Selling Wisconsin Cheddar

Learn what sets these Midwest cheeses apart

From mild to sharp, cheddar is a favorite of many Americans, despite its birthplace being England.

And Wisconsin is a state well known for this cheese type, as it offers not only traditional cheddar, but also a vast array of flavored and rubbed varieties as well as some hybrids.

“Wisconsin is known for its rich and balanced climate; both play a crucial part in a cow’s milk production,” says Chris Renard, owner of Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay. “Our local dairy farmers feed their cows a consistent diet of soy, corn, grains and balanced supplements of minerals, vitamins and proteins.”

The state produced 713 million pounds of cheddar in 2019, 19.1% of the nation’s total, making it the top cheddar-producing state, according to the USDA. Of the 127 plants in the state that reported cheese production in 2019, 69 of them made cheddar. Cheddar plants come in all sizes: there are 41 plants that make less than 1 million pounds of cheddar each year, but the average production for this group is 209,000 pounds per plant per year. At the other end of the scale, there are 17 plants that make 10 million pounds and over; this group averages 40 million pounds per plant per year. There were 44 Wisconsin plants that reported making specialty cheddar last year.

“Wisconsin is known for cheddar but so many people are unaware there is a vast array of options to choose from,” says Chris Kuske Riese, vice president of channel marketing at Madison, WI-based Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, formerly the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. “There are some small nuances that set Wisconsin cheeses apart, including cheesemaker techniques and innovation for flavor and the affinage process.”

Distinguishing the Segment

The dairy industry has grown in Wisconsin since its start back in the 1800s. It was around this time when many farmers from Germany, Switzerland and other dairy-producing countries were immigrating to Wisconsin.

As the country’s population shifted west, the federal government asked Wisconsin farmers if they’d shift their food production to include dairy. The environment is ideal for dairying, as cows require cooler temperatures to maximize their milk making potential.

According to Tony Hook, who runs Hook’s Cheese Co. Inc. in Mineral Point, it’s the land itself that is the differentiator.

“Soil impacts the flavor of feed and milk,” he says. “We all have good quality milk in this state as well as water and terroir. The southwest region hasn’t been glaciated for over a million years. Its many rolling hills and limestone impacts water filtering through, and soil, grasses and corn produce the flavor of cheeses we make.”

Dave Christoff, national sales manager at Carr Valley Cheese, based in La Valle, says his company’s Wisconsin cheddar is unique due to the access to great milk and relationships with farmers.

The company still produces its cheddar in the well-respected traditional method of using small vats.

“Many cheese companies moved to using closed vats, where they don’t have interaction with the cheese,” says Christoff. “Our cheesemakers still have an impact on the cheese they’re making. Although this process is more labor intensive, it produces the best cheese.”

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese, headquartered in Kiel, was created in 1914 after Otto and Norma Henning completed a six-week dairy short course in Madison and purchased a rural hometown cheese factory. Their son Everett and his wife Jellane took over the factory in 1963, building a cheese plant over the next four years. It expanded in 1986, and Everett’s three children—Kay, Kerry and Kert—joined the business. His grandchildren also are part of the business today.

The company produces cheese from small local dairy farmers’ milk.

“We pick up milk and process it at our plant,” says Kert Henning. “We make wheels of cheese that are 12 up to 12,000 pounds.”

What also sets this state’s cheesemaking apart is its rigorous cheesemaking certification program, which is the only one of its kind in the U.S. Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker Program was established as an advanced education course for experienced cheesemakers in partnership with the Center for Dairy Research, University of Wisconsin-Extension and the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Those accepted into the program must currently be making cheese in a Wisconsin plant and hold a Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license for at least 10 years. Master candidates are required to participate in the program’s quality assurance component of plant and product inspection. Every year, Master Cheesemakers have to submit their cheese samples to ensure the quality is being maintained. At press time, there were only about 80 Master Cheesemakers.

“This program mimics the one in France,” says Nikole Raskovic, owner of Keystone Farms Cheese, which is based in Bethlehem, PA, but is a maker of handcrafted artisan Wisconsin cheese. “Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker Program requires three years of apprenticeship to be certified in one type of cheese, so three years for cheddar, then three more years for Gouda, etc. This way, they become so knowledgeable about the product, since they dig into their craft and understand it top to bottom.”

Raskovic’s father has a dairy farm in New Glarus, WI, that sends its milk to Maple Leaf Cheese Coop, which recently celebrated 100 years in business.

“My dad sends his milk to the cheese factory, which is a small farmer-owned coop,” says Raskovic. “We are an East Coast distributor for the factory’s cheese.”

What’s Available

Wisconsin cheddars range from creamy and mild at two months old to super sharp at 20 years old, from traditional wax wheels to bandaged wrapped and cave aged.

Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin reports that consumers are paying more attention to aged cheeses, with the growth of extra sharp cheddar. When delineating aging, it is categorized from up to three months for mild; three to six months for medium; six to nine months for sharp; and over nine months for extra sharp cheddar.

In addition to a variety of cheddar from mild to 15-year aged, Renard’s Cheese has created a blended line and infused specialty cheeses. It’s newest lines include Cloverleaf Reserve, a blend of bandaged style white cheddar with Alpine-style Gruyère; Tuscan Rosemary Herb Cheddar, which combines Italian herbs and traditional aged white cheddar; Balsamic Caramelized Onion Cheddar, which combines balsamic caramelized onion with traditional cheddar; and Cherry Chipotle Cheddar, which has a sweet, smoky heat.

“There are a number of Wisconsin cheesemakers who are experimenting with soaking their cheddars in spirits, wine and beer or hand rubbing them with herbs and spices like rosemary and harissa,” says Kuske Riese. “Some are creating a new variety, called cheddar blue, by spiking the cheese with strains of blue mold. Flavors also continue to be popular—especially more complex, upscale flavor combinations like tequila and habanero, or mango and ghost pepper. They’re infusing their cheeses with a whole range of peppers, too, like habanero or Carolina Reaper.”

Plymouth’s Sartori Cheese is fairly new to the cheddar space and has a goal to elevate the segment.

“We’re elevating aging cheese for different time periods,” says TW Bacon, Sartori’s director of retail marketing. “We’re creating unique starters and cultures for elevated, complex and exciting flavor profiles.”

In addition to its Montemore, Old World and Heritage cheddars, Sartori just launched a premium white cheddar with unique starters and cultures, but no particulates or rubs.

It was in the late 80s that Hook’s Cheddar started aging its cheese beyond two years. This year, the company released a 20-year cheddar.

“All of our cheddars are rindless, because we age them so long,” says Hook. “They are air cured for three years at the most and made into 40-pound blocks.” While 70% of its cheddar is orange, 30% is white. He adds that the color doesn’t impact the flavor.

Henning’s father Everett got into the mammoth cheddar business, and now the company is the only one making these cheeses in the U.S.

“These 12,000-pound wheels are 6½ feet tall by 6½ feet across,” says Henning. “They are used for a wow factor, but many find that the 4,000-pound wheels, which stand 6 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet across, are a good size to work with.”

His brother Kerry achieved Master Cheesemaker status and has expanded cheddar profiles to include dill, garlic and dill, tomato basil and chipotle as well as blueberry cobbler and maple bourbon, among the almost 40 varieties.

“Many of our flavored cheddar ideas come from our customers, who want to try something different and unique,” says Henning. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Keystone Farms’ cheddar is in high demand on the East Coast, according to Raskovic, especially its seven-year cheddar. It has recently introduced curry cheddar as well as a mango fired cheddar that includes chunks of mango and pepper flakes.

Carr Valley cheese produces more than 30 different cheddars from fresh cheese curds to a 12-year cheddar, and 10 to 15 cold smoked cheeses. It also offers an Applewood smoked cheddar, its most popular, which is white and available in a 12-pound wheel with Applewood and topped with paprika.

“Cheddar curds are a best seller in Wisconsin,” says Christoff. “We have cranberry chipotle cheddar with Wisconsin cranberries and chipotle peppers that is popular during the holidays.”

Waterloo-based Crave Cheese makes curds using the cheddaring process of stacking cheese, flipping it and letting the cultures work.

“That’s where the term ‘cheddaring’ comes from,” says George Crave, president. “The curds are the first step to create cheddar and come after pressing and getting the whey out, when cultures are developed.” These are sold in 12-ounce bags. The company also offers private label product.

Marketing & Merchandising

Wisconsin cheesemakers are innovative when it comes to marketing their products.

“We’re seeing retailers collaborate with Wisconsin cheesemakers to make limited-time-only cheddars that are exclusive only to their stores and align with seasonal in-store campaigns,” says Kuske Riese.

Highlighting its accolades also is effective in bringing added attention to cheeses from Wisconsin. The state’s cheddars have received numerous awards across the category at national and international competitions. This includes six for cheddar at the World Championship Cheese Contest earlier this year and five awards at the American Cheese Society’s conference in 2019.

“When you look at cheddar, it’s different than the rest of the cheese case,” says Sartori’s Bacon. “It’s important to capitalize on the seasonality throughout the year that gets traffic in the cheese case.”

In addition to holidays, like Thanksgiving, Memorial Day weekend and the Fourth of July, the Super Bowl is a big cheddar-selling event.

“Because cheddar is well-liked by everyone, it’s common to see it on cheese boards,” says Bacon. “This cheese lends itself to snacking, but there are plenty of other great pairing partners. Our Montemore does well with chocolate, and cheddar is great in recipes, like mac and cheese and grilled cheese.”

Providing safe samples of Wisconsin cheddar is an effective marketing method at the store level.

“Promoting what the cheese is all about [is key],” says Hook. “Delis also can show uses for it, such as in casseroles, on burgers or in pasta, and provide recipes.”

Henning’s cheese is sold at supermarket across the country, and it has recently added prepackaged exact weight cuts geared for today’s grab-and-go centric environment.

As for cross merchandising, Raskovic at Keystone Farms recommends marketing cheddar with beer, wine and liquor. The company offers a number of Wisconsin cheese marketing materials, including banners and brochures.“Wisconsin has won more cheddar awards than any state or country,” says Christoff. “These are signature products.” DB