Invading Dairyland: The Perfect 3-Day Wisconsin Cheese-a-Palooza Tour
Wisconsin loves dairy so much that there, wearing foam cheddar wedge-shaped hats is considered "normal behavior." But Wisconsinites have a good reason to boast: Theirs is the number-one cheese-producing state in the world’s number-one cheese-producing country. That said, while thousands of tourists vacation in America's wine country every year, far fewer consider touring America's dairy country. Most people living outside of the Badger State likely wouldn’t know where to start—until now. Use this three-day itinerary as an introduction to some of Wisconsin’s best cheese for an authentic dive into its distinctly dairy-centric culture. (Tip: Bring a cooler to store your souvenirs.)
Begin with a scenic drive in the region northwest of Madison, through gentle hills and pleasant farmland (pictured). In the summer, the land gives off color like a Grant Wood painting. About 25 miles west of the water slides and roller coasters of the Wisconsin Dells sits the unassuming storefront for Carr Valley Cheese Factory (S3797 County G in La Valle; look for the cow-shaped bench out front). While you’ve likely never attended the “World Cheese Awards” or the “World Championship Cheese Contest,” these are the kinds of competitions that Carr Valley dominates. To sample some of the varieties the family-run company has been honored for, ask for the parmesan-esque Canaria, the chocolatey Cocoa Cardona, and dabble in all sorts of cheddar. The crusty baked cheese bread is also worth the drive–it’s based on juustoleipa, a Finnish baked treat that complements your morning coffee.
Believe it or not, “Swiss Cheese capital" Monroe isn’t the state’s most noted Swiss-themed tourist destination. That honor goes to New Glarus, home of the New Glarus Hotel Restaurant (100 6th Ave.), which dominates a downtown rife with mountain-chalet architecture. Apart from live polka bands on the weekend, the restaurant specializes in raclette, a semi-hard cheese from the Alps, usually melted onto boiled potatoes. Wash it down with a farmhouse ale at the popular New Glarus Brewing Company (located off WI-69 just south of town), which overlooks the town from a nearby hilltop. Just how much do Wisconsinites love New Glarus beer? The brewery only sells within the state, and yet it still charts as one of America’s top 20 craft brewers in terms of sales.
Here’s the thing about the Dane County Farmers’ Market: You never know who is going to be there. Whenever a vendor feels like showing up with their dairy wares, they do, giving the event a certain serendipity. Open Saturday mornings April through early November in the picturesque square surrounding the Wisconsin Capitol Building, the market claims the title of the country’s largest producers-only farmers market. A morning stroll here will net plenty of cheesy opportunities, including the big-as-your-head hot and spicy cheese bread from Stella’s Bakery, a market mainstay. The market presents your best chance to leaven your diet with fruits and vegetables. Find radishes, peppers, beets, strawberries, and more; every morsel of produce here is grown in-state. (Take that, Iowa!)
Also in Madison’s Capitol Square, Fromagination (12 S Carroll St.) celebrates all things artisan cheese and delves deep into its details. Study the shop's big "Companion Guide" board to see which kinds of nuts, crackers, spirits, and honeys best complement the cheese you're taking home. The shop sometimes hosts classes for those who want to achieve a professional level of knowledge, so check for those; previous subjects have included "Cheese & Beer" and "Vive le Fromage." Even if there’s no class, still chat with the staff. They’ll show you how, just like wine, cheese tasting can also stimulate your senses of sight, touch, and smell. And you don’t even have to spit it out!
“Where Wisconsin is King” declares the motto of Madison's The Old Fashioned (23 N Pickney St.), which not only pays homage to the state’s beloved foods, but also to timeless dining culture like supper clubs, Friday Fish Fries, and neighborhood taverns. Sample double bratwurst from Sheboygan, Green Bay-style chili (similar to Cincinnati-style and other regional specialties you never even knew existed), and pair them with one of more than 100 statewide beers. But don’t leave without indulging in the buttermilk- and lager-battered deep-fried cheese curds (pictured), a delicious by-product of cheesemaking. No matter where you go, demonstrating an appreciation of the finer points of the local cheese curds will quickly earn the respect of the Wisconsinites you meet.
Another dinner option is Essen Haus (514 E Wilson St.), a jolly German dining experience with live polka and imported beers served in either “Das Boot” or in a 1- or 5-liter stein. Before the wienerschnitzel comes out, order the Obatzda cheese board featuring a house-made brie-based cheese spread, smoked meats, and pumpernickel.
Wisconsin isn’t solely a land of cow’s milk. Case in point: the goat farm at LaClare Family Creamery, located about a 75-minute drive north of Milwaukee along Lake Winnebago’s charming eastern shore. The family-run operation revels in all things goat. You can find goat milk soap and lotion, goat milk ice cream, goat-mixed-with-pork sausage, and even outdoor goat yoga, where week-old baby goats playfully bump into you while you’re saluting the sun (Saturdays at 10am in summer). Most importantly, LaClare’s fresh, perfectly tangy chevre is well worth a detour, whether you’re grabbing some to go or lingering for a while in the courtyard with a paired wine. And if you’re with kids (meaning your own)—or if you enjoy being ambushed by a tribe of adorable goat kids—visit the petting area before you hit the road.
Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, may not land on everyone’s must-visit list, but it can surprise visitors who don’t expect its Lake Michigan beaches, serene parks, and architectural highlights. It’s also home to one of the state’s greatest cheesemongers, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart (215 W Highland Ave.), located along the city’s delightfully German-inspired Old World Third Street. The 1930s-era mart carries more than 150 types of cheese, from Norwegian-style Gjetost “brown” cheese to a 21-year aged cheddar ($90 for a half-pound, if you’re wondering). Lunch at the attached tavern, Brüdd Cafe, to savor some of the Cheese Mart’s wares and achieve a transcendent state of dairy ecstasy via grilled cheese oozing with gruyere, five-year cheddar, and sun-dried tomatoes (pictured).
At this point, you may want to give your digestive system a break by enjoying cheese that isn’t meant to be eaten. So drop by Milwaukee’s Foamation, Inc. Factory (1120 S Barclay St.), which proudly boasts its status as the “Official Makers of the Original Cheesehead.” For the uninitiated, that's a foam, wedge-shaped hat that quickly became the headgear of choice for Green Bay Packers fans after its invention in 1987. Visitors can tour the factory (available every day except Sunday; book ahead) to see first-hand how the “cheese" gets made—in true Wisconsin fashion, having a beer during the tour is encouraged. The factory doesn't only make Cheeseheads. It has branched out to produce even more cheesy foam creations including bowties, fedoras, and crowns.