Picture a dairy farm in rural Wisconsin-or maybe Vermont-all bucolic rolling hills and flocks shepherded by a sixtysomething, white-haired, clumsily mustachioed Master Cheese Maker armed with cheddar wheels and a creamy disposition.
This isn’t that.
Meet Dane Huebner, a 35-year-old doe-eyed, Milwaukee-born giant of a guy who wears his long black hair pulled back in a samurai top knot.
In 2007, Dane left Wisconsin to make cheese for Flat Creek Lodge in the sweltering heat and decidedly not-cheese-loving locale of-wait for it-Swainsboro, Ga., about an hour and a half outside of Savannah.
When I first heard that Dane had left Wisconsin, the state that accounts for almost half of the specialty cheese produced in the nation, to move to a state with only two artisan cheese producers, I worried that it was a crackpot move.
Dane remains achingly loyal to the traditions of Wisconsin cheese making, though he laces his prize-winning cheeses, many based on European classics like Leiden or American originals like Colby, with ginger, scallions, cumin, kaffir lime leaves and Guajillo chiles. “In the right amounts, they just work,” Dane assures me.
I’ve tasted them. The guy’s right.
Those flavors are no mistake since Dane’s cheese-making epiphany came on a trip to Asia in 2002. “I was helping my brother move from Vietnam to Thailand and I tried a lot of weird fermented fish products over there,” he says. “That’s when I realized that I should go back to Wisconsin and learn how to rot milk.”
Dane against the goliaths
I first met Dane a few years back at his previous gig at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis. Having studied microbiology at the University of Wisconsin, he spoke piously about the science of cheese while walking me through the dairy’s Living Machine, a curious waste-water system that relies on water-loving plants and microbes to manage the wash water from making 15,000 pounds of cheese a day.
It’s a cutting edge way to run the place and Dane was head over heels for the whole thing. No surprise since he rarely does things the rote way.
Dane admits he first dabbled with cheese making illegally while working his way through school at Shully’s Catering in Thiensville, Wis. “Scott Shully let me spend my whole work day playing around making cheese,” Dane chuckles, “instead of doing work for him.”
“So technically, I’ve only been making cheese for five years now since my first year was illegal,” he says.
Now a licensed cheese maker and cheese grader, Dane snatched up seven coveted awards at this year’s thrilling—if you love that sort of thing, and I do—American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Competition last month in Austin, Texas.
Some of Dane’s winners at ACS—you know, the same ones that were up against mass-produced cheese legends like Carr Valley and Cabot—he’s only been making for six months.
To boot, one of his third- place winners—a clever, clothbound blue called Half Ewe Blue Farmhouse—only exists because Dane didn’t have enough sheep’s milk last spring to make a full batch and consequently supplemented with cow’s milk from his 50-strong Jersey herd.
“When I got second and third place in flavored sheep’s milk cheese,” he says, reminiscing about the ACS awards ceremony, “that’s when I blacked out. An emotional blackout, I guess. I don’t remember the rest.”
Dane is deliciously humble about it all.
Curry with cheese
“The terroir in Georgia is totally different than Wisconsin. We can’t grow alfalfa,” Dane tells me, detailing his whiplash move down south. “But we grow peanuts and oranges and cotton. So the animals and the forage they’re eating really changes the milk I’m starting with.”
Dane also took home seven awards at July’s North American Regional Jersey Cheese Awards and Best in Show at the Flavor of Georgia awards in March with his Aztec Cheddar. “The way that cheddar looks—it’s a beauty queen,” Dane says of Flat Creek Lodge’s flagship cheese.
Lucky for us down south, American cheese making is going through a lovely growth spurt in the most unlikely places. Dane’s fickle choices are monster proof that there’s room for everybody at the top.
Take Fighting Dragons, a cheese flavored with red and green curry. “It’s pretty cool and really hot,” Dane describes it. What’s more, it’s not gimmicky or contrived. His flavors are remarkably clean, well-crafted and painstakingly chosen to suit the classic notes of each cheese.
I ask Dane if he misses Wisconsin and the camaraderie of its cheese makers and he tells me he’ll eventually go back when he has at least 10 years of experience under his belt. Then he can start the intense three-year program required to become a Master Cheese Maker. Maybe someday his hair will go white and he’ll even start looking the part.
“Or I could end up in Cambodia,” Dane laughs. “You never know.”
Want more? Make Dane’s recipe for Aztec Cheddar Cookies with his Guajillo chile and cocoa-flavored cheddar. (www.flatcreeklodge.com)
Aztec Cheddar Cookies
4 large dried Guajillo chiles, stemmed and seeded
5 ounces (1¼ sticks) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups shredded Flat Creek Lodge Aztec Cheddar, divided
1 cup light brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
1½ cups semisweet chocolate chips (at least 60% cocoa)
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside.
2. Put chiles into a medium bowl and cover with warm water; set aside until softened. Drain well and cut into small 1/8″- to 1/4″-wide strips.
3. In a large bowl, cream together butter, 1½ cups of the cheddar and sugars with an electric mixer. Add egg and beat until combined, then add salt and baking soda and beat again. Add flour and beat until just combined, then stir in reserved chiles, remaining ½ cup cheddar and chocolate chips.
Drop cookie dough by the spoonful onto prepared baking sheet, spacing cookies about 2″ apart. Bake until just cooked through and golden, 15 to 17 minutes.