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A History of Cheese: Wisconsin

Wisconsin produces more than 600 varieties, styles and types of American, international and original cheese that win more awards than any other state or country. So, how did Wisconsin become the hot-spot for cheese? I’ll tell you – and give you some cheesy spots to visit on your next trip to Madison!

During the last Ice Age, glaciers cut through Wisconsin, eventually leaving behind a picturesque countryside complete with rolling hills and lush pastureland. Millions of years later, European immigrants migrated west and found the nation’s heartland, which reminded them of their homelands. The climate was good for farming and the farmers started out with wheat, hops and grains. Soon after, dairy farming followed. Farmers started producing top-quality milk and to preserve the excess began making cheese.

In 1841, Anne Pickett established Wisconsin’s first cottage cheese factory by getting milk from a neighbor’s cows. Then in 1858, John J. Smith obtained a cheese vat and began making cheese at home in Sheboygan County. Soon after in 1859, Hiram Smith (a farmer on the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents) founded a full-scale cheese factory. He bought milk from dairy farmers, or processed it in exchange for a percentage of the factory’s output.

In 1872, it was time to put in procedures for marketing Wisconsin’s cheese. Before, there was no uniform grading system tied to standards of identity for cheeses. The Dairymen’s Association, made up of seven leaders in the industry, put together a new Board of Trade in Watertown and put procedures into place for marketing what was becoming a prosperous industry for the state.

In 1886, the University of Wisconsin College Of Agriculture started offering short courses for farmers and cheesemakers and in 1890 Stephen Babcock (of the University of Wisconsin) developed the first milkfat test, one that’s still being used today! By 1922, Wisconsin had more than 2,800 cheese factories. And by 1945, the state’s cheese output had grown to around 515 million pounds per year. Today there are approximately 10,000 dairy farms with over 1.27 million cows.

So where can you get some of Wisconsin’s staple product? Here are five places in or near Madison that you can sample and purchase cheeses:

  1. Fromagination – Located in Madison, Fromagination encourages customers to see, smell and taste the cheese, and also to learn about how and where they were made.
  2. Babcock Hall Dairy Store – Located in Madison, and named after Stephen Babcock, the store produces signature products for the university and the community. Most visit for the ice cream, but the plant also produces award-winning cheeses and bottles of locally produced milk.
  3. Emmi Roth Kase USA, Ltd./Alp & Dell Cheese Store – Located in Monroe, about an hour away from Madison, is Emmi Roth Kase. The factory provides tours, tastings and an observation window to view the cheese-making process.
  4. Edelweiss Cheese – Located in New Glarus, about 25 miles southwest of Madison, Edelweiss is known for their own award-winning cheeses and other local cheesemakers’ fine products.
  5. The Old Fashioned – Located in Madison, this restaurant highlights meats, cheeses and local specialties from small Wisconsin producers. Their motto is, “Remember Eating at Grandma’s? We do.” This is a great opportunity to have some cheese with a meal and be taken back to a simpler time.

To plan a trip to Madison, give us a call at (888) 556-8281, Monday-Friday 9am to 5pm ET.

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