PHOTOGRAPHED BY CODY LACROSSE
With Sancho Cruz Manchego and more, Ricardo Gutierrez Cruz puts his stamp on Wisconsin’s cheese scene
In elementary school, Ricardo Gutierrez Cruz’s class toured an ice cream manufacturing plant. While his peers were distracted by the prospect of trying various flavors, Gutierrez Cruz was struck by the mechanics of it all. “I was surprised it was like, 60 percent air in the ice cream,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Wow, they are selling us bubbles.’”
Decades later, he can still recall standing in the facility in greater Mexico City, absorbing the complexity of a multi-step production process to put a finished food product on store shelves.
In high school he considered pursuing a career as a doctor, but he couldn’t shake his experience that day at the manufacturing plant. So, Gutierrez Cruz found a food engineering program at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. “I’m not a guy who wants to be in the library or at a computer,” he says, to explain why a medical career ultimately didn’t make sense. “I like to have freedom.”
Gutierrez Cruz had never made ice cream and didn’t have a specific product or food in mind when he enrolled in college. But soon after, his father bought a dairy farm about two hours north of Mexico City—Gutierrez Cruz had an idea for what to do with the milk. With his dad, he launched Quesos Krava, a cheesemaking business originally based in the capital city that later relocated to the farm in the small and largely rural community of Polotitlán. It marked his entry into the world of cheese and launched a career path that would later take him to the heart of Dairyland, USA, where he would become one of the industry’s up-and-coming stars.
Quesos Krava started small in 2010 and grew steadily. By the third year, they were producing panela, Manchego, cotija, Oaxaca, and provolone. But when an economic crisis hit Mexico in 2017, they began to lose customers and encountered supplier issues. Gutierrez Cruz secured a loan but it wasn’t enough. He and his father sold the company, and he started thinking about his next steps.
While on vacation in Wisconsin, Gutierrez Cruz met a creamery manager who offered him a job. Eager to settle down somewhere without the traffic and pace of Mexico City, he jumped at the chance and joined the team at Saxon Creamery in 2018. The company—which sits along Lake Winnebago between Green Bay and Milwaukee—focuses on European-style cheeses, including its rich gouda, a creamy asiago, and a buttery, semi-soft Germanic butterkäse.
Years earlier, Gutierrez Cruz visited Madison, Wisconsin, for the World Championship Cheese Contest. Drawn by the moderate climate with four distinct seasons, he welcomed the opportunity to live in an area revered for its dairy industry. But he didn’t anticipate Wisconsin’s stringent cheesemaking regulations.
“I was surprised that here in Wisconsin, you have to basically apprentice for one year, and after that you need to go to courses,” he says. “It’s the only state that requires a license to make cheese. It tells you all the cheeses are good quality. Really, you feel proud to be part of this small group of people.”
In 2019, Gutierrez Cruz accepted an offer to become the head cheesemaker at Door Artisan Cheese, where he was subsequently promoted to plant manager. In February 2022, Gutierrez Cruz joined a new ownership team at the company and now does a little of everything as one of the business’ three managing partners.
Door Artisan Cheese is among the region’s newest cheesemakers, and its sphere of influence is largely limited to the immediate area. Located in Door County—at the tip of Wisconsin’s “thumb” that juts into Lake Michigan—Door Artisan Cheese occupies a simple clay-red commercial building in the miniscule village of Egg Harbor, which is known for its flourishing tourism industry; visitors are drawn to its natural beauty and wide scope of outdoor activities. Despite a minimal year-round population, the quaint town boasts a range of hip, independent businesses from breweries to art galleries.
Since Door County’s climate is cooler than Mexico’s, cows here don’t have to consume as much water to survive summer heat, Gutierrez Cruz says, which helps him create a high-quality product. By relying on hyperlocal dairies such as Red Barn Family Farms in Appleton, he can churn out more than a dozen remarkable cheeses, 11 of which have won national or international awards in the five short years that Door Artisan Cheese has been in operation (some of these predate his tenure). Most are nothing like the soft cheeses popular in Mexico that dominated his early career—instead, Gutierrez Cruz is aging an English-style cheddar in the stone- walled cave below the company’s retail space, rubbing coffee and lavender on an Alpine-style cheese, and mimicking caprese salad by adding sun-dried tomato and basil to a creamy fontina.
Yet he’s also riffing on Quesos Krava’s Manchego, which he used to make with a mix of cow’s and goat’s milk (unlike the Spanish classic, which is made from sheep’s milk). His Sancho Cruz Mexican- style Manchego is made with readily available Wisconsin cow’s milk for a creamier, slightly nutty concoction. It’s his favorite, in part because it’s unlike any other cheese on the market. “It’s kind of my baby,” Gutierrez Cruz says.
Today’s generation of cheese connoisseurs want more experimental options like these, he says, and that’s part of how he’ll influence Door Artisan Cheese’s direction. Expect variations like a Manchego soaked in cherry cider (cherries are Door County’s famed agricultural crop). The goal isn’t to end up on Walmart shelves, but Gutierrez Cruz is teaming up with three local wineries, looking beyond Wisconsin’s borders, and expanding the wholesaling operation to make their cheeses more readily available. The new partners are also revamping an adjoining restaurant, overhauling the website, and introducing more standby cheeses—with the goal of earning at least one prestigious award for each. It’s an ambitious plan, but it’s motivating.
“Sometimes it’s exhausting because I wear too many hats,” says Gutierrez Cruz. “It’s challenging but the process is really fun. Every day is different. I hope to look back in a year and see how much we improved.”
Chipotle Gouda | Cow’s milk
It’s easy to see why this Chipotle Gouda won first in its class at the 2021 World Dairy Expo. Smoky undertones dance with a chipotle kick, while its soft, easy-melting texture make it the perfect partner for a chicken panini. The cheese is cave-aged for at least three months beneath Door Artisan Cheese’s production facility.
Sancho Cruz | Cow’s milk
This Mexican-style Manchego is Ricardo Gutierrez Cruz’s pride and joy. Inspired by a recipe from his early days of cheesemaking outside Mexico City, this creamy yet sharp cheese is one of a kind. (Most Mexican Manchegos are made with lower-quality cow’s milk, and the Spanish original is made exclusively with sheep’s milk.) Balanced and enjoyable enough to snack on alone, Sancho Cruz is also an ideal addition to any charcuterie board.
Swedish Fontina | Cow’s milk
Inspired by the beloved caprese salad, this cave-aged Swedish Fontina cheese is buoyed by the addition of sun-dried tomato, basil, and a touch of salt to give it an edge. Shred and stir into fresh pasta for a savory and hearty meal that draws out the cheese’s pesto-like char- acteristics. Swedish Fontina is one of the company’s newest creations, and is an indication of where these Wisconsin cheesemakers are headed.
Roseate Cheese | Cow’s milk
Named after a vibrant red dragonfly featured on its packaging, Door Artisan Cheese’s Roseate is brined
in red wine, giving it a purple-hued rind and a subtle, enriched aftertaste. This creamy and understated Italian Asiago–style cheese makes an appropriately mild companion for Cabernet or Malbec, but it could also stand in for a milder Swiss in a show- stopping patty melt.