Taste of Wisconsin: Curds, Cheddar, Beer & Wine

by dccheese on May 31, 2013

in American-Midwest,Brews,cheesemaker chat,Restaurants,Vinos

This post is sponsored by Cracker Barrel Cheese. My Chicago food tour was great, but to get even more up close and personal with cheddar, Cracker Barrel asked me to go to Wisconsin on a cheese, beer and wine tour. It’s a rough life, I know. I flew into Central Wisconsin and went directly to Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Co. in Rudolph, one of the facilities that makes cheddar under contract for Cracker Barrel.

Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese Co.

A family-run operation, owner Mike Moran was coy about his age but explained he’d been making cheese for more than 40 years. In fact, the plant was bought by his father in 1962. Even after a lifetime in the industry, his passion for the craft of cheesemaking was still evident. Still a family business, his son helps make cheese while his wife and daughter work in the retail store.

Mike Moran, Wisconsin cheesemaker

Moran walked us through the process they use to make Cracker Barrel’s award-winning cheddar. The plant receives milk by tanker truck, from a number of local farms. After a quality check, the proprietary cultures (same ones since 1954) are added that give Cracker Barrel its signature flavor. While we toured, curds that would become jack were being stirred in the 5,000-pound vats.

making jack at Wisconsin Dairy State Cheese

After the whey is drained from the curd, the curds are pressed in these wooden presses, and moved into the aging room. (Or sent to another facility to be cut and packaged for Cracker Barrel.) The holes you see are where the tester obtains samples to check on the cheese as it ages and ensure it meets the standard for Cracker Barrel’s full flavor and creamy texture.

wisconsin cheese stamp

About 80% of the cheese made at the facility is sold to Kraft, while the remaining 20% is sold in the on-site store. The inventory contains cheddars, pungent brick cheese, and every flavor of jack you could imagine — blueberry, cranberry, apple and cinnamon and the usual array of spicy, pepper-studded bricks — as well as a selection of cheeses from local cheesemakers. And of course, there were curds. The store is something like the Toys-R-Us of cheese.

Dairy State Cheese Co. store

While the production facilities were pretty modern, the store is so old-school that they only take cash. And off to one end is an ice cream counter. While I was there, a steady stream of customers pulled up and loaded up their baskets with blocks of the ubiquitous orange cheddar. (Moran makes both white and orange cheddar, explaining that white is preferred by customers from the East Coast, while Midwesterners only eat orange.)

Graze, Madison

After the tour, it was onwards to Madison. The rest of my weekend was designed to meet others in the food industry with the same passion for their craft, so stops at Fromagination, the cheese shop, New Glarus Brewing and Wollersheim Winery were on the agenda. Dinner at Graze began with fried cheese curds, of course. As it was Friday, the night’s special was a walleye fish fry. It turns out you can have too much fried food at a time, though, so it was fortunate Graze offers such a generous pickle tray.

Good morning, Madison from Colleen | GlassBottle on Vimeo.

The following morning, I was up bright and early to visit the Dane County Farmers Market, the largest producer-only market in the US. The market’s rules state that the cheesemaker themselves must be present, so it’s a unique opportunity to buy cheese directly from some of the state’s top cheesemakers like Tony Hook of Hook’s Cheese Co. and Willi Lehner of Bleu Mont Dairy.

Wisconsin Cheesemakers

(l to r: Capitol, Willi Lehner, Tony Hook, Chris Roelli)

The market takes place on the four blocks around the state Capitol. Conveniently located across Carroll St. is Fromagination, a wonderland of Wisconsin cheese and local artisan products to pair with it. That Saturday they were hosting Chris Roelli of Roelli Cheese, sampling his striking Red Rock cheddar blue, and Quince + Apple, sampling their divine rhubarb hops.

Fromagination, Madison

From the market it was time to head out into the bucolic, red barn-dotted countryside and check out New Glarus Brewing Co. Unfortunately they weren’t brewing at the time, but the facilities were still impressive to see. They have a small test-batch set-up that enables the head brewer to experiment before they commit to a new beer.

New Glarus Brewing Tasting Room

In the tasting room, their best-known Spotted Cow was on tap. I enjoyed the cheese pairing potential of Two Women, a collaboration of woman-helmed breweries New Glarus and Weyermann Malting. New Glarus beers are only available in Wisconsin, so the company is expanding their already expansive facility to accommodate the steady traffic of craft beer drinkers who regularly make the pilgrimage to Green County.

Wollersheim Winery cave & vines

After New Glarus, I headed back north to Wollersheim Winery, Wisconsin’s first and oldest winery in Prairie du Sac. The site was first planted by Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy in the 1840s, who hoped to replicate the wines of his homeland. Unfortunately the grapes he planted were ill-suited to the Wisconsin winters, and he moved on to California in 1849. A German immigrant, Peter Kehl, gave it another go during the Civil War period and built the existing buildings. The Kehl family had slightly more success, operating until 1899. The third family to take up the challenge, the Wollersheims, purchased the property in 1972. With the help of a French winemaker, Philippe Coquard, they were able to plant more appropriate grapes for the climate and have found success with some American-French hybrids that thrive in the rocky and sandy limestone soil. The vines grow on southwest-facing slopes that provide ample sunlight. The winery still imports some grapes from Washington and New York, though, to supplement their own. They also make an ice wine, with definite cheese-pairing potential, and a new venture — an entirely Wisconsin-made brandy. The brandy is made from their grapes, distilled in their copper still, and aged in Wisconsin oak barrels for two years. The first batch of 5,000 bottles was released in April of this year and sold out in two weeks; they’ll have 10,000 bottles next spring. (Brandy is used to make Old Fashioneds, the official drink of Wisconsin, so it is in high demand.)

Forequarter, Madison

After my day of drinking, I was ready for some more cheese. Back in Madison, I enjoyed a lovely cheeseboard at Forequarter, where they feature artisan cheeses from Wisconsin and across the US. (In addition to the LaClare Farms Evalon I chose, they were also serving Bay Blue from Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. in California that night, and featured a dessert that paired almond cake with a wedge of Jasper Hill Farms Harbison from Vermont.)

Monona Terrace, Madison

Before leaving town Sunday morning, I rented a bicycle to ride along Lake Monona and pay my regards to Monona Terrace, the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center that will be home to the American Cheese Society Conference this summer. I look forward to getting back to Madison for another round of curd and craft beer immersion.

{View more photos from my trip in this Facebook slideshow.}

Colleen Levine, cheese blogger at work

This post is part of a series sponsored by Cracker Barrel Cheese. All travel expenses were paid for and I am being compensated for my time as part of their Influencer program, but all words and opinions are entirely my own, as always. Read our full disclosure policy here.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: