Nestled in Plymouth, Wis., (population 8,652) — the “Cheese Capital of the World” — Sartori Cheese sits at the crossroads of America’s heartland where grass-fed dairy cows are pivotal to processing, packaging and selling 25% of the country’s cheese. In 2021, there were 6,932 herds milking on dairy farms throughout Wisconsin, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Statistics Service. As the top cheese-producing state, Wisconsin churns out more than two-and-a-half billion pounds of cheese annually followed by California at No. 2.

Since fresh milk is pivotal to fresh cheese, and it takes 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese, it’s not surprising that Wisconsin’s 1,290 licensed cheesemakers use about 90% of Wisconsin's milk supply, the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin states. Additionally, 47% of all specialty cheese made in the United States originates from Wisconsin.

Founded in 1939, Sartori Cheese, under the leadership of fourth-generation President Bert Sartori, produces 22 SKUs of “artisan cheese for all” in the following segments; Parmesan (Classic, SarVecchio and Tuscan Blend); Asiago (Classic and Rosemary & Olive Oil); Cheddar (MontAmoré, Old World, Farmhouse and its new Cherrywood Smoked); and BellaVitano, a cow’s milk cheese that begins like a Parmesan and ends with hints of melted butter, soaked or hand-rubbed in Merlot, Espresso, Black Pepper, Raspberry Ale, Tennessee Whiskey, Chardonnay, and Garlic & Herb, its newest varietal.

“Sartori is unique in that we really pride ourselves on flavor leadership. We are utilizing our cheesemaking depth of knowledge to produce Hard Style Italian cheese while constantly looking to create American Originals,” says Sartori Master Cheesemaker Ken Kane during an onsite interview.

“Our BellaVitano and MontAmoré are great examples of this. BellaVitano has layers of complexity that are accentuated by our hand-finished offerings. Our Merlot BellaVitano opens the earthy sweet tones of the cheese, [while] Black Pepper BellaVitano opens up a subtle fruit and savory notes.  

“At the end of the day, it is about the cheese, and we strive to create the very best,” Kane continues. “… We still use our hands, we use local milk, and we live by the company’s core values of Integrity, Family, Authenticity, Humility, Commitment and Ingenuity.”

The art of cheesemaking 

Like fine wine, the aging of Sartori’s premium, world-class cheeses takes a considerable amount of ingenuity and patience, Kane notes. The cheese that bears the Sartori name that has been carefully crafted for 83 years isn’t produced in a hurry. In fact, it takes months for MontAmoré and BellaVitano varieties to nearly two years in the case of SarVecchio Parmesan, which is washed with olive oil and then “extra-aged” for at least 20 months, he explains.

“This aging process is what is creating those flavor profiles through the breakdown of fat and proteins,” Kane reveals. “I love when we have tours and people come through the plant when we are making one of our American Originals, MontAmoré. I have them feel the young curd shortly after it is cut. You can feel the delicate nature of the protein structure and the whey and fat in the curd.

“Next, try the curd after the whey is removed,” he continues. “It firms up but is still very malleable.  Taste the curd after salt and there is more firmness to the bite along with the characteristic ‘squeak’ as you bite through the protein (aged cheese won’t have that since the protein will break down).”

At the conclusion of each tour, visitors are, of course, able to sample the aged, finished cheese to better understand the steps needed to make fresh, premium Wisconsin cheese.

“The journey that [the cheese] undergoes is staggering,” Kane explains. “No longer do we have a salty, squeaky curd; we have fruity and tangy notes coupled with a sweet savory taste. The structure is crumbly with a great level of meltability. That deliciousness, the Sartori way, takes time and patience.” (See sidebar).

The journey to great cheese

Sartori Master Cheesemaker Ken Kane pinpoints the cheesemaking process in great detail, starting with the delivery of high-quality, fresh cow’s milk from roughly 100 family farm partners located within a 50-mile radius of Sartori plants. The steps are:

1. Cows are milked, and that milk is stored in an onsite tanker below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Independent milk haulers arrive at farms and deliver to each Creamery’s Raw Milk Intake area. There, team members internally trained and licensed by the WDA for weighing and sampling milk, access the tanker truck to get a sample that is assessed for temperature, smell, and color. “Cold, fresh milk will be snow white with a light blue tint against a tanker surface, this is protein,” Kane explains. “The milk will have a delicate, sweet aroma — a true testament to the efforts of our farmers.” After sampled milk is screened for antibiotics and unloaded into milk storage silos, licensed cheesemakers are utilizing the milk immediately to within 72 hours.

2. Depending on the cheese type, standardization of the pasteurized whole milk and its protein/fat ratio occurs. Once cheese leaves the standardizing separator, it goes to the cheese vats, where carefully crafted culture blends and enzymes — the signature of a cheese — are added. “In our creamery we like to say it becomes a Sartori Cheese because of the fantastic milk but also through the selection of cultures that impart defining characteristics including flavor, convertibility and versatility,” Kane says.

3. After the cheese vat is full, the enzyme rennet is added to the milk, which coagulates milk and facilitates the linking of proteins. This forms a gel-like consistency to the milk. After a period of time, Sartori “cuts” the curd based on the firmness of the coagulum which is hand-felt, a critical part of the process as cheesemakers use their hands to feel the firmness. “We take a lot of time to develop and train cheesemakers,” Kane says. “…We want to have a high level of intimacy with the cheese and that is done through touch.” (Since Kane took over oversight of the West Main Creamery in 2016, over half have become licensed cheesemakers).

4. After the cheese is cut, the “fat and water,” or “curds and whey,” respectively, are cooked to tighten the curd, expel whey, and continue to convert the milk sugar and lactose through acidification. The curds account from 8-12% of the total milk used in each vat, resulting in a lot of water.

5. The curds and whey are then moved to 33-foot-long stirred curd finishing tables where the whey is removed from the curds. Only the curd is used/required for cheesemaking as residual whey can carry off flavors into the cheese and increase moisture and acidity. However, the whey is processed via concentration in both Sartori Creameries, while the water is captured through  reverse osmosis concentration and stored and used for clean-in-place (CIP) of the whey plant. “It’s a great green process to capture almost 100% of the milk for value,” Kane reports.

6. The curds are then left to drive out moisture and continue their acidification journey. After set points of moisture and pH are met, salt is introduced to the curd that helps to control moisture by tightening the curd. This also slows down the rate of acid development while the Starter Culture blends are metabolizing the lactose.

7. Flavor is a critical component of the breakdown, encompassing salt rates and percentages. With cheese that ages from 60 days to 22 months, there are “delicate nuances” to managing the development of cheese, Kane explains. How the salt is added also varies. For example, the Antigo Creamy utilizes a salt brine to get the salt incorporated into the curd after a 20-pound wheel is formed, while the West Main Creamery is salting curd before final formation.

8. Next up is the forming stage along with knitting that requires a combination of time and pressure. At West Main, a 40-pound block is primarily used since it is conducive to a variety of applications. Once packaged, the block will be sent to an external aging warehouse so Sartori Signature profiles can continue to develop.

Kane concludes: “Our cheddars are cut into bricks from the whole block; our grating and shred applications cut down the block to be converted. It fits the ‘mold’ for whatever our patrons are looking for — we are cheesemakers to our soul, and, like we have done for 83 years, maintain the passion to give our patrons the best cheese we possibly can.”

A legacy of ingenuity, craftsmanship

Innovation, an attention to detail, and the ability to tinker and experiment are crucial to creating “the next best flavor” says Jackie Seibel, Sartori’s vice president of product development and quality who’s been with the company since 2019.

“We focus on producing delicious flavorful cheeses,” the food scientist explains. “Working with delicious cheese can be challenging. We focus on our patron’s flavor experience first. If you’ve ever tasted BellaVitano, you also know it has crystals and is quite crumbly. The texture can make it quite difficult to cut into wedges, but we believe the flavor experience is worth the effort. We strive to be leaders in flavored specialty cheeses by infusing our cheeses like BellaVitano with flavors like Tennessee Whiskey or Garlic & Herb.”

Annually, Sartori produces its artisan cheese out of three cheesemaking facilities — East Main, West Main, which also handles converting (cutting and packaging) in Plymouth, and a 100,000-square foot cheesemaking and converting facility in Antigo, Wis.

Noting that the aging of artisan cheese takes patience, expertise and craftsmanship, demand for the company’s cheese continued to expand within the ingredient, foodservice and retail private-label segments, necessitating the purchase of the Antigo Creamery in 2006.

The Antigo Creamery, with the ability to cut and package 20-pound wheels of cheese, fostered the company’s expansion into retail and deli markets. The 2008 creation of BellaVitano, a Sartori Original, and its expanding portfolio of uniquely flavored cheeses, also added distribution muscle, Seibel says.

“Our most recent large expansion in 2021 added 22,000-square-feet to one of our converting facilities in Plymouth, Wis., which is helping to support growth of our cheese packaging operations,” she adds.

Packaged and sold in 5.3- and 7-ounce wedges, 7-ounce and 5-pound bags of shredded cheeses, and five-pound quarter wheels and 20-pound wheels, Sartori products are available in all 50 states, the European Union, Italy and more.  

Harkening back to the company’s founding in 1939, ingenuity has been a key driver. For example, in 1942 and 1946, when S & R Cheese Co. was still in its infancy, the company invented and patented cheese curd mixing and stretching machines which provided consumers across the globe with consistently higher-quality Italian cheese.

“These patents were important and impactful for the production of soft Italian cheeses such as Mozzarella and Provolone,” Seibel reveals. “Proper curd stretching is important to obtain the stringiness observed in pasta-filata cheese. While Sartori may not use the same equipment today, our patents provided a base to help spur other future innovations in pasta-filata cheese manufacturing.”