BERLIN, Ohio — There’s a three- to four-county region in Ohio that you might say is a bit cheesy.
No, not for anything smelly or strange, but for something that actually is very genuine to this region and its many family-owned dairy farms and businesses.
Whether its Swiss cheese, Colby cheese, brick cheese, mozzarella, muenster, or moon cheese, you can find it here, in one of at least a half-dozen modern cheese manufacturing companies.
Plotting it out
If you draw a line from Wayne County through Holmes, Tuscarawas and Stark counties, you might well have mapped the cheese capital of Ohio. Sure, there are other big producers, but the history and heritage of producers here is difficult to duplicate.
Many of the current cheese factories are still owned by the families that brought them to Ohio, tracing their roots back to the 1800s and back to Switzerland, where their ancestors got their start.
Holmes Cheese Co. has been making Swiss cheese in since 1941, when Bob Ramseyer Sr., the grandfather of current CEO Bob Ramseyer, began production.
Today, their company is still run by the family and produces about 30 ton of Swiss cheese a day, from roughly 650,000 pounds of locally produced milk. The leftover waste product, called whey, is shipped to Canada as a powder, for feeding young calves — about 70,000 pounds of dry whey a day.
That’s a history of its own, but in the nearby Bunker Hill-Berlin area, Bunker Hill Cheese Co. is celebrating its 75th anniversary as a family business, dating back to the 1920s, when John (Hans) Dauwalder, trained as a master cheesemaker in Switzerland, came to the United States to share his artisan talents with a growing market.
His family has grown over the years, along with the business, which today bills itself as “one of the premier cheese retailers East of the Mississippi River.”
The company has two major locations, including Heini’s Cheese Chalet at Bunker Hill, where about 50 varieties of cheese are made and available for tasting. A second store recently opened in Sugarcreek called Heini’s Gourmet Market — a large retail and tourist destination.
Both companies rely on their local dairy farmers for milk. Holmes Cheese Co. uses almost all local milk, and Bunker Hill Cheese focuses on using all Amish farm milk, transported in the same type of cans their forefathers used.
“It’s all still a hands-on process” at Bunker Hill, said Lisa (Dauwalder) Troyer, vice president of sales.
The original cheese plant was first established in the late 1800s. Copper kettles have been replaced with stainless steel vats, but production is still similar to the way the owners’ grandparents did things.
“We’re one of the few in the state that has really embraced wanting to keep those smaller, family Amish farms going,” Troyer said.
Just a few miles southeast of Bunker Hill is Guggisberg Cheese, founded by Swiss native Alfred Guggisberg, around 1950. Guggisberg is famous for introducing the Baby Swiss variety, which has a creamier taste and smaller holes than traditional Swiss cheese.
The company owns a neighboring restaurant called Chalet in the Valley, and in 1995 purchased a production facility in Sugarcreek.
In 2009, Guggisberg continued its tradition of taking Ohio Grand Champion Cheese Maker honors. The same year, Guggisberg also acquired Indiana-based Deutsch Kase Haus — a premier manufacturer of Colby, marble, yogurt and other cheeses.
Strong demand. Ramseyer said demand in the cheese industry is good, and the amount of investment by his own company and others is proof.
Holmes Cheese Co. completed a major office renovation this year, and over the past five years has added about 24,000 square feet of production space.
And they’re not done, as they continue to work with local and state environmental groups to secure a better partnership with environmental standards, and nutrient discharge.
The company, which also owns Alpine Cheese Co. of Winesburg, was hailed throughout the state the past two years for becoming a leader in a nutrient trading program, which allowed it to meet state standards for nutrient discharge into water supplies, and improve its infrastructure.
The big project now is constructing a new wastewater treatment plant, with a state-of-the-art digester, with the goal of producing biogas and leaving behind a cleaner discharge. Ramseyer estimates the unit could replace up to 25 percent of the company’s natural gas usage — all from reusing a waste product.
A positive trend
Growth is a big factor in any business, and no less for the cheese industry. In fact, it’s hard to find a major producer in this area that isn’t growing.
0002000003BF0000128C3B9,To the north, in Stark County, Brewster Dairy bills itself as the largest manufacturer of all natural Swiss cheese in the United States. The company reports producing a whopping 85 million pounds a year.
The Leeman family has led Brewster Dairy through 45 years of growth and expansion projects in Brewster, Ohio, and an additional production facility in Stockton, Ill.
Ramseyer said some cheesemakers have moved to Idaho, and other places, but he likes Holmes County because of the many local dairies, and it’s where the company has always been.
The overall impact of cheese to the region is difficult to measure, but in a word, could be called “huge.”
“Obviously, the cheese houses are important customers for local dairy farmers,” said Shasta Mast, director of the Holmes County Chamber of Commerce & Tourism Bureau. “In addition, after manufacturing their product, our cheese houses distribute wholesale throughout North America.”
This hub of producers is still growing, she said, with investments being made in production and retail facilities.
“As interest in locally produced foods continues to grow, our cheese companies are uniquely positioned for sustained growth,” she said.
While there is some competition among local cheese producers, there also are a lot of different markets, some that sell only retail or only wholesale, and to different parts of the state or nation.
Walnut Creek Cheese in eastern Holmes County is another popular retail destination, a relatively young company that already has acquired major brands and undergone major expansion.
Walnut Creek Cheese completed a 60,000 square foot wholesale distribution center in 2007, and currently operates as a local and tourist-based grocery, with its own restaurant, scores of cheese for purchase, and about any kind of Amish-based food you can imagine.
Aside from the good-tasting products, what may be most significant about these companies is their family heritage, their local connection and their apparent success.
“These families brought their European heritage along with their cheese-making skills when they settled in our region,” Mast said. “They are an authentic slice of Old World Europe, which fits perfectly with the culture of our Amish and Mennonite neighbors who also have kept many of their Swiss and German traditions.” intact.”