Terry Beckman inspects a set of curd knives before shipment to the customer. 
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Terry Beckman inspects a set of curd knives before shipment to the customer. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    CALUMETVILLE, Wis. – Cheesemaking is a meticulous art that Terry Beckman helps make easier for cheesemakers of all sizes. In fact, he may be considered a cheesemaker’s best friend.     Beckman is a craftsman of curd knives, a key component in the cheesemaking process. He founded Dairy Fab LLC in 2001, which is located in Calumetville, Wis.
    “You can’t make cheese without these knives,” Beckman said. “While still in the vat, curd knives cut the cheese into cubes to dispel the whey or remove liquid from the cheese. All that remains is the curd, and that’s what is used to make cheese.”
    These special knives look different than one would expect. They do not resemble traditional knives; rather some look more like a musical instrument. That is why they are also referred to as cheese harps. The stainless-steel knives are composed of a frame strung with wire evenly spaced and complete with a handle.
    Beckman’s passion for cheese began long ago while working for Stoelting, a cheese equipment manufacturing company in Kiel, Wis., where he spent 25 years building and servicing cheesemaking equipment. His travels took him as far as Poland to set up the country’s first cottage cheese plant.
    “I loved the work, but spent more days on the road than at home,” Beckman said. “I knew it was finally time for a change.”
    Beckman could not stand seeing the forgotten curd knives within the industry that often sat in need of repair.  
    “It really bothered me that someone was without their knife,” Beckman said.
    This gave him an idea for a new niche business. He began repairing curd knives, eventually working his way into knife building, as well.
    Beckman’s son, Chris, built Dairy Fab’s first website when he was in middle school.
    “That site is what really got this company going,” Beckman said.
    His daughter, Kim, helped spread the word by calling cheese factories. His wife, Nancy, took care of the books while Beckman’s two sisters helped strip down knives during busy times.     
    “It was truly a family affair,” Beckman said.
    Within four years, Beckman moved the business to a shop in Calumetville, Wis., just minutes from his home.
    “I like working with my hands,” Beckman said, who has lived in the area his whole life. “And, making these knives allows me to do just that.”
    Each knife is custom made.  
    “Customer vats are unique in size and shape; therefore, every order is different,” Beckman said.
    All knives are built to match vat dimensions, and Dairy Fab makes knives in various shapes and sizes, measuring as large as 4- by 4-feet or as small as 4- by 4-inch.
    For the past three years, Stefan Severson, of Arcadia, Wis., has worked alongside Beckman.
    “Stefan’s brother is married to my daughter, so it’s still essentially a family operation,” Beckman said.
    The two-man business prides itself on perfection, serving artisan and farmstead cheese makers throughout the United States, as well as in Canada. On occasion, he has even made a knife or two for Central and South America, England, Africa, Sweden and Australia.
    “We definitely serve a niche and are fortunate to have very little competition,” Beckman said.
    Making cheese from cow’s milk, goat’s milk, sheep’s milk and even water buffalo milk in a few instances, Dairy Fab’s customer base numbers are close to 250 and consists of home cheesemakers to the largest cottage cheese plants in the country. Beckman has even made knives for nuns in a cloistered convent in California.
    “It’s hard for me to say no to anyone,” Beckman said.
    Cheesemakers typically use two knives per vat – one knife to slice cheese horizontally and the other to slice vertically in order to make the desired cube shape. Therefore, knives are often sold in pairs. Wire spacing ranges from a quarter-inch to three-quarter-inch, depending on the cut size preferred. A hard cheese, like Romano, is cut smaller to get rid of more moisture, whereas a soft cheese, like goat, requires a bigger cut size to retain moisture.
    Knife fabrication can take anywhere from a couple days to a couple weeks, depending on the style. After stringing the wire, they painstakingly fill in every slot and groove with silver solder, then grind and polish the knife smooth. This high-end finish eliminates any entrance for bacteria, ensuring the knife is sanitary.
    “Soldering is intricate work and the most labor-intensive step, but it really sets us apart,” Severson said. “You can’t see where the wire is strung on the end, which gives it a really clean look.”
    Dairy Fab produces well over 100 knives per year – about half are new and half are repair work. Beckman builds a miniature curd knife that serves as décor for a trophy awarded each year by the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association.
    “This industry has given me so much, and I like to give back wherever I can,” Beckman said. “I love what I do, and there’s never been a day I didn’t care for, no matter how long that day has gotten. But, what I like even more than my job are the people. Cheesemakers have an amazing work ethic and dedication. The artisan cheesemakers, in particular, really impress me. They’ve often given up careers in business or health care to try something different, something that allows them to reconnect with nature, and they make some really great cheeses.”     
    Beckman said the industry is welcoming to newcomers and goes above and beyond to help cheesemakers get started.
    “My wife and I like to travel, and we love incorporating visits to our customers all around the country, something I hope to do more of once I retire,” said Beckman, whose successor is already mapped out. “At some point in the future, I hope Stefan will take over the business. We need somebody to do this work, and it would be in good hands with Stefan.”