CUBA CITY—It takes the entire family to keep the cheese factory producing locally-made cheeses in Cuba City. Tim and Diane Gile own and operate Gile Cheese with the assistance of their daughters—Stacy and Stephanie—and sons-in-law—Dave and Josh.
The factory, located on Twin Bridges Road, has been in operation since 1921, when it began as a co-op. In January 1946, Tim Gile’s father, Cletus Gile, purchased the factory from Irvin Northhouse and began producing his own cheese.
Back then, the cheese factory had its own farmers providing the milk supply, enough to produce cheese five to six days a week. In 1979, the business transitioned to purchasing milk from a supplier to cut back on production. Several years later, Tim Gile trained under his father, wrote the exam in Madison and, in 1985, earned his cheesmaker’s license and took over the family business.
He now orders his milk from Swiss Valley and makes cheese once a week. He determines the types of cheeses made by what needs to be restocked in the store, located next to City Hall on Main Street in Cuba City. He said he generally makes cheddar every week to have fresh cheese curd to sell in the store.
The cheese store hasn’t always been in its current location. Tim Gile said the cheese used to be sold out of the factory from 1974 to 1986, when a new location was opened at 111 S. Main St. in Cuba City. The business operated out of that location until 1998 when the current location, 116 N. Main St., became available and had its own parking lot.
“We were really looking for a spot where we had a parking lot of our own,” Tim Gile said.
The store has transitioned over the years as well.
“At the factory, we just sold crackers, jelly, beer, pop and cheese,” Tim Gile said. “When we moved to town we added more. We’re still adding. The dips, bulk foods, fudge and cheese powders have been really popular.”
The Gile family makes cheddar, colby, Monterey Jack, baby Swiss and colby jack cheeses in block form along with cheddar cheese curd. They also experiment with specialty flavors from cheddar or Monterey Jack.
“There’s been a few small [cheese factories] come back now and they’re all into that artisan style cheese,” Tim Gile said. “My customers just want the standard cheese—colby, cheddar, Swiss—and that’s what I make for them. I try to make it the way they want it.”
He said the Gile Cheese is distributed to a few locations, mainly gas stations in the area. His focus is providing the cheese at the store in Cuba City.
Although Tim Gile said he doesn’t compete for cheese awards any longer, in the past his colby and baby Swiss cheeses have won state awards.
“In general, it’s a hard job, but it’s a tradition that I want to continue,” Tim Gile said. “I felt it was something I wanted to do. My grandfather was a cheesemaker and my uncles were all cheesemakers along with my dad. It’s a Wisconsin tradition. When people are traveling, one of the first things they think of is buying cheese. Being in this location works well because we’re close to Illinois and Iowa, we’re one of the first cheese factories they would come across.”
The cheese-making process
Following the process to make cheddar cheese curd, the first step is acquiring the milk and testing it for antibiotics and quality. Tim Gile said 20,000 pounds of milk roughly breaks down to 2,000 pounds of cheese. The conversion is approximately 10 percent. Swiss cheeses yield less than that, which makes them more expensive.
The milk is then pasteurized by heating it to 161 degrees for at least 15 seconds. It is then cooled to 89 degrees and pumped into a large tank called a cheese vat. The ingredients to make the cheese are added, including the cheese culture known as a starter—a microbial enzyme that starts the action of making cheese by inoculating the milk. The cheese coloring is also added at this point if the cheese is a colored one. These ingredients are stirred with the milk for approximately one hour. A liquid called rennet is added to thicken the milk in approximately 30 minutes.
At this point, the mixture is cut into small cubes that represent cottage cheese in size. It is then stirred and eventually separates into curd and whey. The mixture is cooked at 100 degrees for 30-40 minutes. The vat is heated by steam in a fashion similar to a double boiler. It continues to stir for another 40 minutes, then the whey is drawn off and the curd settles at the bottom of the vat.
The curd is pushed to the back of the vat and is divided equally on both sides. When the whey reaches 18 percent acidity on the acid meter, the remainder of the whey is pumped off and the large mass of curd is left. The curd, which is now a large piece of cheese approximately 8 inches thick in the bottom of the vat, is cut into 8-inch strips and is turned over. This process is called cheddaring. This continues for approximately an hour and the cheese is turned every 10 minutes during that time. The cheese will become pieces that are 24 inches wide by 26 inches long and 2 inches thick.
At this point, the cheese is tested for acidity again. It should reach 43-55 percent acidity by this time. The slabs will then be put through the curd mill, a machine that chops the slabs into small cubes 1 inch wide by 1.5 inches long.
The curd is again stirred with salt added for taste and preservation of the cheese while it ages. The curd is placed into a form called a cheese hoop, which is placed in a cheese press where it is pressed into a 40-pound block of cheese. It remains in the press for approximately two hours and then is placed in a bag and sent to a packing machine that draws a vacuum and sucks the air out of the bag and seals the bag.
The cheese is then weighed and placed into a cardboard box with the date and weight stamped on. It is moved to a cooler and stored at 35 degrees until it is used.
The process for each type of cheese differs slightly.
“Everything has a little tweak,” Tim Gile said.
The process generally takes 12-13 hours.
The byproduct, whey, is later separated to remove the cream, which is sent to a creamery to make butter. The remainder of the whey is shipped to a drying plant where it is dried for animal feed.