Some of the finest Italian cheeses on this side of the Atlantic are made right here in the Chippewa Valley, just downriver from Eau Claire at Eau Galle Cheese Factory outside Durand.
The family-owned business, which first opened in 1945, specializes in Italian-style cheeses, specifically Asiago and Parmesan, crafted from fresh milk sourced from farmers within a 25-mile radius of the plant.
Earlier this year at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Eau Galle Cheese Factory won Best of Class awards for both fresh Asiago and aged Asiago. Their entries in these categories scored 99.45 and 99.25 points, respectively, out of a possible 100. In other words, the Asiago made by Eau Galle is nearly perfect (at least according to world-class judges).
Still, you may not have heard of it, in part because most of the 9 million pounds of cheese produced annually at the factory are sold to the food service industry or to consumers bearing other brands’ labels. (If you’ve purchased bagged Sargento Parmesan, for example, you’ve likely eaten Eau Galle cheese.)
But Eau Galle Cheese Factory’s low profile might be changing. The gold medals from the national competition don’t hurt, and neither does a newly remodeled store (N6765 State Highway 25, Durand), or the factory’s ongoing push to get its products into more specialty groceries and deli cases throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. (Currently, cheeses bearing the Eau Claire label can be purchased only at a few shops, including Just Local Food in Eau Claire and the Menomonie Market Food Co-op.)
Cheesemaker Steve Bechel compared Eau Galle’s old fashioned, labor-intensive approach to that of the burgeoning craft beer market: making specialty products in small batches with quality ingredients and a flair for experimentation.
“Making cheese in itself – it sounds crazy – but every vat is different,” Bechel said. “There’s so much science that goes into it, but there’s an art aspect. … Every day is a challenge.”
Bechel and his wife, Dawn, are part of the third generation of their family to operate the factory. Dawn’s grandfather, Leo Buhlman, a Swiss immigrant cheesemaker, opened the factory in in the tiny Dunn County community of Eau Galle in 1945. Twenty years later, his son, John Buhlman, took over as manager, and in 1986 the factory moved to a new facility about 2 miles from Durand.
Early on, the factory focused on making traditional wheels of Swiss cheese, but in the 1960s shifted to producing Italian varieties. Parmesan – produced in traditional 20-pound blocks – is now the factory’s primary cheese, followed by Asiago, Eau Galle Italian (a special variety only available in the factory store), as well as fresh, squeaky cheese curds.
A few years ago, Bechel purchased a test vat, which allows him to experiment with different cheese cultures and processes. In the near future, expect to see new styles of hard Italian, Alpine, and Cheddar cheeses for sale at the Eau Galle Cheese Factory store.
The store expansion has also allowed the sale of a wider range of high-quality foods, notably top-of-the-line cheeses from around the state, nation, and world. “Being in the industry, you know who makes the best type of cheese, and we’re sourcing it from those people instead of buying it off the truck,” Bechel said.
And, of course, these primo cheeses include the varieties painstakingly produced at Eau Galle Cheese Factory. In addition to the medals won this year, Eau Galle won Best of Class for its aged Asiago at the U.S. Championships in 2015, and took home two bronze medals (for Parmesan and Asiago) from the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest in 2016.
With recent achievements like that, Eau Galle won’t be a Chippewa Valley secret much longer.