Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state, making more than 3 billion pounds of the savory dairy favorite in 2016 alone, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. And Wisconsin’s Green County lays claim to more Master Cheesemakers and cheese manufacturing plants than any other county in the state.

One of the stars among those Green County cheesemakers is Emmi Roth. The Fitchburg, Wis.-based company, part of the Swiss Emmi Group, operates a specialty cheese plant in Monroe, the county seat. The facility produces a variety of award-winning washed-rind and other flavorful cheeses under its Roth brand. Each cheese is unique to the marketplace.

The 50,000-square-foot chalet-style creamery was constructed in the 1950s and remodeled in 1991 for Roth. In 2006, it underwent a $4 million expansion to enlarge its brine system and add a modern culinary center. Giving the facility an extra dose of Swiss-inspired charm is the attached Alp and Dell store, which sells Emmi Roth cheeses (along with other products), but is operated independently.

The plant employs 77 people, noted Robert Frie, director of operations. Employees work in two overlapping shifts Monday through Friday — and typically every other Saturday — to produce specialty cheese for retail/specialty retail, foodservice and industrial customers of all sizes.

Like Emmi Roth’s other creamery (in Platteville, Wis.), the plant aims to be “specialty, with scale,” noted Tim Omer, the company’s president and managing director.


It starts with local milk

The cheesemaking process begins with the delivery of fresh rBST-free milk, which is sourced from a few cooperatives that represent family-run dairy farms within a 60-mile radius. The plant typically receives five to seven tanker trucks of milk each day, beginning early in the morning and continuing throughout the day. Each truck holds approximately 50,000 pounds of milk, Frie noted.

In the intake room, the milk is tested for antibiotics, pH, temperature and sensory attributes. The milk then is prewarmed, going through the separation process at 134 degrees Fahrenheit before it is standardized for the specific recipe, Frie explained.

A bactofuge unit, one of the first to be installed in the state, spins all of the spores out of the milk before it goes to the pasteurizer. From the pasteurizer, the milk is transferred to a separate room, into vats that separate and remove much of the whey.

From there, the product goes to one of the facility’s four “double O” Kalt cheese vats — two 30,000-pound vats lined with stainless steel, and two 28,000-pound vats lined with copper. The copper helps give Emmi Roth’s flagship washed-rind cheese line, the award-winning Roth Grand Cru, its unique flavor, Frie noted.

Each vat requires almost an hour to fill; cultures specific to the cheese type are then added. After about an hour, the curd is pumped over to another area in the facility and poured into forms. The cheese is pressed in two stages to keep the curd under the whey, preventing defects in the body of the cheese.

Next, the curd goes through acidification, which is basically a waiting game for the cheese to knit together. The process takes four to seven hours, Frie noted. Plant employees place plastic over the cheese to help expedite the process and check the pH level every 30 to 45 minutes until it reaches 5.25.


Art meets science

When acidification is complete, the cheese is quickly transferred to the brining room, which is home to three large skid-mounted brine units — one of them dedicated solely to organic cheeses — that were engineered and built on-site by a local company. The brining process adds flavor, begins creating the rind and extracts a bit of moisture. Each individual cheese recipe dictates how long it will stay in the brine — from a mere two hours for a lacey Swiss to 24 hours for Roth Grand Cru.

“The brine process is the heart of what makes up the facility,” Frie pointed out.

When the cheese is removed from the brine, it either goes to one of the facility’s cheese cellars to age or is routed to the packaging area to be packaged as a fresh cheese and then transported to Emmi Roth’s distribution center down the road. The packaging area handles between 30,000 and 50,000 pounds of cheese daily, Frie noted.

In the facility’s five cheese cellars (one is a dry room for aging harder cheeses such as the Roth Prairie Sunset Gouda-style cheese), the aged cheeses are washed with a culture cocktail every day for the first two to three weeks. As the rind begins to develop, the process is conducted less often — and later with plain salt water, he said.

Any spice rub a recipe calls for is applied by hand, treated with Foodplast and kept clean while the cheese ages.

Special boards installed in the cellars, imported from Switzerland and made from red spruce trees, absorb or add moisture to the cheese as needed. Custom-made machines grab the boards, pull them out and flip the cheese wheels on a schedule, Frie noted. Specially trained cellarmasters, meanwhile, take plugs from the cheese regularly to evaluate its taste and aroma.

“It’s really an art with a little bit of science thrown in,” Frie said.

Once the aging process is complete, some of the aged cheese is transported to a room that houses two new de-rinding machines. Featuring technology borrowed from Emmi Roth’s European sister companies, the custom-engineered machines remove just the right amount of rind from each cheese wheel before it is cut, wrapped and labeled for individual sale, Frie explained.

Before the new machines were put into place, the process required five employees and much manual labor — and the amount of wastewater associated with the task was concerning. Now, one employee can perform the task on each machine, sans all the water.

“It’s simplistic, not a lot of automation, but it had a huge impact in that department,” Frie stated.


Eye on efficiencies

Speaking of new technology, the plant (and company overall) takes a unique approach to selection and implementation.

“We look at what we need to do, what we need to achieve to get our efficiency,” explained Marc Druart, director of research and development. “And after that, we challenge various suppliers to come up with something to help us or see if there is something we can build together.”

Having a Swiss-based parent company also is a plus, Frie noted.

“We have 100% access to a lot of synergies, technologies in other plants in Europe,” he said. “It might not be new technology to them, but to us it’s brand new technology.”

Through a companywide young professional program, European Emmi Group employees regularly come to the Monroe plant to work for a year, he added. The sharing of information associated with the program also provides inspiration for new technology.

And employees also are empowered to suggest improvements via the two-year-old Emmi Operation Excellence (EOE) program, which focuses on continual improvement. As part of that program, plant employees labeled every single machine and other noteworthy components within the facility.

“Everything has a place,” Frie noted.

In addition, EOE encourages employees to learn enough about the various equipment in the plant to be able to perform small preventative maintenance on it, autonomous of management.

Right now, the plant also is eyeing improvements that could help reduce the number of times employees touch product, Frie said. Potential technology ranges from automation that could enhance the consistency of the final product to robotics that could aid in the packaging arena. One of the reasons behind the focus is the tight labor market.

“Everyone’s competing for the same labor force,” he pointed out. “In this county alone, there are 13 dairy manufacturing facilities. It is a challenge.”

Cross-training employees across departments, too, helps the plant deal with labor-related issues and enhance efficiencies.

“The more people we have cross-trained in different areas, the more coverage we have when people don’t show up or call in sick or whatever the case may be,” Frie said.

The creamery also encourages employees to regularly ask themselves why they are doing any given task, Druart noted.

“Once you have a better understanding of why you’re doing some of the things, you can make improvements,” he said.

But at the end of the day, quality ultimately trumps efficiency.

“Productivity, of course, is in everyone’s mindset,” Druart stressed. “But working out the flavor profile and the texture of our cheese is what’s essential to us.”


Stepping up safety efforts

Also essential to the plant is food and employee safety. On the food safety front, the Monroe facility boasts FSSC 22000 certification, Frie said. The certification demonstrates that it has a robust and effective food safety management system in place to meet the requirements of regulators, food business clients and consumers.

The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) and the “need-to-know” demands of younger generations have forced the facility to become more proactive from a testing and environmental standpoint, Frie noted.

“Food safety is something that has to be engrained in the culture the first day an employee steps on the floor,” he said.

Hygiene transition zones boasting hand washing stations and foot baths are positioned throughout the plant. Solid standard operating procedures cover cleaning and new employee training; each plant location has a rigorous four-page test plan for cleaning. And regular audits and internal checks and balances provide a picture of what is actually going on in the plant environment.

“There’s a lot of dictating; we’ve increased the staff a little bit on the quality teams, but we had to from a standpoint of what customers are demanding,” Frie explained. “They need to know about the product they’re receiving based on some of the FSMA regulations. I think all in all, it’s made us a better company.”

As for the raw milk product coming into the plant, the cooperatives routinely perform spot checks on it before shipping it to the creamery. In the rare case that further in-plant testing identifies an issue, the cooperatives are quick to respond, Frie noted.

“They do a great job of testing the raw milk,” he added.

Just as important as food safety is employee safety. Safety-related training begins during the onboarding process, Frie said.

“We want people to go home in the same condition that they came in,” he stressed.

In the past couple of years, the creamery has stepped up its efforts here by hiring a safety manager. And if an incident does occur, the impacted employee is now required to put together a presentation to share with the department regarding how the incident happened.

“It reeducates not only that person, but everybody else on why it happened and how it can be avoided in the future — proper lifting techniques, cutting in the same direction, those kinds of things,” Frie explained.

The plant rewards safety-related accomplishments, too. If an employee is accident-free for a whole quarter, he or she receives an Amazon gift card, Frie noted.


Working to engage

Employee-related initiatives are not limited to enhancing efficiencies and safety. Efforts related to employee engagement are critical to addressing the labor challenge — and to keeping talented employees with growth potential. The plant even offers profit sharing and a college tuition reimbursement program for interested employees.

“One of the things we like to ask employees is ‘Where do you want to be five years from now?’ We want to identify special talent, people who are not afraid to speak up,” Frie said.

To be successful here, supervisors and managers need to identify the right employees, ask them the right questions and put those employees on a path to success, he added.

And what qualities, exactly, make an employee stand out? According to Druart, a great sense of observation and the ability to be fairly reactive are pluses. But there’s more to it.

“Making cheese is basically like watching grass grow — it’s a very slow process, and there are some things you cannot teach in a classroom or in college,” he pointed out. “You have to feel it. You have to experience it. You have to have a great sense of appreciation and a great memory.”