daily.
The Hoernke factory is a low, white building at the junction of two country roads. A side door leads into a small retail area where the factory sells cheese to tourists and area residents. Windows look into the cheesemaking room and its gleaming stainless steel equipment; another door opens to the room and its pervading odor of warm milk.
Four stainless steel vats are mixing bowls for the cheese process. Stretching almost the length of the room, two of them hold 15,000 pounds of milk; the other two, 20,000 pounds.
Machinery noise fills the room - the soft whir of mixing paddles, the roar of steam as it cleans a vat. There are few quiet corners here as four men work continuously.
Milk, through a series of pipes, runs from a 70,000 capacity holding tank, through the pasteurizer and into an empty vat. Steam seeps from sides of the double-walled vat as the inside pipes warm the milk.
One man adds some started, a culture of lactic acid bacteria, to the milk. This develops the milk's acid content and will have a distinctive effect on flavor and texture of the cheese.
As the milk warms, motor-driven paddles rotate slowly up and down the length of the vat, mixing the starter.
When the milk reaches a temperature of 86 to 88 degrees F., food coloring is added to give it a soft yellow tint. Without this, Colby would be the same creamy white color as Swiss cheese.
Rennet is also added to the softly-colored milk. This is the "magical" substance which curdles milk and begins the job of separating casein from other elements of the milk. Casein is the prime protein material from which cheese is made.
As the milk begins to set, it grows slowly cloudy from the bottom up until, after about 20 minutes, it has become a yellow gel, firm enough to run a finger through, leaving a slowly healing rip. Men slide fine-wired screens, called cheese knives, through the gen at one end of the vat. Then, pulling slowly, they cut the cheese into small cheese curds. The paddles are replaced with forks which stir the curds and separate them from whey, the fluid portion of the curdled milk. The mixture is slowly cooked, its temperature rising to 102 degrees.
"Feel" is an important factor in determining when the cooking process is over and the vat is ready to e drained. If the curds flatten easily and break apart, they're too soft to hold up as cheese; the curds must be firm yet pliable, something an experienced cheesemaker can easily determine by pressing curds between his fingers. When he decides the curds have been cooked enough, he pushes them away from the vat's outlets to begin draining the whey.
If this were cheddar cheese, the forks would be removed, allowing the curds to settle to the bottom and mat during drainage. But in making Colby, the forks and men keep cutting and stirring the curds as they whey drains. A system of catches keeps curds from being lost down the drain.
When most of they whey has drained, the forks are stopped and the curds are pushed to the vat's sides, creating an alley down the center. This "ditching" process permits more whey to escape.
Cold water is then poured over the curds, washing them and preventing them from clumping together as in the cheddar process.
The men chop curds against the vat's sides, keeping them loose and fine as they are salted with 44-pounds of salt.
Finally, the curds are packed into cheesecloth-lined, 60 pound block hoops. These blocks further compress the curds, squeezing out the last drops of whey and forming the cheese into block shape.
When removed from the press, the cheese is weighed, boxed and placed in a cooler.
History: The Home of Colby Cheese
Contact: jane rasmussen
Joan, thank you gratefully for a marvelous history lesson. I have roots in Clark County and had no idea that Colby was the home town of one of my favorite cheeses. Keep posting Clark County stories . Those of us who now live afar really enjoy them.
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