When you think of Wisconsin, what comes to mind? Probably the Green Bay Packers and cheese, and with good reason. The Packers are a storied NFL franchise, but as the foam cheese hats the Packers fans wear indicate, the real pride of Wisconsin is its dairy farms and its cheese.
From the Crave Brothers, who control every step of the process of making their farmstead cheeses, to Myron Olson at Chalet Cheese Cooperative, who is the last maker of Limburger in the United States, Wisconsin’s cheesemakers are dedicated to their craft. Whether they are eager young cheesemakers like Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wis., or a third or fourth generation cheesemaker like Joseph Widmer of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis., they all share one thing in common, a dedication to making the finest cheese possible.
The Daily Meal recently spent time in Wisconsin with the state's top cheesemakers to learn about the basics of cheesemaking. Visitors can buy cheese at the onsite cheeseshops at Widmer's Cheese Cellars and Chalet Cheese Cooperative.
Wisconsin was the biggest wheat producer in the United States in the early 1800s until a blight wiped out the crop. So farmers moved into the dairy business and turned Wisconsin into "America’s Dairyland." But cheese was once just a byproduct of dairy farming. Farmers would produce milk for the family and farm and any excess would be made into cheese. Because there was no way to store and transport cheese safely, it remained a "farm product" until the 1850s, when farmers gained the ability to sell it outside of local communities.
Today, Wisconsin has more than 12,000 dairy farm families and is the top producer of cheese in America, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. In fact, Wisconsin produces more than one-fourth of America’s cheese.
When dairy lovers discuss Wisconsin cheese, they are usually referring to cheese made from cow’s milk, but there are also great goat’s milk and sheep’s milk cheeses being made in Wisconsin.
Cheese starts with four simple ingredients: milk, bacteria, rennet (enzymes), and salt. The cheesemaker is part scientist, part artist; he must use his training and knowledge of cheesemaking as well as all five of his senses to create a great final product.
Many of the cheesemakers in Wisconsin today are the descendants of immigrants who moved to the state from places like Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, and brought their cheesemaking heritage with them. Many of the cheeses made today were first created to appeal to the immigrants that settled in Wisconsin. Chalet Cheese Cooperatives’s Limburger and Widmer’s Cheese Cellars’ German Brick were made to appeal to the German immigrants that settled near the dairy farms.
In 1916, Wisconsin started requiring cheesemakers to have a license in order to make cheese, and it's the only state in the U.S. to still require this. The state also implemented a rigorous program to certify Master Cheesemakers in 1980. To date, only 52 people have been certified as a Master Cheesemaker in Wisconsin, a sign of their dedication to the state's deep-rooted tradition of cheesemaking. Wisconsin is not only America’s top cheese producer, but it's the producer of some of the finest cheeses in the world.
See Wisconsin Cheese 101: How Cheese Is Made Slideshow and catch a glimpse of some of Wisconsin’s top cheesemakers.
Hospitality to Sean Sullivan was provided by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.