Madeline Kuhn: “There’s No Typical Day in R&D” at Emmi Roth
Madeline Kuhn grew up on a small farm in rural Wisconsin; she has always been a part of the dairy industry. She accepted a job on Emmi Roth’s Research and Development team in 2017 and quickly earned her cheesemaking license.
For any cheese lover who doesn’t already know - Emmi Roth makes some of the most awarded cheeses in the U.S. in addition to importing Switzerland’s most beloved cheeses. They are proud to be part of Switzerland’s largest milk processor, Emmi Group, which employs 5,400 people in 13 countries worldwide. Here in the U.S., Emmi Roth has operations at five locations across Wisconsin and growing.
Madeline works in Monroe, Wisconsin and her primary responsibilities include creating and collaborating on new products and processes and ensuring Emmi Roth’s award-winning cheeses are always the best they can be. She’s played an instrumental role in major Emmi Roth product launches. A recent accomplishment is the launch of the new Roth Aged Gouda, a cheese she worked on perfecting for three years.
As she shares below - there is no typical day in R&D at Emmi Roth. Plus, learn more about her career journey, discover her favorite cheesy recipe, and get her insight on why there aren’t more women cheesemakers.
What's a day-in-the-life like at your job?
There is no typical day in R&D, which is great! I might be traveling around Wisconsin to support our production teams in making our award winning cheeses the best they can be, collaborating across teams to define and guide the next innovation, or at the trial cheese vat creating a brand new favorite. Plenty of excitement, and usually plenty of cheese to taste.
How did you become interested in cheese making and food science?
I grew up on a pasture-based dairy farm in western Wisconsin. That became my lens for agriculture and food production. I was particularly intrigued by the seasonal heartbeat of the land and how my family utilized all facets of the landscape to fill the table year round. Food preservation was essential to make use of the bounty from foraging, gardening, and maintaining livestock. This, combined with curiosity for nature and all things science, led me to pursue a degree in Food Science at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Exposure to the science of dairy foods at the UW and an internship at a cheese and dairy company set me on the right path for my early career at Emmi Roth where I quickly dived right into the craft of cheesemaking and the industry as an R&D professional.
Tell us about how you approach creating and testing new recipes?
New product development is driven from a few different directions at Emmi Roth. Regardless of end goal, the development process usually involves some amount of empirical trial and error. My approach is to identify the demands or characteristics of a desired product – which usually requires a lot of market research – and use that to guide recipe and process formulation. From there, a few batches of product are made and evaluated against the product requirements. I also reserve some time and resources to pursue creative interest projects that can result in new cheeses organically. The most important thing is to learn from every iteration, no matter the outcome.
What perspective do you bring to Research and Development for Emmi Roth as a cheesemaker?
There are some industries where Research and Development is mainly ‘dry lab’ based, and somewhat removed from true operations. This practice can work well, but not so much in cheese. Throughout the entire cheese making process, there are innumerable opportunities to influence the outcome. A grasp on this reality is essential for anticipating the unique demands of a new product or process. I try to bridge this gap, while championing creativity and innovation.
What are the advantages of being part of Switzerland-based Emmi Group, but making Roth branded cheeses in Wisconsin? What does it mean to you to be part of these cheese two traditions?
Emmi Group owns many US-based cheese companies, and we are proud to be one of them. Emmi Group was built on traditional Swiss cheese making and truly values heritage, farming and local products like we do here in Wisconsin. The support of Emmi Group allows us to continue to provide an outlet for high quality milk from over 150 family farms in our region, as well as hundreds of valuable jobs in our communities. Our farmers and production teams take pride in the hand they have in crafting numerous award winning cheeses. In addition to the brand value, this relationship is beneficial for knowledge transfer from experts across the globe and access to innovation and technology to pursue sustainability initiatives.
The Roth brand has existed since the early 1900s - what's changed (and what's stayed the same) over time?
Before Roth was purchased by Emmi Group, the original cheese company was established in Monroe, WI as the product of efforts from a group of entrepreneurial Swiss immigrants. They set up shop in surroundings that reminded them of home and began crafting an alpine-inspired cheese called Roth Grand Cru. Consumer appetite for specialty cheeses slowly grew, and Roth cheeses gained traction. Cheese experts and talent were brought on to support production of award winning Wisconsin cheeses, and in 2009, Emmi acquired the growing business and changed our name to Emmi Roth. Emmi Roth now has many brands of cheese including creating Roth Cheese here in Wisconsin, importing Emmi cheeses from Switzerland and we continue to grow, like the recent acquisition of the Athenos feta brand in Wisconsin. A lot has changed, including the expansion of the company with the addition of a new facility in Platteville, WI, and acquisition of a specialty blue cheese operation in Seymour, WI, but the heart of cheese craft at Emmi Roth has stayed the same.
Dedicated teams still select the highest quality milk from our neighbors to transform into premium products. They are guided by traditionally inspired practices, like copper vats and wooden boards for cellar affinage, and always a healthy dose of care and passion.
There are 1,200 licensed cheesemakers in the state, and only 60 are women. Why do you think this is the case? What do you think is the best way to bring more women and diversity into the field?
There are several factors here, especially but not limited to historical demographic shifts in cheese production, industrialization and consolidation of the dairy industry, and economic pressures. Women have always been intrinsic to early cheese making in all parts of the world where cheese is made, including Wisconsin. Scaling up of dairying, in combination with pressure from current events and growing demand for commercialized food manufacture shifted many cheese making women away from enterprising farmstead operations into other roles. This disparity in licensed Wisconsin cheesemakers represents residual lag from those factors that may resolve in time, but also indicates potential opportunities to increase diversity overall in the Wisconsin cheese industry.
In Wisconsin, this statistic from the licensing program paints a picture of who ultimately achieves a license, but not necessarily who is interested and able to access the industry. It also is not directly indicative of what is happening elsewhere in the cheese world, where there are many success stories of entrepreneurial women and diverse cheese professionals shaping the industry. Existing barriers to women and, more broadly, any individuals outside of a classic agricultural or manufacturing background, can be overcome by providing collaborative (versus competitive) environments that support education and interaction with the dynamic cheese industry. This type of introduction is essential for fostering the future of cheese making.
What’s your favorite cheesy recipe going into this holiday season?
At the top of my recipe to-do list this holiday season is to recreate an absolutely incredible dish I had recently with figs, brown butter maple reduction, toasted walnuts, and deliciously creamy and tangy Danish blue cheese. Drooling already!
Butternut squash soup with Roth Aged Gouda grated on top
What's one thing you wish more people knew about cheese?
Eat the rind if you are meant to. If you aren’t sure, ask!
Anything else to share?
I would encourage any cheese eater to be adventurous. Learn what you can about the cheese varieties you enjoy. There is a wealth of delicious and interesting cheese to experience, and it is an excellent window into an ancient food practice, actively evolving and transforming for longevity.