For today’s Sunday Dinner, I invited Kyle Koll. Kyle works at a Wisconsin-based cheese company, Sargento Foods Inc. While this post is related to the company, it is not an affiliated or sponsored post and I received no compensation, however, my father is employed at Sargento*. Since June is Dairy Month, I wanted to introduce you to someone who works in the industry and I’m excited that Kyle is willing to share his years of experience with us today.
Sunday Dinner is a traditional (noon) meal served after church on Sundays. Whole families, including extended family, would gather over a large meal to celebrate a day of rest. Multiple cultures enjoy this Sunday Dinner tradition. In my experience, I know it from both my Midwestern farm family as well as my Italian-American family. Now, I’d like to bring Sunday Dinner virtually to you. So, pull up a chair as we invite various guests to join us each week!
Without further ado … Kyle, please introduce yourself.
I’m Kyle Koll and my family owned and operated an ice cream company out of Sheboygan, WI for 84 years.
I understand you work at a cheese company … can you give us a little of your background?
I began as an incoming inspector/cheese grader at Sargento in the Kiel manufacturing facility 12 years ago. That’s where I trained with two other Sargento Cheese Graders who were part of the Sargento Family for 45 and 47 years before they retired a few years back. In this role, my passion for cheese began. After my first 5 years, I then transitioned to our corporate office where I oversee our Cheese Grader Training Program, manage our Aging Cheese Program and working with many internal and external stakeholders over the past 7 years.
Can you tell us the process cheese goes through to get from the farm to your company?
To get cheese to the end consumer, there are many important jobs and steps that are required along the way. It first starts with the farmers raising and caring for the cows. Once milk is acquired, it then involves milk haulers to transport the milk safely from the farm to the cheese manufacturer. That’s where the cheese maker will convert the milk to cheese. From the cheese manufacturer, some cheeses will be stored and aged in cold warehouses until the right flavor, texture and age is met. From there, cheese is brought into a converter such as Sargento.
Sargento was founded in 1953 and has been family-owned for three generations. I’m proud to work for Sargento – the company that successfully introduced America to pre-packaged sliced and shredded natural cheese. Our founder, Leonard A. Gentine was a visionary and saw the consumer need to make cheese more convenient.
Once product gets to your company, what happens to it?
Upon receipt, cheese is inspected, tested, and verified against specifications. We make sure the cheese meets our quality and food safety standards. Once inside our facility, we take the large sized blocks and convert the cheese into consumer-sized applications. We pre-package the cheese to make the cheese easier to eat for families across America to enjoy!
All cheese is made of milk; what makes different types and colors of cheese?
Cheese can be made with the milk from any hooved mammal. Popular milks used consist of cow, sheep, goat, water buffalo and sometimes donkey to name a few. What makes the different types of cheese can come down to quite a few variables. The technology and/or steps used to manufacture the cheese may dictate the type/variety of cheese. The cheese cultures (good bacteria) and enzymes used may dictate the type of cheese. The overall composition (moisture and fat) and age may dictate the type of cheese. Sometimes it even comes down to regionality that may dictate the variety/type of cheese being made (popular overseas). That’s a very high-level answer.
Cheese is typically white or yellow. Milk is traditionally white and when made into cheese will also be white. However, depending on the diet and feed of the cow, the milk can actually be an off yellow color which is beta carotene from what the cow eats. This will then in turn result in off yellow cheese. A typical colorant of cheese is annatto. It is a plant-based color which is added to the milk to make the cheese the traditional orange color seen in the stores today. It’s added to milk to bring a consistent color all year round, and it can appear more vibrant than white. Annatto is odorless and tasteless.
Can you explain the cheese aging process? How long does, say, sharp cheddar, need to age?
To develop the characteristic flavor in certain cheeses, you must allow time for the cheese to “age.” By allowing certain cheeses to age, it allows time for the bacteria (good bacteria) and enzymes to change the texture and the flavor of the cheese. A few cheeses that are aged for flavor include parmesan, asiago, swiss and cheddars. Cheese can be stored at different temperature-controlled environments as well to assist in developing/ripening the cheese flavor and texture based on the cheese type.
Sargento uses targeted ages based on decades of experience with the products. Ultimately, we “let the cheese do the talking” so when we grade or evaluate the cheese and feel it has now become aged enough to be a sharp or extra sharp cheddar, that’s when we package it.
What is the most popular cheese in America?
Mozzarella is the most popular cheese in America.
What are some of the challenges in the cheese industry?
Right now, in this inflationary environment caused by the pandemic, our industry is no different than others in that labor is tight and supply chains are constrained.
Sargento is a great place to work so, I hope more people find out about us and consider a career here!
What do you wish consumers knew about cheese making?
Cheese makers have a lot of passion for what they do. It’s both an art and a science to make cheese and they are true masters of their craft. It also takes a lot of time to perfect. Cheese is a living thing and constantly changes so, everything has to be just right to have the optimal yield.
How important is it for you to stay abreast of new knowledge and information about the industry? Why?
Keeping up with the latest information in the dairy industry is very important. New technologies are always coming out as well as new thinking about how to make our industry even stronger.
At Sargento, we are not only about protecting our consumers, our employees and our brand, but also anyone else’s in the dairy industry. We are one large family that is connected, and we want to ensure the integrity of our industry, always. Wisconsin’s economy was built by dairy and we’re proud of our heritage and hopeful for our future.
What is your favorite part of being in the cheese industry?
In this industry, I never stop learning something new. My mentor was in the industry for over 47 years, and he continued to learn throughout his career. The innovation we have for Sargento means we’re always coming out with new products and packaging to add value to the lives of our consumers. It’s never boring!
The afternoon is slipping away, so we have to draw to an end. Thank you, Kyle, for joining us today and sharing your experience with cheese-making!
If you’d like to learn more about the dairy industry during National Dairy Month, check out Wisconsin Dairy (after all, it is America’s Dairyland). To learn about the history of National Dairy Month, visit the International Dairy Foods Association. And, if you’d like to read about dairy farms, try my historical romantic suspense A Strike to the Heart, which takes place during the Wisconsin Milk Strikes of 1933, just four years before “Milk Month” began.
Lastly, a special thanks to Sargento. As stated above, while this post is related to the company, it is not an affiliated or sponsored post and I received no compensation, however my father is an employee of Sargento. (*I am disclosing this per FTC regulations). To learn more about Sargento, who they are and what they believe, please visit their corporate website, www.SargentoFoods.com. Also, you can see what their employees are up to on Instagram @Sargentofamily.
Sunday Dinner will be off next week to observe the Fourth of July Weekend. In two weeks, we’ll be back to chat with a fellow historical romance author. I hope you have a happy and safe holiday! See you in a couple weeks!