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Researcher carves out role of champion of cheese

University Of Wisconsin-Madison : 16 March, 2006  (Technical Article)
The most ironic thing about Mark Johnson, one of Wisconsin's leading experts on cheese, is that he spent the first half of his life simply hating the stuff. 'Even after I became a cheese-maker I just hated the taste of cheese,' he says. 'And cottage cheese was the worst.'
But the years can change a man and his taste buds. Now, as senior scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Dairy Research, Johnson has not only devoted his career to enhancing the quality of Wisconsin cheeses, it's sometimes the only thing on the menu. 'That will be my whole dinner at times, just crackers and tasting different types of cheese,' he says.

'I'm really excited to be a judge because you get to taste so many varieties of cheese,' says Johnson. 'I've always been interested in finding that best cheese.'

Johnson never really set out to become a cheese aficionado: it sort of just happened. Raised in Milbank, a small town in South Dakota, Johnson's family lived up the road from a cheese factory. One day, while he was a junior in high school, his mother urged him to go over there to ask for a summer job.

'I saw my friend on the way and never got to the factory,' says Johnson. But the next day the factory owner just happened to call and hire him. 'My mother probably had something to do with that.'

That first summer, Johnson had an unglamorous initiation into the world of cheese production. He was asked to help with drying whey, a sticky, nutrient-rich liquid that is leftover during the cheese making process. To ensure the whey no longer gathered and clogged in pipes, Johnson's job was to beat them with a rubber mallet, sometimes for ten hours a day.

After a few more months of similarly mind-numbing tasks, Johnson was randomly moved to the factory's cheese-making room to perform different odd jobs. But by the end of six summers there, he had become a full-fledged cheese-maker.

During that time, he had also earned an undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry, from Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D. Wanting to pursue higher studies, Johnson applied to graduate school-but his application was about eight months late.

As he began to despair, fate once again pulled him back to cheese-land. A scientist neighbor suggested he contact a researcher at South Dakota State University (SDSU) whose work combined the fields of microbiology and dairy science. Johnson quickly enrolled at SDSU and completed a master's degree in dairy manufacturing. Later, Johnson moved to Raleigh, N.C. to pursue a doctoral degree. 'Before that, I had never even been south of Vermillion, S.D.'

It was while Johnson was in Raleigh that he met Norman Olson, his future mentor and 'cheese guru.' In 1979, Olson, a professor at UW-Madison and a giant of the cheese industry, offered Johnson a research position that he knew he couldn't refuse. He made the move to Madison, but not without some trepidation.

'All I knew about Madison at the time was the bombing of Sterling Hall,' says Johnson. 'I thought to myself 'great, this is going to be a hippie place.' But of course my views have changed.'

Johnson's move to Wisconsin, a leader in U.S. cheese, also marked the beginning of his real education. 'Norm brought in cheese experts from around the world and taught me about the chemistry underlying different cheeses, something I had absolutely no clue about,' he says. 'Before that, cheese-making had been just an art to me but I quickly realized that though there's an art to it, cheese-makers are actually scientists observing cause and effect.'

A few decades on, Johnson only has to touch and nibble any type of cheese before immediately rattling off the chemical compounds used to make it. It's a skill that Johnson has increasingly put to use, serving as a judge at 12 national cheese competitions, including the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest last year.

'The reason I think Mark is a good judge is that most judges are not involved with the manufacturing end of cheese like he has been,' says John Jaeggi, an associate researcher at UW-Madison's CDR, who collaborates closely with Johnson. 'What is really neat about Mark is that he came up through the ground floor in the cheese business, which is something rare in academia, where people have the education but don't necessarily have practical experience.'

These days, Johnson helps to develop and coordinate research protocols for different CDR experiments and analyses. Most of them aim to help Wisconsin cheese-makers enhance the quality of their product and to develop new and distinctive flavors.

Such efforts are critical at a time when Wisconsin is experiencing more and more competition from cheese producers in other states such as Vermont and California.

'There were over 300 cheese factories [in the state] when I started this job, but now there are only about 130,' says Johnson. 'The little guys just can't compete any longer when it comes to making commodity cheeses such as mozzarella and cheddar.'

Consumers are also less interested in run-of-the-mill varieties, says Johnson, and are increasingly turning to specialty cheeses such as blue cheese, brick cheese and different Italian and Hispanic cheeses.

'People want more flavor these days and they are looking for a unique experience,' says Johnson. 'So there is a friendly battle between all the states on who makes the best cheese-of course I think we do.'
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