I've long known that "Maytag" is synonymous with "blue cheese." Despite living only 30 minutes from Newton in central Iowa, where the cheese is made, and having also ordered gifts of cheese through the company's website, I'd never investigated the history of this iconic Iowa food. Recently, however, while driving east on Interstate 80 from Des Moines, I took Exit 164 and followed the signs for 2 miles to the Maytag Dairy Farms Welcome Center and Store.
I entered the store and was immediately greeted by Diane, who was happy to give me a tour. First, she told me a bit about the history of the company. The first Maytag Blue Cheese was produced in 1941 using milk from the Maytag family's prize-winning Holstein cow herd and with help from experts at Iowa State University. The cheese operations continue to be run by younger generations of the Maytag family, although today the company buys its milk from local dairy farmers instead of maintaining its own herd.
Diane pointed out the large barn-like building where the cheese is still made, located down the hill from the Welcome Center. Although she explained that the barn itself wasn't open for tours, she played a video showing the cheese-making process, which is done by hand. The wheels of blue cheese are stored in man-made caves for six months and are turned every day.
On the tour of the headquarters, we passed through an office area where order takers sat at desks fielding telephone orders. Diane said that the company had about 700 orders per week (via phone and online) during most of the year, but during the holidays that number jumped to 7,000 per week! Other rooms were devoted to wrapping and packaging orders.
Back in the store, Diane let me sample several of the additional cheeses sold by the company which are made by local producers to Maytag specifications: White and Yellow Cheddar, Smoked Baby Swiss and regular Swiss, Edam...all were delicious! The company also sells white popcorn for popping that is grown in fields next to the Welcome Center.
Taking an hour to visit the Maytag Farms is a great way to appreciate this family-owned company. Even though you can't actually see the cheese-making process itself, you do get to view the rolling Iowa countryside which seems much unchanged from almost a century ago when E.H. Maytag bought his first Holstein cow. And getting to sample and purchase some fresh cheese on the same visit, well, that's just a bonus!
The Welcome Center and cheese shop is located at 2282 East 8th Street North in Newton. Tours are at each visitor's convenience-- although groups of ten or more should telephone first: 641-792-1133. The shop is open during holidays from 8 am to 6 pm Monday through Saturday and from 10 am to 4 pm on Sundays.
(Photo credit: the author)