If anyone could be considered the paragon for cheesemaking in Plymouth, it’s our very own Pam Hodgson. Pam’s family have been farmers in the area since the 1840s, and their legacy of cheesemaking dates to her grandfather. Though she initially wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps managing a dairy farm, looking back it almost seems fated that Pam would join the exclusive ranks of the Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin.
One of only two women Master Cheesemakers in the world, Pam graciously took time from her craft to sit down and chat with us about her journey, her creative process, and the near-impossible decision of which cheese she’d choose to be stranded with on a deserted island.
How did you get started in cheesemaking? How did your upbringing affect your approach to cheesemaking?
In 1991, my husband and I were beginning farmers and we needed some extra income to help fuel the dream. There was a quality assurance job open in a nearby cheese factory. I applied because it was good, honest work. At that point, I had no aspirations of becoming a Licensed Cheesemaker (much less a Master Cheesemaker). After I got the job and was working in the plant, I fell in love with cheesemaking. I think that the Plant Manager knew that I would be a good fit – he saw something in me that I wasn’t aware that I possessed.
Interestingly, my maternal grandfather was a very good cheesemaker. He had attended the University of Wisconsin’s Dairy School to learn how to make cheese and ice cream.
What is required to be named a Master Cheesemaker? How has that education shaped your process?
The first step is to become a Licensed Cheesemaker which requires an apprenticeship and passing an exam. When I became licensed, the apprenticeship requirement was a minimum of two years. There are ways today to reduce the time needed. Once a cheesemaker has been licensed a minimum of ten years, she or he can apply to the program for up to two cheeses that they have been making for at least five years. Candidates are interviewed by a Master Cheesemaker and another representative of the program, and the plant is inspected. Based on this, the Master Cheesemaker board will vote whether the candidate is accepted into the program. Should the cheesemaker be accepted, she or he will start another apprenticeship. This one lasts three years. During this time, the cheeses that they wish to be certified in are evaluated on an annual basis and there are educational requirements that need to be met. The final hurdle is an extensive exam.
As I completed the educational requirements, I became more aware of what we could be doing to raise the level of expertise at Sartori®. Since then, we have sent Team Members to more short courses offered by the Center for Dairy Research, and we have developed internal classes for the team. At Sartori®, across the board, we are very intentional about Team Member development, so there has been excellent support for these efforts.
Which cheese that you had a hand in making are you most proud of?
All of Sartori’s® Cheddars are something that I am proud of. I am even more proud of the team that makes them. It has been a joy to see Team Members grow in skill, knowledge, and responsibility. I had the privilege to lead the team in developing and launching all of our Cheddars (MontAmoré®, Old World, Farmhouse, and Heritage).
What are the biggest misconceptions about your role?
I’m not sure what the misconceptions are about my role, however, it is not what I have accomplished – it is about what we are going to accomplish together in the future. It’s not about what I know – it’s about what we can discover together to improve our cheeses and create new ones. Being a Master Cheesemaker is fantastic, although I am not sure if people realize how hard I have worked or how dedicated I have been to the craft to get to where I am today.
What is your relationship with the Center for Dairy Research and how does it affect your process?
The Center for Dairy Research is great. They have a pilot plant that we use to make trial vats of cheese. The Center offers valuable short courses on a variety of topics and their knowledgeable staff is only a phone call away. While they are available for the entire dairy industry, we are fortunate that they are in our backyard.
What are the biggest challenges for you at this point in your career?
Over the years, I have been very dedicated on furthering my skills and knowledge, yet at this point in my career, I feel that I need to focus on developing the next generation of cheesemakers. If I do this correctly and with the same energy that I have applied in the past, the next generation will be more skilled and more knowledgeable than I am. They will build on what I know and with this knowledge and experience, they will surpass me. This is very humbling. It is also what I need to do and how it should be done.
Why do you believe good food brings people together, and how much does that play a role in why you do this work?
Good food brings people together because the experience of sharing it helps people drop barriers and pretenses. It encourages good conversation which involves listening and seeing the other as a person worthy of affirmation. Good food not only feeds our bodies, but also our humanity.
Would you consider cheesemaking more an art or a science?
Cheesemaking is both art and science. While it might be tempting to pick one over the other, it doesn’t work that way… I love the challenge of engaging both left brain and right brain thinking. I also love thinking about cheesemaking, trying different things, and designing experiments to learn more about cheesemaking and cheeses. To do that well requires keeping detailed records and, yes, I am nerdy enough to enjoy that too. It’s like solving a giant puzzle. Everything in cheesemaking is connected. If we change something in one area, the consequences will reverberate across the whole process, like tapping a spider web.
What would you tell young men and women interested in making cheese as a career? Are your kids interested in following in the family tradition?
Being a cheesemaker is a great career. It will challenge your intellect and engage all of your senses. My advice is to start in quality, because without quality, you have nothing.
As for my kids, I hope that they find something that they love as much as I love cheesemaking. This doesn’t rule out cheesemaking, but I also don’t want them to be limited to my career choice. Each of them must live their one wild and wondrous life in a way that makes sense for them.
What would you title your autobiography if you wrote one today?
If you were stuck on a deserted island with a supply of one cheese and one beverage, what would they be?
Only one?! There are too many great Sartori® cheeses to pick only one! The cheese would be either Farmhouse or MontAmoré® Cheddar. The beverage is a harder call. Milk is my go-to beverage, but if I have cheese, I guess that I have milk. If I want to live, water would be great choice. If I don’t, a Belgian quad would do.
Keep exploring to learn more about Pam and her team’s famous cheddars, learn the long history of Sartori® fine cheese, and more.
Pictured to the right is Pam's maternal grandfather, George Hinz, in Hiram Smith Hall at UW-Madison. He was a student in the Dairy School which was a series of short courses and internship opportunities. Babcock Hall replaced Hiram Smith Hall in the 1950’s.
He graduated from the program, married Pam's grandmother and moved to Door County to operate their first cheese factory. They later moved back to Sheboygan County where he was the head cheesemaker at the Modern Dairy Co-op.