Having done a full day trip to Monroe this past summer, I returned to catch up on some things I didn't have time to see the last time.
by MilwVon on October 30, 2012
My day trip back in June was focused on the balloon championships and photographing barn quilts. For this trip back to Monroe, I was looking forward to seeing a bit more including cheesemaking which is what really puts the town on the map.My travels to Monroe this time included a planned detour through Albany in order to hopefully see some of Green County's Amish community. Getting out of the house a bit later than I wanted and knowing I needed to be to the Roth Kase USA, Ltd. factory & store by 9:30am, I didn't spend much time exploring the rural roads of the eastern side of the county. I did return back through Amish area at the end of the day as I made my way back home to Milwaukee.Touring the Roth Kase factory, it was interesting to see how a modern cheese factory utilizes much of the same principles of cheesemaking from the old school European masters. Even if they are using more efficient technology and machines, there is still quite a bit of manual labor necessary to make the wonderful Wisconsin cheeses that are available throughout the United States.I found great perspective with my subsequent visit to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center located in Monroe. Their photos and exhibits provide visitors with a real view into how cheesemaking was advanced over the past 150 years.Last time I was in Monroe I did have the opportunity to visit the Minhas Craft Brewery. On this trip I included their sister business, the Minhas Micro Distillery to my agenda. The history of the brewery and production of alcoholic beverages is a large part of the local culture here. With its close proximity to Chicago, it is little wonder that Monroe played a prominent role during Prohibition back in the 1920's and early 1930's.As I was traveling out and about around Monroe's surrounding rural areas, I was happy to stumble upon a few barn quilts that I had not visited or photographed during my June visit. Two of them are new in 2012, having been added to the updated Green County Visitor Guide and Barn Quilt Map. Kudos to the UW Extension Office for the great job in marketing the barn quilts, encouraging tourism to the county.I do plan on returning back to do more photography later this winter, hopefully after we have a decent snow fall. I can only imagine the beauty of the countryside with pristine white snow for as far as they eye can see. I also want to visit the Swiss Colony Outlet as well as get back to the Minhas Craft Brewery plus perhaps another cheese factory or two.So much to see & do . . . so little time when you're doing it one-day-at-a-time!
During my summer visit to Monroe, I was intrigued by the old building across the street from the Minhas Craft Brewery. Turns out the building is more than 100 years old! Back in the summer I poked around from the outside, not really able to make out much from the window view available from the sidewalk. Today, however, the Minhas Micro Distillery is now open to the public for tours and tastings.While this distillery began their operation in November 2011, they only began offering tours in September after remodeling could be done to provide an appropriate location to receive and entertain visitors. Today, they have their tour and tasting area about 95% complete as they get ready to crank up GODSTILLA, the central piece in the room.GODSTILLA is a 1,000 gallon distilling tank that is not quite operational yet. They expect to have it up and running soon, once they are able to complete the finishing touches which include installing the insulation blanket necessary to protect visitors from the extreme heat that the tank will give off. It was cool (no pun intended) to be able to see it during my visit in all of its shining glory.As a craft distillery, the production process and facility itself is very simple. The entire operation is less than 15 employees generally working two shifts daily Monday through Friday. On my Friday visit, however, they were not in production. Visitors who come for the tour are treated to a full introduction into the Canadian company and the Minhas brewing family, as well as the history of production at this location dating back to 1845 and the Monroe Brewing Company and later (1906) the Blumer Brewing Company.With Monroe's close proximity to the Illinois State Line and further to the SE, Chicago . . . there is quite the folklore tied to this area and the connection to the infamous gangsters known to run alcohol illegally throughout the 1920's. During prohibition (1920 to 1933), Blumer Brewing Company, switched over from making beer to ice cream. Later a non-alcoholic beverage known as "near beer" was introduced by many breweries. The brand Blumer's produced was Golden Glow Near Beer which had all of the alcohol burning off (by law) or distilled and bottled (illegally) for the gangsters running alcohol.Tours start with this historical overview right up to today's operation that produces whisky, rum, and vodka for export to Canada. Each of these delightful products are available for purchase here at the distillery - the only Wisconsin location until licensing and distributorship are established. They also produce tequila, gin and an Irish Cream product for export, but they are currently only available for purchase in Canada. As a fan of "that other brand" of Irish Creme, I look forward to seeing their product available here in the future.The products of Minhas Micro Distillery are truly hand crafted with a very high attention to detail and quality throughout the production process. Tankers of high (90%) alcohol content product is brought here and stored in large tanks. The production manager must then reduce the overall alcohol content with exact precision. Each tank is labeled with the product and specifications. As you will see in my attached photo, tank B2 has Gold Coast XO Rum (lot 377) with alcohol content specification of 44.9%. Mike the Production Manager will continue to tweak and refine until he gets the product to 44.9%.Tour visitors are guided through the various stages of production that take place here including the bottle washing, filling, capping, labeling and packaging/shipping. At each station our host and tour guide Lance explained the process. The bottle filling is automated and accomplished 12 bottles at a time. He also demonstrated the labeling process which is done one bottle at a time!Since most of the product being produced here is sent on to Canada, a large portion of their packaging is in plastic bottles. It was interesting to learn about the differences in bottling plastic vs. glass, particularly in the capping process as glass requires 'hand capping" a single bottle at a time. The plastic bottles are capped in a rapid fashion before heading to the "six cap" tightening machine that assures a snug and secure seal.After the short walking tour of the production area, visitors are welcomed back out into the tasting room for samples of Gold Coast XO Rum, Chinook Whisky and Blackstone Vodka being produced here. They offer a number of mixers to sample your choices, or your can take them straight. I really enjoyed my sampling of Blackstone Vodka mixed with lemonade and later another sampling with their Blumer's Orange Soda. The tour and sampling costs $10 per person and includes a free gift pack with a 750 Ml bottle of the Blackstone Vodka plus a branded specialty glass. You may not find a better "tour value" in Monroe or Wisconsin for that matter. For those looking to enhance the value of this experience, keep your eyes open for promotional deals offered by GroupOn or Living Social.For more information including tour schedules, check out their website at: http://minhasdistillery.com/sample-page/tours . If you want to make a day of it, add the Minhas Craft Brewery Tour and Haydock "World of Beer Memorabilia" Museum located right across the street! More info on the tour and museum may be found at: http://minhasbrewery.com/brewery-tour .
I was happy that I was able to make it to Monroe this month before the National Historic Cheesemaking Center closes for the winter. With tourism dropping off November through March, the Monroe Welcome Depot Center and this historical museum go on hiatus until spring thaw. When in season, they are open Monday through Saturday 9:00am - 4:00pm and Sunday 11:00am - 4:00pm.The historic train depot was built in 1888 and moved to this new location in 1993 thanks to the commitment and financial support from members of the community. While a majority of the building houses the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, It is so home of the Green County Visitor Center and the Milk House Gift Shop.Visitors enter the museum for a volunteer led tour tracing the history of cheesemaking in Wisconsin from the early beginnings of the 1850's. At the turn of the 20th century there were approximately 200 cheese factory farms scattered across the state and by 1920 there were nearly 2,800! With the explosion of European immigration to Wisconsin bringing old world cheese recipes coupled with the need to transport milk a short distance to get it to the cheesemakers, cheese factories were found at most every intersection of country roads lacing the countryside.. Today, however, with transport being faster over greater distances, a large number of the old cheese factories have simply disappeared. It is documented that there are just 129 cheese factories in production throughout Wisconsin. Our total production is roughly 2.6 billion pounds of cheese - 25% of all cheese made in America.The evolution of cheesemaking thanks to innovation and automation is traced through a number of educational exhibits, largely made possible by donations from local families with ancestors who came to Wisconsin to farm her fertile lands perfect for raising dairy cows. One of the early inventions (c-1890) was the Babcock milkfat testing device, which is still used today to determine which cows produce the richest milk most desirable for cheesemaking.Visitors can walk through how cheese was manually made, from the heating of the milk over wood fires, stirring as the curds form to the point of having to be skimmed out of huge copper kettles. Photos depict the use of cheesecloth as the cheesemaker physically leaned over and across the hot kettle. The cheesecloth filled with curds would be emptied into the wooden wheels which were pressed to remove excess liquids and forming the cheese. After aging, the large two hundred pound wheels would be prepared for delivery to the purchaser of the cheese . . . or cut into smaller pieces more suitable for retail sales.I loved how the story was told through a blend of antiques and old photos. I also thoroughly enjoyed having Sue as my volunteer guide, walking me through the entire process, to include some local stories of what life on a dairy farm was like back in the old days.For anyone interested in seeing cheese made as they did it more than 100 years ago, you owe it to yourself to come to Monroe the second Saturday of June each year when they reenact the cheesemaker's manual efforts to make a 90 pound wheel of Swiss cheese. It all takes place at the Imobersteg Farmstead Cheese Factory which is located on the property adjacent to the Monroe Welcome Depot.A little about the Imobersteg Farmstead Cheese Factory. The small wooden 20' x 20' building was donated to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center back in 2010 when the 92 year old Arnold Imobersteg decided to "share the wealth" of his family's heritage from their cheesemaking legacy. The cheese factory remained essentially as it was when in production in the early 1900's with many original items in tact and unused since 1917. The cheesemaking equipment found in the building included the copper kettle, press table, intake wheel and the wheel press. This equipment is used today by master cheesemakers as part of the annual demonstration each June.The National Historic Cheesemaking Center has a $5 per person admission fee which goes to support their mission of preservation.
Roth Käse USA, Ltd. was founded here in Monroe, Wisconsin in 1991. Their tradition of Swiss cheese making, however can be traced back to 1863 in Switzerland. With Green County known as "Little Switzerland" with its dairies and rich farmland, it was a natural location to bring their cheese production to America. While their production facility has been modernized, they remain true to the traditional European cheese making process with still involves a lot of manual effort from employees.When you arrive at their facility, you will enter through the Alp & Dell Cheese Store which is a nice storefront that offers for sale their cheeses as well as all of the accompaniments you'd want, including meats, wines and condiments. With many refrigerated cases of cheeses, it is hard to decide what to buy. For those like me who are not cheese connoisseurs, they do have a nice cheese sampling area to help you make your choice.Making cheese requires A LOT of fresh, rich milk. The cows in Green County are known to produce some of the best milk, high in the fat content necessary to make great cheese. With a daily production of around 35,000 pounds, It takes 350,000 pounds of milk every day to keep up with the cheese production here at Roth Case. They receive deliveries from farms from a 60 miles radius 24/7 and within 48 hours, the milk received here has been turned into cheese. Considering that it takes 10 pounds of milk to make just a single pound of cheese, you can see why they need as much milk as they do.The production area is in two large buildings, that are connected by a walkway and easily accessible to visitors. Inside each building are viewing areas, with large windows overlooking the manufacturing floor. The first building is there the milk is heated and the curds & whey are separated.. With the cheese curd placed into forming trays, visitors can watch as the crew begins creating what is starting to actually look like cheese.On the day of my visit, they were making Lazy Swiss cheese. They were filling the form trays, and then flipping them over in order to compress the curds into the long rectangular shaped cheese. Later in the process, we could observe them preparing the cheese for the brine tanks, see cheese stacked on racks as the wheels aged and the later, the packaging process.I was impressed by how much of the production was performed by hand. Throughout the viewing areas, I saw in total around 10 employees. For those wanting a bit more information that what can be gleaned from the observation windows plus a couple of video monitors along the way, be sure to plan your visit to arrive before 9:30am when a guided tour is available along the viewing hall. If that is not possible, try to arrive before 1:00pm as they indicate that the height of cheese production happens earlier in the day.For a nice explanation of the cheesemaking process, they provide this detail (with photos) on their website: http://www.rothcheese.com/explore/cheesemaking/ .I really enjoyed watching the production of cheese, as well as the commentary provided by Swiss native Tony Zgraggen, who manages the retail operation. I learned a lot of how cheese is made today, which was a good primer for my subsequent visit to the National Historic Cheesemaking Center later in the day.
I'm glad that I picked up a copy of the Green County Visitor Guide during my last trip to Monroe as I had no idea that they had an Amish community near Monroe. While not as large or visible as others I've visited, I did enjoy my drive between Albany and Brodhead where their farms and businesses are located about 20 minutes from Monroe.As with other areas with Amish populations, your first indication you are approaching their community is the large yellow road sign on State Hwy 104. As you drive the two or three mile section of this highway, you will pass just a couple of Amish farms that are visible from the road. Unlike other Amish farms that I've seen, the only way you may be able to identify them as "Amish" is by the familiar black buggy in the front yard or gravel driveway.It appeared to me that the farms in this area were largely worked by non-Amish farmers as evidenced by the farm equipment seen or how the corn had been harvested (clearly not by hand). That said, perhaps the order of Amish in this area are a newer order and therefore using newer technology and equipment.In the Green County Visitor Guide, they note four Amish businesses that are open to the public: Detweiler Kauffman Furniture, Detweiler's Bulk Foods, Kuntry Krafts and the Country Lane Bakery & Brodhead Harness Shop.During my drive through the community, I did find my way to the bakery. With family in from out of town, buying some homemade pies and dinner rolls seemed to be a good idea. Once inside the bakery building, I was surprises at all of the baked goods available for purchased. I ended up buying a large cherry pie and two smaller pies . . . pumpkin and apple. They also had blueberry and pecan pies in both large & small sizes.Their prices were very good. Pies were $8 (large) and $4 (small). The package of 12 dinner rolls was $2.50. Once home, everyone enjoyed all of the bakery delights that I brought home!If you are planning a trip to Monroe and considering a side trip to the Country Lane Bakery, be aware that they are only open on Fridays and Saturdays (8:00am to 6:00pm). Interestingly, the visitors' guide indicates that you can "call Mary" at the bakery if you are interested in ordering authentic homemade Amish dinners as a catering option for your special event. So it would appear that if they are using telephones, this Amish community may be of newer order, as noted above.As I left the bakery, I passed their large farmhouse where the laundry was hanging to dry. On the clothesline were towels, bedding and other white items. Adjacent to that was a chain clothesline strung between two trees, with a number of ladies' dresses. The assortment of blues, purples, maroons and pinks was beautiful even if their design was simple.I did happen upon the Amish school at the corner of Highway 104 and Atkinson Road. Unlike other Amish schools that I've seen, this one had a sign above the entrance with the school's name . . . Clear View School. Like others I've seen, however, there was a large playground. The bicycle rack was filled with bikes that the children had rode to school that morning.The only horse & buggy I encountered during my two trips coming and going through the area was around mid-afternoon. An older gentleman was driving the open cart buggy, with a young woman holding a very small baby that was bundled up in a yellow blanket. Not sure where they were going or where they had come from for that matter. I was just happy to see them going about their day.As for as Amish communities go, this one is really tucked away and not very visible from the roads. I think many of their houses are well off the road, therefore making them practically invisible to those passing by. If in the area, it is worth the effort to drive through, but I would not suggest making it a "destination" or special trip if you're not already going to be in Green County. I know I'm glad that I did make the effort to detour from my usual Milwaukee to Monroe routing to see what I might see.
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