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Klondike going Greek
Odyssey Greek Yogurt made at Klondike Cheese Company just north of Monroe. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
TOWN OF MONROE - A local cheese company capitalizing on the recent popularity of Greek yogurt is weeks away from mass production in a 33,000-square-foot expansion at its factory northwest of Monroe.

Klondike Cheese Company expects to begin culturing the strained yogurt in mid-March at a rate of about 100,000 pounds per week, according to master cheesemaker and president Ron Buholzer. The family-owned company, now in its fourth generation, will begin by producing 55-gallon barrels for food service industry clients.

The next step is retail, Buholzer said. Klondike plans to eventually sell the yogurt, fruit-flavored and plain, under its Odyssey label in single-serving cups. The current packaging lines can fill more than 300 cups in a minute.

On Monday morning, Buholzer unveiled Klondike's facilities for Greek yogurt production to Rep. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), Sen. Dale Schultz (R-Richland Center), representatives from the Department of Natural Resources and others.

Buholzer puts the current pricetag on the expansion at about $10 million, but he said that could creep up to $11 million. It brings the total square footage of the Klondike factory to about 100,000. The additional business will initially create between eight and 10 jobs, according to estimates by Buholzer and his family. Depending on yogurt demand, this number could quickly increase to 15 or more jobs.

It's all Greek to us

Klondike has no plans to manufacture regular, non-strained yogurt.

"The growth market is really in the Greek, in the higher-protein yogurt," Buholzer said. "There seems to be a tremendous interest in Greek yogurt for industrial use."

Though the move is ultimately market-driven, it wouldn't have happened without some urging from inside the Buholzer family.

"My nephew Adam, he really pushed for it. And the rest of us got convinced," he said.

Klondike has contracted a feta expert with 35 years of experience to oversee its Greek yogurt production. One of the first steps is figuring out which strains of bacterial culture make the best yogurt.

"You need fresh strains, and you need to rotate between strains to prevent them from being killed," Buholzer said. In the facility's current feta production, for instance, Klondike rotates between 12 cultures, with four in use at any given time. Fine-tuning cultures is a constant experiment with Mother Nature - one strain that makes great feta for salads at home may not work so well in cooking at a restaurant chain or other food industry operation.

"I think that's what makes this such an exciting business. It's never the same," Buholzer said.

Grade A regulations

The addition of yogurt to the cheese company means the factory will be under more regulatory scrutiny. Cheese is not a Grade A product. Yogurt is.

Grading has little bearing on the quality of the milk used. Grade A facilities are simply subject to more stringent regulations and more frequent inspections. Even the water used to rinse the yogurt-making machinery must be pasteurized.

State regulators are visiting Klondike on Wednesday to inspect the new facilities. Klondike appears to be ready to handle another production issue that comes with the addition of yogurt to its line - more production byproducts.

Unlike cheesemaking, which produces whey, the only byproducts of yogurt are cream and the water used to wash machinery. Cream skimmed off the milk for Klondike's yogurt will either get added back in later to create higher-fat yogurts or added to the company's creamy havarti. Any leftover cream after that gets sold to a buttermaker, Buholzer said.

But yogurt-production causes a "tremendous amount of wash water," he said. Klondike accounted for handling this extra wash water in its recent expansion.

Matt Moroney, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, expressed no worries about Klondike's disposal processes after the tour Monday.

In general, however, the disposal of dairy byproducts like whey and wash water do concern him. His department has been working in the past year with cheesemakers and dairy farmers across the state to find solutions for how and where to spread dairy-production byproducts and manure.

"Land availability is becoming an issue," Moroney said.

The visit Monday to Klondike was his first time touring a cheese factory, and he had only glowing words for it.

"It's great to see this industry continue to (grow)."