ANKENY – Ty Coenen took a chef’s knife in his right hand and started slashing away at his very own creation Saturday, Nov. 17.
After scoring the outside with the chef’s knife, he grabbed a large wire and started slicing through the creation.
This wasn’t the scene from one of Hollywood’s many slasher movies, however. It was the scene at the North Ankeny Boulevard Hy-Vee location in Ankeny, where Coenen, the store’s cheese specialist, sliced into a 2,088-pound wheel of white cheddar cheese during a special event at the store.
Coenen, a 2010 graduate of Creston High School and the son of Gary and Barb Coenen of Creston, traveled to Wisconsin in January to make the 1-ton wheel of cheese at Henning’s Cheese in Kiel, Wisconsin, in preparation of the special event.
The trip – and the giant wheel of cheese – was the result of a joking comment made at the Ankeny Hy-Vee store in 2017 while Coenen was on vacation.
“We had brought in a 1,000-pound wheel sometime last year and the cheese producer came in when I was on vacation,” Coenen said. “They started talking about how we wanted to do something bigger and make a show of it. He joked that we should come up and make a 2,000-pound wheel and Tyler can help make it.”
And so a Wisconsin cheese tour was set up for Coenen, who visited several different cheese producers in Wisconsin and ended his trip by making the 2,088-pound wheel of cheese at Henning’s Cheese, a fourth-generation cheese maker founded in 1914, which can make cheese wheels up to 12,000 pounds. Coenen was able to work with both the third and fourth generations.
Starting in cheese
The Nov. 17 special event at the Ankeny Hy-Vee store was the culmination, of sorts, of a long and unpredictable journey for Coenen.
After graduating from Creston High School, Coenen attended University of Iowa, where he earned a degree in sports management. From there, he took a job with the Texas Rangers in Dallas.
“It never really satisfied the career needs I was looking for,” Coenen said. “I wanted a change of scenery, something fun, something I could learn from and be excited to go to work.”
He was hired at a Dallas cheese shop called Scardello in March 2015, where his love of cheese was ignited.
Coenen left Scardello for a cheese-making internship on a goat farm in New York before taking the job as cheese specialist at the Ankeny Hy-Vee in January 2017.
His time at Scardello sent him down a new career path.
“The owner and the shop manager, they kind of took me under their wing and taught me everything they knew,” Coenen said. “They were so enthusiastic about working with cheese and passing it on to customers. Being able to learn about all the different products from different countries is exciting. And, being able to eat cheese on a daily basis while I work is a perk, too.”
Making the wheel
Coenen created the 2,088-pound wheel of cheese in January 2018 at Henning’s. The wheel of cheese was handmade.
According to Coenen, the only thing not handled with their hands is the milk, which goes straight from the truck to a vat in the facility to make the curds.
Coenen’s day started at 4 a.m., just after the milk was turned into curd. At that point, his job was to take the flat sheets of curd and flip them and stack them up. The flipping of the curds is an important step because it forces whey out of the curds.
He then sent the mats of curds through the mill, where an agitator broke the curds apart. The broken apart curds ended up in a vat, and Coenen used four 5-gallon buckets of salt to salt the 4,000 pounds of curds.
The final step was dumping the curds into a barrel. Coenen personally dumped all 2,000 pounds of curds used for his wheel of cheese into the barrel, one 5-gallon bucket at a time. Once all the curds were in the barrel, the barrel was taken by forklift to a press, which spent an hour and a half releasing moisture from the cheese.
Finally, the barrel of cheese went into a pressurized chamber to compact the curds and then, after three weeks, was waxed. The barrel was delivered to the Ankeny Hy-Vee store earlier this month.
Coenen and his boss had been building up to the Nov. 17 event by promoting it on Facebook and Instagram. They even used a countdown timer and had life-sized cardboard cutouts of Coenen standing by the wheel placed throughout the store.
Coenen’s family and friends were there at 9 a.m. Nov. 17 when the event kicked off, along with about 30 to 40 other spectators.
“I was probably the most nervous I’ve been in quite a while,” Coenen said. “People were watching. I had family up there. You just don’t want to screw up. You don’t want something to go wrong. And you obviously want the cheese to taste amazing, because it’s something we’ve been building up for awhile on Facebook.”
After scoring the outside of the wheel with the chef’s knife, Coenen used the large wire to slice through the wheel, taking off a 100-pound slab at a time and then cutting that slab into smaller chunks.
“The cheese tasted amazing. After opening it up, everyone wanted to buy it. It was one of the busiest days we’ve had in a long time. We were selling (chunks) just as fast as we were wrapping,” Coenen said.
As of Sunday, Coenen estimated he had cut into about 1,300 pounds worth of the wheel. He said he was satisfied with the response to the event and how much of the wheel has been sold already.
The North Ankeny Boulevard Hy-Vee store is selling 1-2 pound pieces of the white cheddar cheese wheel.