Meet Wisconsin's Award-Winning Gouda Maker

Learn how Marieke Penterman brought the cheese of her childhood to the Midwest.

Gooey cheddar curds may be the first vision that comes to mind when you think of Wisconsin as the Cheese State. But did you know that Thorp, Wisconsin, is also home to a female cheesemaker that makes a Gouda so fantastic, it's won over 200 awards?

Marieke Gouda with Gouda wheels
Courtesy of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin

In December 2003, Marieke Penterman and her family emigrated to Wisconsin from a small town on the east side of Holland, Weerselo, where her grandparents farmed. When she moved to Wisconsin, the mother of five originally set out to be a children's furniture maker. But when she realized that wouldn't work out (and well, she couldn't really build), she started to dream about her favorite cheese from home, Gouda. After all, her husband had a dairy farm. Why couldn't they make Gouda in Wisconsin?

"When I had this crazy idea, I had a lot of people say, 'What is Gouda?' With the follow-up question, 'Are there enough Dutch people in the area who are going to buy it?'"

Fast-forward a few years, and her dream became a wild success at Marieke Gouda. Here's how she brought the cheese of her childhood to the region.

Tell us about the start of your company.

When I came to Wisconsin, I missed my Gouda. I asked family and friends to put it in their suitcase but due to [import] restrictions, my cheese supply would get less and less.

I always wanted to start my own business before I turned 30. We had Wisconsin milk right there on the farm, but one small problem: I had never made cheese in my life. Then I came across the Dairy Business Innovation Alliance, and they came out to see if we were legit and if I would qualify for their help.

What was that process like?

I had to get my Wisconsin Cheesemaking License first, which included five courses plus a 240-hour apprenticeship. I learned to make Colby and cheddar but I wanted to make Gouda, so I went back to Holland to learn to make farmstead Gouda with two different cheesemakers—one that had 10 cows and another that had 200 cows.

What did you learn?

Everyone has a different style. With Gouda you drain some of the whey; that's one of the things that makes a difference. Gouda is water-washed, and one of these cheesemakers was washing it once, the other twice; they had different temperatures, different filters, different amounts of water they added—that's how Gouda cheesemakers create their own recipe.

How did your first Gouda-making experience go?

In November 2006, I made my first batch of Gouda. It was very humbling. I had no idea how much work cheesemaking was. Four months after that, we won our first award for our Fenugreek Gouda. And in 2013, we won the award for best cheese at the U.S. Cheese Championship.

Marieke Gouda
Courtesy of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin

You make a true farmstead cheese. What does that mean?

We have our own cows right on the farm. The cows get milked in the morning, and the milk goes into a pipe underground to the cheese vat. We make four batches a day, five days a week. We are raw-milk cheese. Raw milk may scare some people, but we feel comfortable doing it because we have our own cows. We have a closed herd, meaning we don't get any other milk from outside the farm. We test all the raw-milk cheese for things like listeria and salmonella, and then we have to hold our cheeses for 60 days minimum as a requirement.

What can people expect if they visit you in Thorp?

We have close to 150,000 people visit us annually. In June, July and August, college students lead guided tours. You can see how we milk our cows and get a look behind the scenes.

Outside of summer tours, visitors can still see so much. We have windows everywhere and a secured area where you can see where we milk our cows. You can see how we make, brine and age our cheese, and we have a little cafe where you can enjoy our Gouda. People often think it's made out of goat's milk (95 percent is actually made from cow's milk) and don't know how it tastes, so we want them to experience that. Young Gouda is very melty, great on grilled cheese. When we age it, it's sharper and has a distinct taste.

We just finished an expansion that includes a larger aging room and new equipment that makes our cheesemaking process more efficient and minimizes waste. We also just opened our first retail store, The House of Gouda in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

marieke penterman portrait holding award
Courtesy of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin

How much cheese do you produce?

That first year, we started very small and made 30 wheels. Last year, we made over 30,000 wheels, close to 660,000 pounds of cheese. We want to double, triple our production in the next couple of years because I feel like everyone could use a little more Gouda in their life.

Tell us about your varieties.

We have a lot of varieties but our focus is on producing a high-quality, very consistent and amazing-tasting Gouda. We spice it up a little bit with flavoring and aging. We have 8 different aging categories, and in June, we will release our first five-year-old Gouda. Our stinging nettle version is kind of famous—it was on the television show CSI.

We recently created a spreadable Gouda in three flavors—Hatch Pepper, Honey Clover and plain—and they are phenomenal.

You recently embarked on an exciting adventure: becoming a master cheesemaker. What is that experience like?

After 10 years in the cheesemaking business, you can apply to see if you can qualify to become a master cheesemaker in Wisconsin. The process is like a PhD in cheese. The program involves multiple courses, sample submissions and a written exam.

Last year (a few years late!) I applied and they accepted me. I never thought I would be happy to go back to school for three years! If everything goes well I will be in the graduating class of 2025. I would be the state's third woman Master Cheesemaker.

What's next for you?

We are working on a bunch of other exciting things here at the farm, so stay tuned!

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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