CANNON FALLS, Minn. — On somewhat of a whim in 2012, Deeann Lufkin and Jackie Ohmann decided to start making cheese in Ohmann's kitchen.
The two had brewed beer and made wine together for years and thought they could tackle cheesemaking. They started with a quick mozzarella, Ohmann said recently on an evening inside CannonBelles Coffee and Ice Cream, where they serve coffee and ice cream as well as CannonBelles cheese varieties.
The company is owned by Lufkin, Ohmann and Kathy Hupf. To keep up with growing demand for their cheese, CannonBelles will be making its products at its own cheese plant now under construction in Cannon Falls.
Ohmann said she and Lufkin agreed their first attempt at making cheese was tasteless, but they kept experimenting once or twice a month, eventually taking a stab at cheese curds and then queso fresco.
"We were just making it in my kitchen without any real cheesemaking equipment," Ohmann said. "Reading instructions and coming up with creative ways to make the process happen."'
To press cheese, they used an empty can of chicken with holes poked in it, and instead of a cheesecloth they used a wine carboy filled with water to wick away whey from the curd, Ohmann said. She said they were largely self-taught until they started buying books and attending conferences a year or so later. They knew the essentials of cheesemaking, like starting with a rennet and a culture.
"Then it's all time and temperature, because it has to get to an exact degree and held for a certain amount of time," Ohmann said of the pasteurization step, which requires a machine.
Ohmann's daughter, Grace, said in the early days of CannonBelles she got to be the first taste tester.
"I couldn't go in the kitchen unless they could give me some cheese," said Grace, now a sixth-grader.
Lufkin and Ohmann quickly moved from early experimenting to crafting seriously with cheddar cheese cultures, going by a recipe from the owner of a cheesemaking ingredients and supplies store. To their surprise, Ohmann said the end product of that "actually looked and tasted" like cheese.
They progressed to the point they felt ready to start selling cheese, but not before enlisting Kathy Hupf, who had spent a couple decades before managing her own dairy herd. Ohmann called her their "dairy expert."
"I was really delighted when Jackie and Deeann invited me to be a part of the business," Hupf said. "It was really just something that sounded exciting and right up my alley."
The trio consulted various cheese plants in Minnesota and Wisconsin to learn the ins and outs of the craft, joined the American Cheese Society, drafted a business plan and wrote grant proposals. Ohmann now takes care of the finances and Hupf handles the marketing, while Lufkin is the head cheesemaker.
"That kind of just fell along naturally, with our gifts and talents," Ohmann said of the roles.
Finding a home on the road
Ready to open for business, the three women still needed a space to make their cheese. If they were going to sell their products to the public, they would need to make their cheese in a licensed site. In 2016, that home was at the University of Minnesota's Pilot Plant in St. Paul.
They grew accustomed to the trips once monthly to make around 700 pounds of cheese. By that time, CannonBelles cheese was available in stores in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota. In 2017, CannonBelles won a blue ribbon from the American Cheese Society for its queso fresco.
"Three girls from Minnesota won the Mexican cheese division," Hupf joked.
The pandemic has shut down the pilot plant and halted their ability to make their cheese themselves. Ohmann said their cheese is in good hands, though, as their recipes have been made by Ray Miller, pilot plant coordinator with 30-plus years experience at the craft, since March.
Even before the pandemic, the women knew that to keep up with demand for their products, they needed their own cheese plant in Cannon Falls; 700 pounds a month wasn't cutting it anymore.
They broke ground in October on Cannon Industrial Boulevard in Cannon Falls for the new CannonBelles cheese plant. The acre and a half of land was perfect for them, said Hupf -- not large enough for a massive company and not too small for CannonBelles.
"As soon as spring comes around, we're going to get some cement poured, and the building should go up fairly quickly," Hupf said. "Hopefully in about four months we'll be up and running."
The company will add and hire staff once the site is ready by midsummer, Hupf said.
CannonBelle's first taste tester Grace Ohmann said she'd be applying for one of those new positions. Wherever they'd take her, she was OK.