Decatur Dairy keeps churning out award-winning cheeses
Decatur Dairy is located at W1668 County F, just west of Brodhead. For more information, visit its website at decaturdairy.com or call (608) 897-8661.
Orders can be placed online or at the new retail store, which is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Factory tours also are offered between 9 to 11:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday.
The dairy is planning a grand opening Saturday, June 16, to celebrate its expansion and new store.
Decatur Dairy sits just west of Brodhead on County F. The dairy added almost 9,000 square feet last year.
BRODHEAD Master cheesemaker Steve Stettler has a way of turning milk from area farms into the best cheese in the world.
How does he do it?
“Luck,” is his first response, accompanied by a chuckle.
“No. 1, it’s good milk,” the Brodhead cheesemaker said. “And you’ve got to work at it. It doesn’t come easy.”
His Havarti, pepper Havarti and white Muenster won best of class in their categories at the World Champion Cheese Contest in Madison in March, while the dill Havarti took second place.
The third-generation cheesemaker and Decatur Dairy owner plans a grand opening this summer to showcase an expansion and new store.
The cheese factory on County F just west of Brodhead is a key supplier of Muenster and Havarti in Wisconsin. The dairy also makes everything from fresh curds to a Colby-Swiss and Stettler-Swiss—two cheeses made only at Decatur.
“We’ve got our place, and hopefully we can continue,” Stettler said.
While the dairy has many longstanding customers, it has grown recently. Decatur added almost 9,000 square feet last year, not including a new store that opened in the fall.
The success is a combined effort of farmers wanting to be part of the program, the dairy developing products customers like and a need for the dairy’s products, Stettler said.
January and February are usually slow sales months, but not this year, he said. Decatur sells cheese wholesale and retail and has many retail customers on the East Coast, he said.
The dairy uses about 400,000 pounds of milk—about 46,500 gallons—a day. The factory makes 40,000 pounds of cheese daily and runs six days a week.
Farmers are proud to bring their milk to the dairy, said Steve Case, who milks 140 cows with his family in Footville. Case is the treasurer of the co-op that supplies the milk. He also is one of about 75 farmers in Rock, Green and Lafayette counties who are members
The dairy’s structure is rare, they say. Stettler owns the business and markets the cheese, while the farmers own the building.
“It’s kind of more of a partnership here,” Stettler said.
Stettler, who lives above the factory, gave visitors a tour while wearing yellow rubber boots, gray pants, a shirt with his name on it and a Decatur hat on a recent morning.
He explained how the dairy developed a more automated system last year to soak up to 40,000 pounds of cheese in salt brine. The cheese sits in the brine for 12 to 14 hours because no salt is added. Stettler also has plans to automate the packaging department.
Just before packaging, workers send 30-pound bricks of Muenster through a quick shower of orange liquid.
“Some guy had a bright idea to color Muenster, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” Stettler said. “It’s just for appearance.”
In Janesville, Fort Atkinson, Lake Geneva and Kenosha, Decatur Dairy cheese is only available at farmers markets. Customers also can buy directly from the dairy’s website or visit its retail store, which also sells toasted cheese sandwiches and ice cream.
Scoring high in a cheese contest isn’t easy. It involves lots of work and trial and error, Stettler said.
Stettler entered the world and U.S. cheese contests for 17 years before finally winning in 1999. Since then, he’s brought home several U.S. and World Cheese Contest awards, as well as Wisconsin State Fair awards. In 2007, Decatur swept the U.S. contest and the Green County Fair, taking first, second and third in Havarti at both contests. The Muenster also won first place in 2008 at the world contest, which is held every other year.
Contest time is busy because contestants don’t make just one vat of cheese, he said.
“Even when you think you have the best, it’s still discretionary,” he said.
One judge might like the cheese, but the next one might not, he said.
“The quality at that level is pretty intense,” he said, noting he won one of his recent awards by a few hundredths of a point.
One of the most important steps is picking the vat he thinks is the best.
“I’m not going to deny … you do baby-sit them a little bit,” Stettler said.
For many years, he didn’t taste his cheese because he thought it was bad luck.
“I’d just go by appearance and texture,” he said.
Now, he samples his contest entries.
“Who has more fun than us?” Stettler asked, leaning behind the counter in the store.
“It’s as sweet now as it was then (the first time he won). You don’t take it for granted. With all of us that are cheesemakers, it’s a pride thing. A lot of pride goes into it.
“Hey, if I don’t win, there’s always next year.”