Wakker builds cheese business on old family recipe
In 2010, Johannes Wakker of Kewaunee was visiting his mother in Holland when she showed him an old photo of his grandmother, Elizabeth Koense Kok, delivering homemade dairy products to neighbors with a dog cart.
Johannes grew up on his family’s dairy farm just south of Amsterdam watching his relatives make cheese and buttermilk. When he saw his grandmother’s photo, he decided to bring her family’s recipe for Gouda cheese to America.
Six years later, after much research, assistance from his Dutch cousins, and special equipment imported from the Netherlands, the eagerly anticipated Wakker Cheese LLC store has opened at 409 Milwaukee St. in downtown Kewaunee.
And Wakker has used the photo of his grandmother to design a logo for the cheese business that graces both the new milk truck and store’s sign.
“Every step of the way has been rewarding,” said Wakker. “But the best was this week when a customer, who had been in previously, walked right in and without even looking at me or anyone else, went straight to the showcase and grabbed three large pieces of cheese.”
The store’s signature product, Wakker’s Creamy (Gouda) is made from raw milk from Wakker’s dairy about five miles south of Kewaunee. The rich milk from Holstein and Jersey cows provides the extra creamy taste that the Dutch cheese requires – with 4.6 percent butterfat, Wakker said.
The milk is brought by a special small milk truck from Wakker’s dairy to the production area, which has been transformed over the last year with a new 1,100-gallon, Double O stainless steel vat, in-ground brining tank, cheese presses and other cheesemaking equipment.
“The cheese cultures, rennet and coating are also all imported from Holland,” says Wakker.
After brining, the cheese is covered with a breathable polymer to protect it and reduce moisture loss. As it has been for centuries, the cheese is ripened on wooden boards at a temperature of 55 degrees with 85 percent relative humidity in a ripening room, Wakker said.
“The resulting 20-pound wheels and boards are turned frequently for proper moisture development, nurturing the best flavor development,” Wakker said.
Raw milk, semi-hard cheese needs to be aged a minimum of 60 days before it can be sold to the public, Wakker explained. Since Wakker and his family began making the cheese last fall, they are now able to offer cheese aged up to seven months, he said.
Cheese samples are available in the store for visitors to taste, and the change in the “sharpness” of the cheese as it ages is a good test for the palette, Wakker said.
Fresh cheese curds will also be available next month and eventually the family hopes to make spiced Gouda cheeses, as well as pepperjack and naturally aged cheddar, he said.
They also plan to offer cheese plates and a special sandwich from the Georgian area of Eastern Europe that is made with a burrito-like dough and can be stuffed with Gouda, meat, tomato and a variety of other vegetables, Wakker said.
“Besides cheese, other Dutch treats such as syrup waffles, known as stroopwafel in Dutch, and cinnamon cookies shaped like windmills will be shipped in soon,” said Wakker.
The front store area has been designed with special accents from Holland, including blue tiles painted with Dutch landscapes and a large Dutch windmill. Blue plates, glass tulips and painted clogs also decorate the shop. There is a maple cutting board and dark wood wine racks. There are also several tables for customers to sit and enjoy their food purchases.
Wakker’s wife, Olga, daughter Iuliia Aleksieieva and son-in-law Sergiy Aleksieiev have all been involved in the production process, Wakker said. Eventually, the family also hopes to produce a special farm cheese from a recipe of Olga’s family, who are from the Ukraine.
The expansion into the cheese business is the latest endeavor for Wakker, who immigrated from Holland in August 1981. In 1988, he started a small dairy farm in Green County. In 1995 he moved to Kewaunee, where he has gradually expanded his herd to 2,200 cows as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).
Wakker is also completing an online course needed to obtain a liquor license so that the store can sell wine and microbrewed beer by a planned June grand opening.
The family plans to gradually expand sales to retail stores in Northeastern Wisconsin later this year and eventually hopes to sell its cheeses across the state, Wakker said.
The opening of the store has been eagerly anticipated by Kewaunee residents and businesses alike as another anchor for the planned growth of tourism in Kewaunee County. The city is planning to complete a $4.2 million renovation of its harbor later this year, which will include a new boardwalk leading to its lighthouse as well as other park and harbor improvements.
Wakker Cheese is just south of the planned harbor revitalization and across Milwaukee Street from another business drawing residents and visitors – Amy’s Coffee House – which was voted a favorite coffee house in the county in a recent Kewaunee County Economic Development Corp. contest.
There is a good chance that Wakker Cheese LLC will become another favorite stop in the county soon, said Kewaunee Mayor Sandi Christman.
“It is a great complement to our existing businesses and another means to get people to stop and visit us,” she said. “I have had the opportunity to sample Wakker’s Gouda cheese, and I definitely give it a thumbs up.”
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: Wakker builds cheese business on old family recipe