I’m starting to notice a theme with the cheesemakers we’ve met today. Most of them are a little — shall we say — quirky?
Willi Lehner fits the bill, but certainly not in a negative way. When we first pulled up to Willi’s house in Blue Mounds, I thought our driver was lost and we were just turning around. On the outside, it doesn’t look like the type of place that produces fine cheese, but looks can be deceiving.
I thought I had seen every type of cheese-making operation today, but Willi is unique. He has his home set up with a solar operation that supplies his power — so much so that the power company pays him. But Willi doesn’t produce his own milk or make the cheese on his property. He makes the cheese elsewhere, and brings the wheels back to his home for curing.
As you can imagine, Willi isn’t producing a large volume of cheese. He compares his operation to the amount of beer that a brewery pub might produce in comparison to Budweiser. And about 95 percent of his cheese — mostly traditional cheddars — is sold directly to the consumer at Madison’s famous farmer’s market.
He has a small above-ground cave where he cures his cheese, but he’s currently building a larger below-ground cave with two rooms. The new caves will use the natural warmth and cooling of the earth to create the perfect atmosphere for curing cheese.
Willi, who spent his youth making cheese side-by-side with his father who immigrated from Switzerland, has traveled the world studying the art of cheesemaking. So far I’ve seen different methods of curing cheese, such as using a brine method or with plain salt, but you can consider Willi the king of experimentation. Right now he’s working on cheese that he’s wrapped in dirt to how it reacts using those natural elements in the soil. I know it sounds strange, but coming from Willi, it seems to make sense. Check out the video below and see for yourself!