“Well-Aged” Bothwell Cheese Plant Celebrates 75th Birthday

CO-OPERATOR STAFF / NEW BOTHWELL

Age is not important unless you re a cheese, or so the saying goes.

Or a cheese company who s built a reputation on 75 years of tradition.

Bothwell Cheese marked its 75th year making cheese this month with an open house and unveiling of an 8,000-sq.- ft. cheese aging facilty added to what is now a 35,000-sq.-ft. cheese-making facility in New Bothwell.

The latest addition represents another $1.8 million investment for a total of almost $6 million since 2005, and a cash infusion made in a company that now stands out as Canada s only independently owned cheese maker with full national distribution.

That s not bad for a business that began as a small co-op in 1936 started by southeastern Manitoba dairy farmers in a building hand built by local volunteers. In its early years, as many as 50 small cheese plants operated throughout rural Manitoba, and as in much of the rest of Canada, cheese making was an important domestic industry.

As the only remaining cheese maker left in operation in the province, this company is proud of its heritage and the products it makes, said Ivan Balenovic, Bothwell Cheese president and CEO.

One of the things that we often talk about and think about here, is that this company is older than any of us who work here today, he said.

Strong tradition

It s that strong tradition plus a long-standing reputation as a maker of fine cheddars that allowed Bothwell to strike out in new directions.

The 25 varieties of speciality cheese it makes today are a recent innovation, and represent a calculated risk after the company took a careful read of its customers.

Bothwell Cheese now produces a wide array of unusual cheeses, including a jalapeo pepper jack, Madagascar green peppercorn, black truffle, red hot chili pepper jack and red wine aged cheddar.

Balenoic, a former forestry executive who partnered with the ENSIS Growth Fund in 2002 to buy Bothwell Cheese, said he saw the potential to expand Bothwell Cheese with these new products.

I saw a company that had infrastructure in place and had a good consumer base to be able to build from, but I also thought

The 35,000-sq.-ft. Bothwell Cheese plant at New Bothwell has just unveiled a new 8,000-sq.-ft. storage facility as part of its expanded operations. Previously, all cheese had to be shipped for storage in Winnipeg.PHOTO: LORRAINE STEVENSON at that time that there was a lot of unrealized potential, in terms of being able to take the company to a diverse product base.

All of its cheese, whether it is cheddars, mozzarellas, or its unique products, are made only with all-natural ingredients milk only and no modified milk ingredients nor preservatives. Use of pure ingredients has proved a strong selling feature, and allowed the company to focus on a relatively small market that finds its products irresistable.

We didn t go after a mass market, he said. We re after a relatively small percentage of consumers who recognize that there s value in a product like that. Sales are focused in Western Canada, but it has made marketing inroads in Ontario and eastern Quebec too.

The plant uses 100,000 litres of milk per day 365 days a year, produced by an estimated 2,500 cows on southeastern Manitoba dairy farms.

Local employer

Not only does the plant support local dairy farmers, it is a key regional employer. Several generations of residents and families have worked here, taking pride in their collective years of service. Many staff have worked here decades, including one now with 43 years. Two among the 60 staff have the official title of cheese maker, but that s essentially what each and every one of the employees do, says operations manager Rob Hiebert.

Everyone plays an important role in the cheese-making process, he said. And while the plant has been automated over time, the company hasn t eliminated the human touch. The cheese maker tells the computer what to do, not the other way around, said Hiebert.

Our goal is to make a consistent product, he said. But it s impossible to have one set recipe and say that s the way we re going to make cheese every single day. We re constantly making little tweaks in our recipes and formula changes to adapt to the changes in the milk quality that comes in.

The world s cheese judges are impressed.

Bothwell Cheese has been enjoying a winning streak at Canada s top cheese competition in Belleview, Ontario, taking home top prize for the past five years in a row for its marble cheddar at the British Empire Cheese Competition there.

It will be back at the BECC this December 1 to defend the title, says Balenovic.

What makes it extra special for us is it s judged by true cheese makers, so it s very objective judging, he said. We re being judged by the best of the best.

[email protected]cpublishing.com

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LOCALMILESTONES

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One of the things that we often talk about here is that this company is older than any of us who work here today.

IVAN BALENOVIC PRESIDENT AND CEO BOTHWELL CHEESE

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Bothwell Cheese operations manager, Rob Hiebert, (l) and Ivan Balenovic, company president and CEO, say it s the trademark quality of their cheese that they re most proud of.PHOTO: LORRAINE STEVENSON

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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