“To know Wisconsin is to know its cheese.”
“Wisconsin was made for making cheese.”
“Say Cheese and you say Wisconsin.”
Those quotes are from, respectively, Travel Wisconsin, Wisconsin Cheese: A Cookbook and Guide to the Cheeses of Wisconsin, and Cheese: The Making of a Wisconsin Tradition. Quips like these illustrate something we all know about the country’s--even the world’s--associations with our state. Of course, there’s much more to know and love about Wisconsin than just the dairy industry. But cheese certainly is ubiquitous here, and we have a lot to be proud of. “To know [our] cheese” is a tall order because of just how much there is to get to know. At the Co-op’s Cheese departments alone, you could spend countless hours working your way through all of the local offerings. (I certainly have!) It’s hard to take a road trip in the state without seeing a highway sign advertising cheese for sale; and, infact, Travel Wisconsin has put together a road trip guide specifically for cheese tours, if you want to make that the focus of your travels. (More on that later in this article.)
In 2015, here in America’s Dairyland, we produced 26% of cheese made in the United States, totaling more than three billion pounds. Not only is cheese plentiful in Wisconsin, but it’s also good—and don’t worry, we’re not just saying that because we live here. Wisconsin cheesemakers have won top international awards: most recently, Emmi Roth won the World Cheese Championship 2016 grand prize for their Grand Cru® Surchoix. This Wisconsin cheese beat out worthy competition from Switzerland and the Netherlands to take the top prize.
Wisconsin is, notably, the only state in the country that requires all commercial cheese production to be overseen by a certified cheesemaker. While this strict requirement does present a higher hurdle than aspiring cheesemakers face in other states, it helps ensure that the brand of “Wisconsin Cheese” remains in the highest repute around the country and the world. Wisconsin is also the only state that offers a Master Cheese Maker certification, a title which has a prerequisite of being a certified cheese maker for 10 years and having produced the cheese for which one is seeking the certification for at least five years. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, more than 70 people have attained Master Cheese Maker status in Wisconsin since the program’s inception in 1994. Now, that’s impressive.
Cheese in WI Brief History
According to Americasdairyland.com, Wisconsin’s cheese history can be traced back to the 1830s. For a super-comprehensive timeline with photos, check out www.americasdairyland.com/assets/images/pdf/WisconsinDairyData.pdf. Some highlights from this timeline include:
•1830s: Pioneering Wisconsin farm wives begin making “kitchen” cheese from milk produced by their herds.
•1841: Anne Pickett of Lake Mills makes the first official Wisconsin cheese.
•1864: Chester Hazen builds the first traditional cheese factory in Fond du Lac County, in the town of Ladoga.
•1880: Wisconsin surpasses Ohio in cheese production, becoming second to New York.
•1890: Stephen Babcock, an agriculture research chemist, develops the Babcock test, a simple method of measuring the butterfat content of milk.
•1910: Wisconsin surpasses New York to become the nation’s number 1 cheese producer.
•1972: Wisconsin cheese production surpasses one billion pounds.
•1988: The “Belle of Wisconsin,” a mammoth, 20-ton block of cheddar, begins a yearlong tour of the United States.
•1994: The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program is established. The program remains the only one of its kind in the country.
•2010: Wisconsin surpasses Italy to become 4th largest cheesemaking region in the world, producing 2.6 billion pounds of cheese to Italy’s 2.5 billion pounds.
•2016: Wisconsin continues its domination of the World Championship Cheese Contest and claims the World Champion Cheese title, judged the best cheese in the world. (Americasdairyland.com)
Believe it or not, that’s well under half the dates on the list. Visit the link above for the full list.
Alice in Dairyland
Here in Wisconsin, we’re creative about how we promote cheese. Since 1948, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (WI DATCP) has hired an annual “Alice in Dairyland” spokesperson. Alice in Dairyland is a woman employed as a marketing professional who travels extensively to promote Wisconsin cheese and agriculture. When the program first began, Alice was a high school graduate chosen based on “beauty and health, general personality, and ability to present herself and her message before large groups,” according to the DATCP website. Nowadays, in contrast, she is a “professional public relations professional with at least four years of experience or education in agriculture, public relations, communications, or related fields. Beyond individual communication skills, the list of job requirements includes knowledge about Wisconsin’s diverse agriculture and products, history, resources, and rural-urban issues.”
You can follow Alice in Dairyland on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and her website at www.aliceindairyland.com.
Cheese Events & Festivals
Okay, so you’re sufficiently hungry now, right? Time to check out some cheese in person! Fancy a road trip? Or, alternately, want to attend some cheese events close to home? You’ve got options!
In the Madison area, there are several major events to check out every year.
Cows on the Concourse
Cows on the Concourse is an annual event held around the Capitol Square in Madison in conjunction with June Dairy Month. At this event, you can meet some cows (and even pet them!), talk to farmers and ask them questions about their cows, learn about dairy, buy a grilled cheese sandwich, and more.
World Dairy Expo
The World Dairy Expo is a five-day event held annually in Madison at the Alliant Energy Center. It has occurred every October since 1967. The Expo involves a cattle show, a trade show (the “largest dairy-focused trade show in the world” according to Wikipedia), and youth contests.
Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival
The Isthmus Beer and Cheese Festival is an annual event at the Alliant Energy Center that began in 2010 and centers around tasting varieties of two of our state’s proudest products. Attendees can choose a standard or premium ticket.
Want to venture further afield? Festivals and fairs across the state draw enormous crowds—come join the fun!
Green County Cheese Days
Green County Cheese Days is a huge festival that began in 1914. More than 100 years later, attendance at this biennial September event tops 100,000. Attendees can even camp at the Green County Fairgrounds. Make sure to check out the The Swiss Colony Cheese Days Parade, featuring the Limburger Queen, as well as the music stage.
Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival (Little Chute)
The Great Wisconsin Cheese Festival has taken place annually in Little Chute since 1988. It takes place the first weekend in June, over three days, to mark the beginning of June Dairy Month. Check out the Big Cheese Parade, cheese carvers, and many other attractions at this event.
Wisconsin State Fair (West Allis)
The annual Wisconsin State Fair includes a Cheese and Butter Contest as well as a Cheese and Butter Auction, which features the blue-ribbon winners of the contest. At the Real Wisconsin Cheese Grill, fair-goers can buy grilled cheese sandwiches, fresh cheese curds, and cheese sticks.
Want to hit the road and eat like royalty? Travel Wisconsin gives suggestions for cheese-centric road trips —including a Southwestern tour and an Eastern tour: www.travelwisconsin.com/article/things-to-do/an-epicurean-getaway-the-wisconsin-cheese-tour.
If you’d like to visit a cheese factory and see how the process works, Travel Wisconsin also offers a directory of cheese factories that allow visitors, either for observation or for tours: www.travelwisconsin.com/things-to-do/local-foods/cheese-factories/directory.
Looking to expand your cheese enthusiasm beyond our home state? Cheese Journeys offers trips to other cheese-producing regions nationally and internationally. Check out their offerings at http://cheesejourneys.com/.
Cheese at the Co-op
Getting back to your regular routine, you might be amazed by what the Cheese departments at the Co-op can offer. At Willy East and Willy West, the Cheese counters are full-service in ways you might not be aware of. If you see a cheese you like but want a larger or smaller piece, many cheeses can be cut to a larger or smaller size, depending on the cheese. During times the Cheese counter is staffed, just ask an employee for more information. We offer packages of cheese slices in some best-selling varieties popular for sandwiches, including (at the time of writing) mild yellow cheddar, baby swiss, pepper jack and provolone. Some other types of cheese can be sliced to order; so if you’re interested, again, just ask your friendly staff member.
Catering via the Co-op’s Production Kitchen offers a fantastic Wisconsin cheese platter consisting of five local favorites if you’re looking for something special for your next gathering or event. There’s also a platter of five international cheeses, if you want to try something from abroad.
Willy Street Co-op Cheese Challenge
Since March 2015, Willy Street Co-op has hosted an annual cheese competition of our own. Thirty-two local cheeses are pitted against each other in a delicious customer-tasting competition. It’s March-Madness-style—but we promise, it has nothing to do with basketball. When votes are tallied, the winning cheese from one pair goes up against the winning cheese from another pair, until the tournament culminates with the final two cheeses and a grand prize winner. Past winners include Roelli Cheese Dunbarton Blue in 2015, and Sartori Montamoré® in 2016. This year, the competition begins on Thursday, March 16, and ends on Sunday, April 2. Competition days are Thursday through Sunday each of those weeks, at all three stores. You can sample cheese and vote on your favorite 11:00am-6:00pm on those days.
How are the initial cheeses selected? Well, they’re all local, to start! The designers of the contest choose some broad categories to represent, and choose a sampling of excellent cheeses in those categories. Based on the winners of the first round, the cheeses that go up against each other in each successive round might be increasingly different from each other. This, in particular, is a chance to branch out and try something you might not have otherwise tried. Maybe you know that you like one of the cheeses, but how will it compare to something completely different? We’ll let you be the judge of that!
This year, for the second year, customers can fill out a bracket with their predicted winners for each stage of the competition. Paper brackets are available in this issue of the Reader (see page 16), or you can find one online at willystreet.coop/cheesechallenge. Submit your bracket online or in the entry box at any of hte stores no later than March 15th (one day before the competition begins).
There are many cheese competitions around the globe.
The World Championship Cheese Contest takes place in Madison every other year (on even-numbered years). In 2016, an American cheese (Wisconsin’s own Roth Grand Cru Surchoix) won the grand prize for the first time since 1988.
The American Cheese Society judges American-made cheeses (from North, Central, and South America) on an annual basis, and Wisconsin cheeses are typically well-represented in the list of winners. The competition takes place at a different location each year.
The Guild of Fine Foods’ World Cheese Awards winners are mainly European cheese makers (at least in 2016 and 2015), but Wisconsin cheeses take prizes, too.
Cheese Statistics & Industry Growth
According to Dairyreporter.com, the specialty and natural cheese market in the United States grew to $17.4 billion in 2015, at a compound annual growth rate of 4.11% since 2011. Growth is expected to continue. Globally, also according to Dairyreporter.com, the cheese industry as a whole is expected to reach $100 billion by 2019, up from $79.5 billion in 2012. Also according to Dairyreporter.com, US cheese production grew in 2015 for the 18th straight year, expected to continue.
As you can probably tell from all of this, it’s a good time to be a cheese lover, andif you’re in Wisconsin, you’re in one of the world’s best places to enjoy top-quality innovative and classic cheeses alike. And that’s no cheesy joke.