Determined to eat dairy
Sensitivities inspire Averbeck to make A2 cheese
Louis and Jenny Averbeck milk 160 cows near Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. The Averbecks began making A2 cheese in 2020 after Jenny discovered she had a sensitivity to dairy products. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
FOND DU LAC, Wis. – Jenny Averbeck was disheartened when she developed a sensitivity to dairy products as an adult. This cheese lover longed to drink the milk her cows produced but doing so meant she would suffer later. Unfortunately, dairy did not agree with her body.
“When a doctor told me I probably shouldn’t eat dairy, I couldn’t accept that,” Jenny said. “I wasn’t willing to give up milk and cheese. Also, I thought it was silly I was milking cows and selling a product I couldn’t enjoy. It made me wonder if others couldn’t consume (dairy) either.”
Jenny and her husband, Louis, milk 160 cows at Clear View Dairy near Fond du Lac. The Averbecks purchased the cows from Louis’ parents in 2016. Louis is the sixth generation on his family’s farm which was founded in 1848, and the Averbecks’ son, Garen, 11, is the seventh generation. After doing some research and attending meetings, Jenny found a way to make dairy products work for her when she learned about A2 milk.
A1 and A2 beta caseins, or proteins, occur naturally in cows’ milk, but some people have issues digesting the A1 casein. A2 dairy products are free of the A1 casein, making them potentially easier to digest.
“I bought some A2 milk and when I drank it, I thought, ‘Wow, I feel good,’” Jenny said. “Drinking milk without any issues made me start wondering about cheese. Pizza is my favorite, and I especially love cheese pizza, but I couldn’t find any A2 cheese around here. So in 2019, I started looking into the processes and steps needed to make my own.”
The Averbecks transitioned to breeding their cows to A2 bulls and over time developed an A1 beta casein-free herd whose milk is the key ingredient of the Averbecks’ aTwo Cheese brand.
“Our cheese contains only the A2 protein,” Jenny said. “The A1 protein is not removed per se – it’s genetically not there because our cows produce milk that only carries the A2 gene.”
Over 100 cows on the farm produce A2 milk. The herd is mostly Holstein along with a few registered Jerseys, and cows are grouped according to A2 status. In the main A2 group are 75 cows that produce the milk for aTwo Cheese. This group is milked first, and on cheese day, their milk is separated for delivery to the cheese processor.
“After three to four years of using A2 genetics, we tested a bunch of cows to see where we were at, and some cows had carried the A2 gene,” Louis said. “We’re going on six years now, and it won’t take us long to be 100% A2.”
All virgin heifers receive sexed semen to accelerate the process. The Averbecks test each animal for the A2 gene by sending a hair sample to the University of California-Davis.
“There are a lot of options for good quality A2 bulls,” Louis said. “We don’t sacrifice milk or genetics to do this.”
aTwo Cheese is made locally in small batches. The first cheese production took place in early 2020 starting with cheddar. Now, the Averbecks make seven varieties: cheddar, feta, mozzarella, pepper jack, Monterey Jack, Colby and Colby Jack. Each cheese has a special name with a story to back it up. For example, Dad’s Classic Cheddar is named after Jenny’s father who passed away in 2010.
“He meant a lot to me,” Jenny said. “He’s the one who got me into farming, and he was also with me the first time I heard of A2.”
Colby Jack Champ’s Delight is named after the Averbecks’ first A2 cow, Champ, and Country Lane Colby was inspired by Jenny’s favorite cheese and her favorite thinking place.
“I do my best thinking while milking and feeding calves, but when I need to do a little deeper contemplating, I walk our country lane,” she said.
Every two weeks, Jenny delivers about 2,000 pounds of A2 milk to a small processor that makes it into cheese. The Averbecks label and box the cheese at the farm, where distributors pick it up. The Averbecks work with two distributors and sell their cheese in 20 stores, including several Woodman’s Market locations as well as a variety of specialty shops like health food stores and co-ops. The Averbecks also do some direct cheese sales from the farm and move product through their online store.
“With COVID, it was a struggle to get going,” Jenny said. “We just got started right before everything shut down. Now, there are distribution challenges and labor shortages in the marketplace, so it’s still affecting us. Some stores still won’t allow demos; therefore, it’s been a slow start. There is a lot to learn – more than I ever would’ve imagined. Cheesemaking is the easy part. Marketing is the hard part.”
Jenny said there are both pros and cons to making a unique product like A2 cheese.
“There’s not a lot of competition, but there’s also not enough awareness yet,” she said. “However, A2 has come a long way since we started, and I think demand will grow.”
Since transforming the herd to A2, Jenny no longer has to purchase A2 milk at the store, but rather, can safely consume the milk her own cows produce. The switch to A2 has enabled Jenny to enjoy dairy once again. Not only that, she is also able to share her farm’s products with others in a similar predicament.
“A lot of people assume they’re lactose intolerant, not realizing it could be something else,” Jenny said. “Digestive issues with dairy are usually a result of the proteins. I used to feel very uncomfortable drinking or eating dairy. But now that I’m consuming A2 products, I don’t have these symptoms. I can enjoy the simple things like a bowl of cereal, a homemade pizza or a snack of crackers and cheese.”
Jenny is optimistic her endeavor might help the dairy industry win back consumers choosing plant-based beverages out of a perceived necessity.
“I often wonder why plant-based products are so popular,” she said. “It’s really hurting the dairy industry. Maybe people who can’t eat dairy are buying these products because they don’t know there are other options. Out of desperation, I tried almond milk as well but thought it was crazy to not support my own industry. A2 could light a spark and maybe help other farmers too.”
The Averbecks strive to keep overhead low and product costs down to make a cheese people can afford.
“If you’re told you are lactose intolerant or have a dairy sensitivity, A2 could be an option for you,” Jenny said. “If someone needs our cheese, we want it to be affordable for them to eat. It’s full of flavor and doesn’t taste any different than regular cheese.”
With thoughts of bottling milk and perhaps making ice cream, the Averbecks have toyed with the idea of building a creamery on the farm.
“I can’t eat ice cream,” Jenny said. “If I eat it, I pay for it. It’s another favorite treat that would be fun to have.”