If the aim were to conjure an idyllic landscape of rolling hills dotted with dairy farms where cheese is undoubtedly king, it would be hard to imagine anything much different than the state of Wisconsin.
Earnest, modest and low-key, though not without a touch of "gee-whiz" hucksterism, Wisconsin's cheesemakers are quintessentially Midwestern. Family and tradition, especially the trades and practices of their European forebears, are big.
"In Wisconsin, cheese isn't something we do, it's who we are," says Chad Vincent, CEO of Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the state's milk marketing board. "In fact, Wisconsin wins more awards than any other state or country. No, our cheesemakers don't brag much—they let our cheeses speak for themselves."
As California is to wine, so Wisconsin is to cheese—which is to say the top-producing state, with an impressive track record of turning out not only commercial blockbusters but also many superior specialty items. Wisconsin accounts for 47 percent of the national specialty total and, from 2007 to 2017, its output in the sector increased from 399 million to 799 million pounds. Many Wisconsin cheeses are versions of continental classics—from cheddars and parmesans to alpine styles and blues—but there are also plenty of world-class American originals.
Fully 90 percent of Wisconsin's milk is made into cheese. America's Dairyland prides itself on both the quality of that milk and the creaminess of those cheeses. "I like to kid around that in Wisconsin, historically, we aligned with the French during the French and Indian War," says state-licensed grader and affineur Chris Gentine. "That's why our cheeses are creamier: We've always made them for the King of France, not the Queen of England."
Just as they go for creamy, Wisconsin cheesemakers are not shy about using helveticus cultures (blends of Lactobacillus helveticus strains), which tend to inject more nutty, rounded and sweeter notes such as butterscotch and caramel—even in their cheddars.
Wisconsin's cheddars fall into two subcategories: the more traditional English farmhouse style, which is usually clothbound, and the American. Think of the latter as a high-quality handmade version of Cracker Barrel. What's astounding about these cheeses is they can be aged up to 12 years and stay every bit as moist and creamy as they were at three or four months. The trick is vacuum-sealing them in plastic for long, slow aging in cold storage (38° F to 45° F).
Also remarkable is how bold and tenacious their lip-smacking tang is, and how it's skillfully balanced with sweet, creamy, fruity and nutty notes. Even up to 10 or 12 years of age, their flavors and textures remain quite constant; they merely concentrate and intensify.
Among the best American-style Wisconsin cheddars are Deer Creek's Select line, highlighted by a cheese called Vat 17; and the 6- to 12-year-olds from both Hook's and Widmer's. Another favorite is Red Barn's 5-year-aged Weis, which adds a well-rounded, meaty, savory element to the sweet, creamy, milky flavors of its younger versions.
In the more traditional English vein, the standouts are Deer Creek's bandage-wrapped line, which includes the Fawn, the Stag and the Imperial Buck (in order of increasing age), and the Roelli Haus Select, both of which offer that sweeter, nuttier American-accented profile. And finally, there's Willi Lehner's Bleu Mont Bandaged Cheddar, the closest of all to the genuine U.K. article; I'd put it up against England's iconic Keen's any day.
Other European styles
Roth's acclaimed alpine-style cheeses, Grand Cru Surchoix and Private Reserve, are marketed as American originals, which isn't totally disingenuous as they're made with Wisconsin-based know-how and resources. Compared with a Swiss Gruyère AOP, the Private Reserve has more sweetish caramel or butterscotch notes than its mustier Swiss cousin; the Grand Cru is more Gruyère-like, though with some fruitier Comté leanings.
Landmark Creamery's Pecorino-style Peccora Nocciola truly lives up to its name—nocciola means "hazelnut" in Italian—highlighting the rich nuttiness of its sheep milk.
Marieka Gouda is brought to us by Marieka and Rolf Penterman, Dutch immigrants who've mastered their native land's age-old technique of enhancing cheeses with spice additives. The plain versions aged 12 months and up are recommended. The fenugreek dovetails seamlessly with their farm's high-quality milk—a blissful marriage.
An American original with European echoes, Uplands Cheese's Pleasant Ridge Reserve is a perennial go-to selection: Like a classic Beaufort d'Alpage, it's made only with summer milk. The one tasted for this roundup was more Fontina-like than past samples.
Sartori's BellaVitano, inspired by Italian farmhouse grana styles but with some aged cheddar inclinations, and its Sarvecchio, which stakes a claim as the finest "American parmesan," are true to their Italian heritage. Like other Wisconsinites, they deliver comparable quality at a lower price point.
Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese Co. demonstrates his chops with his Snow White Goat Cheddar, flashes his imagination with Mobay (half goat, half sheep) and takes it to the max with Cocoa Cardona, which has tang, sweetness, depth of flavor and umami galore. The Cardona never crosses the line to musty because it's got so much else going on, including that subtle cocoa-powder accent.
Representing a venerable Wisconsin tradition, Joe Widmer's Aged Brick is washed-rind, a little bit slimy and stinky, pleasantly funky and reminiscent of a genuine French Munster.
Chris Roelli, another Wisconsin rock star, brings us Red Rock Cellar Aged Blue and Dunbarton Cheddar Blue; both feature the architecture of a cheddar with intentional blueing. Though its mold is barely visible, the Red Rock tastes blue while holding onto the lip-smacking tangy-sweet balance of its cheddar siblings. The Dunbarton is a full-strength, bold-flavored blue with cheddarlike, moist, chewy fudginess.
Another standout from Hook's extensive roster is its mixed-milk Triple Play. It packs an eye-opening flavor punch and compels contemplation of the interplay among its three milks—cow, sheep and goat. Along similar lines is LaClare's Chandoka, an American-style cow-and-goat cheddar; moist and pleasantly chewy, it's got a touch of goatiness but plenty of sweet and nutty flavors for balance. The cave-aged version is parmesanlike in texture while channeling an aged Boerenkaas (Dutch farmhouse Gouda) in flavor.
Landmark's Petit Nuage is an irresistible little lemon tart of a young sheep's milk button with bright citrusy flavors that ranks right up top in Wisconsin alongside the Cocoa Cardona, Widmer's Aged Brick, Bleu Mont's Bandaged Cheddar and Deer Creek's the Blue Jay.
Sid Cook scores another hit with his Billy Blue: It's goaty and a little musty; its complex profile is masterfully orchestrated with the bite of its blue; and, featuring sweet-savory balance, it evolves to a mellow finish.
Roth's Buttermilk Blue balances its up-front bite with a good dose of creamy cow's milk flavors and lingers pleasantly without bitterness or burn. It's another very well-made cheese from Marc Druart and his team.
Any cheese tour of Wisconsin would end very nicely with either Hook's Little Boy Blue or Deer Creek's the Blue Jay. The former, made in the Roquefort style and another of the state's perennial award winners, is full-flavored and strong on the attack but with a pleasant mellow finish due to the quality of its sheep milk. The latter, made with extra cream, is equally forceful and strong. Owners Chris and Julie Gentine had a hunch, added juniper berries for a flavor kick, and it turned out to be an inspired choice.