What’s all the stink about Wisconsin cheese?
Have you heard the term "Cheesehead" during your time in the U.S.? It’s not an insult! It’s a nickname for people from the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, which has a long history of cheesemaking and is one of the largest producers of dairy products in the United States. Cheese production in “America’s Dairyland” dates as far back as the mid 19th century, when many immigrants settled in the region for its fertile lands. Many Wisconsin cheesemakers whose grandparents and great grandparents made Wisconsin cheese are continuing the tradition today as well as innovating the delicious craft. Today, the state's 1,200 cheesemakers produce more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese. That’s a lot of cheese!
Don’t be surprised if during American football season you see fans of the Green Bay Packers, Wisconsin’s pro team, wearing large cheese-shaped hats at the game. This is just one way to show their pride for their state.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
History of Cheese in Wisconsin
Since the climate of the region suits farming well, it was no surprise that farmers and European immigrants were attracted to the area and began to grow crops. At first, farmers grew wheat and other grains, and then dairy farming followed. Since the farmers were producing cow’s milk of such a high qualify—and a lot of it—the farmers began making cheese with it.
The first full-scale cheesemaking factory came about in 1858. John J. Smith was a farmer on the University of Wisconsin’s Board of Regents. Using milk he purchased from his neighbors, he began processing the milk for a percentage of the finished cheese product. The cheesemaking industry took off and just five years later, another farmer named Chester Hazen had a factory built in Ladoga, Wisconsin that would use the milk from 300 cows.
The cheesemaking industry really took off after that and made the state quite prosperous, but the rapid growth meant that standards had to be put into place. In 1872, the Dairymen’s Association established procedures to properly make, market and sell the cheese. The Association was made up of seven leaders in the dairy industry. Soon after in 1886, the University of Wisconsin began offering courses in cheesemaking.
By 1922, over 2,800 cheese factories existed in Wisconsin. The state was the first to grade its cheese for quality and continued to set the standard for the industry around the country. Wisconsin’s central location in the Midwest also helped in the fast and successful distribution of cheese across the United States. By 1945, Wisconsin produced about 515 million pounds of cheese per year. Today that number is closer to 2.8 billion.
Image courtesy of Pixabay
It takes approximately 10 pounds of milk to make one pound of cheese. The cheesemaking process begins with milk, which is first tested to make sure it is of high quality. The next stage is standardization, where the milk is pasteurized or heat-treated to ensure uniformity and safety. Starter cultures, or “good” bacteria, are added to start the cheesemaking process. These cultures will determine both the flavor and texture of the cheese. Rennet, a milk-clotting enzyme, is added next to coagulate the milk. This process forms a custard-like substance. Next comes the process of separating the liquid (whey) from the milk solids (curds). The curds and whey are stirred and cooked until the desired temperature and firmness of the curd is achieved. The whey is strained, leaving a tightly formed curd. Depending on the techniques and salting, the curd will be transformed into one of the many varieties of cheese made. The shape of the cheese is then determined in the “pressing” step, and the time this takes depends on the size of the cheese. Again depending on the type of cheese, it may be aged through the process of “curing”—sometimes for over 10 years.
Wisconsin Cheese Tourism
Wisconsin wins more cheese awards than any other state or country. For 150 years, cheesemaking has been a way of life in Wisconsin, with many families and farmers producing cheese for generations. Wisconsin hosts many visitors (tourists and cheesemakers alike) each year who want to experience some of the best cheese in the world, from a gourmet, aged parmesan to a bag of tasty cheese curds.
- Visit Wisconsin!
- What kind of cheese is your favorite? Check the Cheesecyclopedia®
- Wisconsin cheesemaking video
- Cheese statistics
- Cheese around the world
Allison joined the InterExchange team in 2011 and holds a B.A. in International Affairs and an M.A. in Higher Education. She oversees the daily operations of the Career Training USA program where she has the privilege of working with students and professionals from around the world pursuing U.S. internships and training programs. Allison is originally from Massachusetts and studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina.