The Cheese Stands Alone: Willi Lehner forges world-class wheels on his self-sufficient wisconsin farmstead

Willi Lehner in his cheese cave at his home in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin // Photo by Lauren Justice

Above the rolling hills near Blue Mounds, Wisconsin, at Willi Lehner’s 16-acre farmstead, a turbine spins in the wind.

It looks like a child’s toy on top of an Erector set, but that wind turbine, in combination with a fleet of solar panels,  generates about five times as much power as the whole farm needs.

“Both my electric meters are going backward right now. I like that,” Lehner says, squinting into the spring sunshine. “I haven’t had a utility bill for at least six years. Cheesemaking is a very energy intensive endeavor, so part of my wanting to offset the carbon I’m producing as an individual—with my profession and driving cars—is why I did this.”

Solar panels on the property of cheesemaker Willi Lehner // Photo by Lauren Justice

The hum is low and constant as Lehner, owner and cheesemaker at Bleu Mont Dairy for 35 years, walks between his greenhouse and cheese cave. Lehner installed the turbine and tilted solar panels flanking his driveway on his own, along with additional panels on his roof that heat the water he uses. 

Turns out, the creator of one of the best bandaged cheddars in the country was almost an HVAC guy. “I’m a curious fellow,” Lehner says. “Around 20, I went to school for air conditioning and refrigeration. To do that kind of work, you’ve got to be a plumber, you’ve got to be an electrician. I know how electricity works. But I ended up doing cheese. I’m glad I did that.”

Lehner, a wiry, athletic, second-generation Swiss-American cheesemaker, grew up in nearby Mount Horeb. At 64, he says his career has reached “cruising altitude.” He knows how much cheese he needs to make in a year (about 1,500 wheels) to sustain the life he wants with his partner in business and life, Kitas McKnight. McKnight spent more than 20 years working the Bleu Mont table at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, where Lehner is among the longest-tenured members. 

“We have wheels of cheese out,” McKnight says. “Oftentimes the samples are sitting on an actual wheel of bandaged cheddar. People will be like, ‘Wow, what’s that? Is that a rock?’ And we’re like, ‘No, that’s the cheese!’”

Lehner has led many tours of his caves—more after New York Times writer Christine Muhlke called him the “off-the-grid rock star of the Wisconsin artisanal cheese movement.” Last year, Bon Appetit magazine named Lehner’s bandaged cheddar among the 25 most important cheeses in America.

“If he really wanted to, he could distribute nationwide and sell a lot more cheese,” says Ken Monteleone, owner of Fromagination, a cheese shop in nearby Madison. “I admire his discipline to say no, this is all I want to make. Willi’s carved a nice life for himself. He’s found a formula that takes years for some people to figure out.” 

The cheese cave of Willi Lehner in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin // Photo by Lauren Justice

Cave walk

One does not simply walk into Bleu Mont Dairy’s cheese caves, which are set into the side of a hill like a hobbit-hole, flanked by massive boulders excavated during its creation. Lehner estimates that he invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars into the cave since building it in 2006, with the most recent additions in 2016. 

To enter the cave through the carved wooden doors, visitors step out of their shoes backward into a low curved entryway, leaving muddy boots outside. It’s already cooler in here, edging close to 48 degrees, the lowest temperature the caves are likely to hit in 2019.

“When we’re standing inside the cave, it’s 12 feet floor-to-ceiling and there’s about 10 to 12 feet of material on top of it, which is a big insulator,” Lehner says. “No matter what happens [outside] on a daily basis—the temperature can fluctuate 50 degrees—it doesn’t affect the temperature inside the cave.”

Once inside, Lehner proffers rubbery clogs to slip into, a log book to sign, and a gentle reminder not to touch anything. Down another hallway, the cave splits into a smaller room, where cheeses go when they first arrive, and a larger one for long-term aging. The aroma inside both rooms is funky, earthy, and a little acrid.

“It’s really pronounced when these cheeses first go in here. The mold smells completely different,” Lehner says as he opens the door to the second aging room. The first molds grow about three weeks in, and about a month in the cheese is completely covered. From there, there’s a rapid succession of different varieties of mold growing for the first six months, after which it calms down.

Earlier in Lehner’s career, he experimented with brine
cultures, microbes in the soil, and aging. Inspired by his travels in the United Kingdom, he challenged the standard of Wisconsin commodity cheddar with British-inspired versions made with pasture-based, grass-fed raw milk. 

Many Wisconsin cheddars are aged in plastic or wax, which stop moisture loss and eliminate mold and yeast on the surface of the cheese. Lehner ages his cheese in muslin cloth. The muslin cloth facilitates a flow of oxygen during the aging, allowing the cheese to “breathe,” he says, which deepens its flavor over time.

Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar cheese made by Willi Lehner // Photo by Lauren Justice

These days he’s making bandaged cheddar, Alpine Renegade (like a gruyere), gouda, and 3-year-aged Big Sky Grana, among a few others. His cheddars typically age 14 to 16 months, developing crystals and caramelly, toasty flavors.

“Grana is an unbelievable cheese,” says Monteleone. “His bandaged cheddar has a complex and deep flavor. […] I would describe it as caramel with toasted nuts and kind of a woodsy flavor. The grana is so much more intense. The deep flavors get more rich as it sits in your mouth.”

Pasteurized milk (“dead milk,” as Lehner calls it) lacks enzymes that give cheese the best flavor, particularly after aging. But raw milk is difficult to find. Lehner used to work with it frequently, but now only about two percent of his cheeses use raw milk.

One favorite raw milk source is Uplands Cheese Company, in nearby Dodgeville. Creator of the award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve, Uplands has been using more of its milk for its own cheeses, Lehner says, which means less for other cheesemakers. Other sources of pristine raw milk are hard to come by, which Lehner attributes to the attrition of Wisconsin’s small family farms. 

“If you’re going to make a top-quality cheese, you need superb quality milk,” Lehner says. “I’ll make raw milk cheese, but I’m really selective with the milk that I use. 

“The danger isn’t making somebody sick from raw milk. As a cheesemaker, I come from the standpoint [of]: Why is the milk so compromised that it has to be pasteurized? Most people don’t think that way. I do.”

Next generation dairy

Lehner has been making cheese in-state for well over the 10 years required to start the master cheesemaker program (Wisconsin is the only state with such a certification), but he’d rather spend his winters skiing in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He makes cheese about four times a year, roughly 500 wheels at a time, at two nearby creameries: Cedar Grove Cheese and Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese. 

“It’s gotten really difficult to become a cheesemaker in this state,” Lehner says. “There’s not that many cheese factories, for one. And most places are making commodity cheese.” 

Cheesemaker Willi Lehner’s Greenhouse in Blue Mounds, Wisconsin // Photo by Lauren Justice

Lehner collaborates with young cheesemakers like Aaron Peper, 33, recently named the head cheesemaker at Cedar Grove Cheese. Peper makes a small line of sheep, cow, and mixed-milk cheeses called Night Owl. “Willi and I have done a lot of tomme styles,” Peper says, referring to a nutty, round, semi-soft cheese that takes less time to age. “We use the best milk we can get our hands on. Most of the things we’ve done have involved washed rinds initially, so the first couple months it’s a lot of scrubbing to keep molds off and help develop yeast and bacteria. Then we let it go wild from there.”

Bill Anderson, founder of Madison-based Crème de la Coulee Artisan Cheese, met Lehner in 2006 and worked with him as an apprentice for six months in 2010. Anderson makes French-style soft-ripened and semisoft cheeses. A few years ago, Lehner collaborated with him to develop a washed-rind Alpine-style cheese.

“In Willi’s cave we mostly do hard cheeses that lose moisture and get firmer over time,” Anderson says. “It helps to concentrate the flavors and develop unique flavors you wouldn’t get aging under Cryovac or vacuum seal. There are live cultures on the outside. It’s losing moisture, and the temperature is warmer than it would be in a refrigerator. All those things develop more flavor.”

Lehner inspires people, Peper says, to see the potential in cave aging.

“Anybody who would have an opportunity to work with Willi would take that,” Peper says. “We appreciate old-school cheesemaking, rather than the super high tech, ‘don’t touch anything’ type, where everything is sterilized and your [cheese] comes out sterilized, too, lacking character. What we want is to start with the highest quality milk, and don’t screw it up.”

After decades of work, Lehner has found a place between old-school cheesemaking and new technology. Now he’s passing it on. 

“We all stand on somebody’s shoulders, we all learn from someone,” Lehner says. “If I can prevent somebody from making some of the mistakes I’ve made, I can reap the benefits of good cheese. The dairy industry is not set up for doing really small scale, labor-intensive cheese.”