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Beer and Cheese: A Wisconsin Tradition

Growing up near Kalamazoo and going to Holland, Michigan every May for the Tulip Time Festival engrained in my impressionable six-year-old mind the fusion of three things Dutch: a windmill, wooden clogs, and of course the tulips planted in and growing out of a pair of clogs sitting underneath a windmill. And when I turned eight, my dad changed jobs, so I left that memory behind to move to Wisconsin. My first cultural memory of Wisconsin was seeing a giant vat full of milk, being stirred until it separated and formed cheese curds. Also sharp in my memory is the chocolate cheese that I went back for over and over again in the cheese shop cases adjacent to the room where the cheese was being made. I never thought about the cultural heritage of Wisconsin cheese at that time, but now I know that any mention of Wisconsin cuisine screams two things: beer and cheese. We love our cheese. We love our beer. Trying the two together might not sound appetizing, but these two foods can complement each other and they do reflect Wisconsin’s European culinary heritage. And, within those two Wisconsin food groups, numerous types of Wisconsin-made products are available at Willy Street Co-op.

There are a few exceptions to the stereotypes of Wisconsin food mentioned above. For instance, if we consider the plants, the list grows much longer. In fact, it more than doubles. There is backyard rhubarb, front-yard apple trees and out-of-town orchards, west-central Wisconsin’s cranberry bogs, south-central Wisconsin’s soybean farms, and the myriad of corn growers all over the state. And, despite the variety of fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, Wisconsinites are well-known for their penchant for heavy foods. When discussing Wisconsin food, it is generally heavy in the winter and…uh…heavy fare in the summer too…beer and brats from the German heritage…and cheese from the Swiss and Dutch heritage. 

And while I was dreadfully misinformed about the origins of cheddar, ethnocentrically thinking that Wisconsin was and is the eternal fountain of Cheddar cheese, it is indubitably named after the eponymous village in England, its birthplace. Initially, after the initial practice in Wisconsin dairy farms made cheese for their own consumption, but since then, commercial producers have made some great cheddar cheeses available to Wisconsin consumers. I’m thinking specifically of Hook’s Cheese Company, Bleu Mont Dairy, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Red Barn, and McCluskey Brothers. 

Award-Winning Wisconsin Cheeses

At the 2016 World Cheese Championship, which took place at Monona Terrace here in Madison, a Swiss-style cheese from Wisconsin won first prize, Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix made by the cheese company Emmi Roth in Fitchburg. This unexpected honor has left the company scrambling to fill orders, because they did not anticipate winning the World Cheese Championship’s blind-tasting contest. Thus, if you can find it, then by all means buy it, and treasure it. It is a culinary reminder of Wisconsin’s immigrant past. Another Swiss-style cheese from Wisconsin, Uplands Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Dodge-ville, made the list of the top 16 cheeses at the World Cheese Championship this year. These cheese styles, among the first in Wisconsin, reflect the regional history to a tee. It proves that if you are looking to buy a good Swiss cheese, south central Wisconsin is an epicenter for quality Swiss cheesemaking. For northwest Wisconsin, Goudas are best done by Holland’s Family Cheese, who produces MariekeFarmstead Goudas. This year at the Cheese Championship, in the category of flavored goudas, their Gouda Caraway won Best of Show. Their farmstead cheeses reflect the more recent immigrant past of Wisconsin with Dutch people transplanting Dutch cheesemaking practices onto Wisconsin soil.

History of Beer in Wisconsin

The history of beer in Wisconsin has roughly three periods. For the early period, the 1830s, there are records documenting Wisconsin’s affinity for German-style lagers. By the 1890s, the middle period of beer-making in Wisconsin, there were about 300 breweries. After Prohibition, the third period of beermaking, birthed the companies still well-known today. Pabst Brewing Co., Miller Brewing Company, Schlitz (now owned by Pabst), and Blatz (also now owned by Pabst) symbolize the renaissance of Wisconsin beer culture after the dark period of Prohibition. I would argue that we are in a fourth period now in which craft brewers are changing the terrain of beer-making, focusing on local ingredients when possible. Creativity and inventive thinking have opened new avenues for craft beer production. While the style India Pale Ale is at the forefront for the moment, I am curious to know what kinds of beer will be the focus of craft-brewing in the next ten to twenty years. Perhaps less hop-centered beers in favor of a  more balanced flavor profile, reflective of equal malts and equal hops? It remains to be seen, and I genuinely look forward to watching the evolution of the fourth period of beer production in Wisconsin and throughout the country. For more information on the Wisconsin history of beer production in images, please visit Wisconsin Historical Society’s Image Gallery for Beer History in Wisconsin.

Combining the Two: Beer/Cheese Pairings

While you may tend to think of how wine and cheese pair together at a meal, cheese’s long lost brother—beer—is always waiting to come back home. At home in Wisconsin, beer and cheese combinations can complement each other in perfect culinary harmony. This combination is awaiting your palate in the form of Wisconsin-made cheeses and Wisconsin-produced craft beer. The pairings I suggest are inspired by an NPR article, in which craft brewer and food critic Garrett Oliver recommends five categorical pairings. I’ve used these recommendations as a framework for choosing beers and cheeses available at Willy Street Co-op. These pairings are best served as appetizers or post main-course. The first pairing is a fresh goat cheese with a Saison, or Farmhouse Ale. Both Dreamfarm’s Fresh Chevre and LaClare Farm’s Fresh Goat Cheese would work here alongside either of Door County Brewery’s Farmhouse Ales Pastoral or L’été. The second pairing is a Sheep-milk cheese with a Brown Ale. Hidden Springs Manchego or Ocooch Mountain, or Landmark Creamery’s Anabasque would work well with Ale Asylum’s Madtown Nutbrown Ale. This pairing offers a departure from the trend of so many India Pale Ales produced by craft breweries across Wisconsin and the country. The third pairing is a departure from Wisconsin-made cheeses as it consists of putting Stilton, an English blue cheese, with Stout. For the Stout, although not a true Stout, I recommend Arena’s own Lake Louie’s Tommy’s Porter as a robust beer to cut through the creaminess of the blue cheese. The fourth pairing is to put a Farmhouse Cheddar with an India Pale Ale. Finding a Wisconsin-made IPA is the least of your worries. Madison’s Karben4 Fantasy Factory IPA, or Milwaukee’s Lakefront’s IPA are both great options to pair with a McCluskey’s Cheddar. The last pairing includes another international cheese (Italian this time). Taleggio, which arrives to the Co-op in a square shape, is wrapped in paper depicting Italian cows grazing the Italian countryside. This cheese goes well with sour or wild ales. The one sour ale that I enjoy is O’so Brewery’s Infectious Groove. This combination isnot for all. But for those who are up for a cheese, beer, no holds barred wild Wisconsin adventure, please do dig in! The bacterial cultures, used to make beers and cheeses hide behind nothing in this final pairing.

So it’s all true then? All the stereotypes of Wisconsin cuisine? Sure they are. So let’s own our Wisconsin culinary stereotypes, have some fun with them, and eat delicious, local cheeses accompanied by locally crafted beer. 

Wheelhouse StudiosGrass-Fed AttorneysMix & match six-packs of beer at Willy West.Madison Waldorf School

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