By Jennifer Young

Naturally, the country’s National Historic Cheesemaking Center is bound to be located in Wisconsin? Where else could it be? Wisconsin is the country’s cheese-making heart. It’s home to Cheeseheads, cheese foam, and delectable deep-fried cheese curds.

Even at its truck stops, you’ll find cheese wheels and crumbles , shreds and loaves. Cheese is Wisconsin’s bread and butter, and you can hardly visit without experiencing the excitement that surrounds all things cheese in this historically cheese-loving state.

Modern cheesemaking (notice the copper interior)

Upon visiting Wisconsin, you might be persuaded to believe that Wisconsin dairy farmers invented the cheesemaking process, but in truth, the earliest cheesemakers seemed to be plying their craft in ancient Greece and Egypt more than 4,000 years ago. By the time Julius Caesar crowned himself emperor of Rome, there were already hundreds of cheese varieties –and they were probably on display at his coronation feast.

Cheesemaking became a core industry for Europeans and as immigrants arrived in North America during the 18th and 19th centuries, they brought their cheesemaking techniques with them. With its fertile land and dairy-cow friendly pastures, Wisconsin attracted many European dairy farmers and cheesemakers. Wisconsin’s cheese-making industry began in earnest during the 1830s and 1840s when many Northeastern farmers took to the Erie Canal and Great Lakes waterways to reach the southeastern section of Wisconsin. They were soon joined by German, Swiss, and Norwegian immigrants. Together, these early Wisconsin settlers forged Wisconsin’s cheese-making heritage.

Tacuinum Sanitatis, Lombardy, late 14th century

According to the 1850 Census, Wisconsin farms produced more than 400, 200 pounds of cheese. Eventually, cheese-making spread out all across the state. In 1841, Anne Pickett founded Wisconsin’s first cheese-making factory. Soon, enterprising dairy farmers began to expand their commercial offerings to meet growing demand for cheese–not only in the state or Midwest, but further afield, particularly as settlers continued opening up the western reaches of the country. Less perishable than milk, cheese proved to be easy to produce, store, and transport.

By the turn of the 20th century, Wisconsin boasted more than 1,500 cheese factories. With production reaching more than 77,848,000 pounds, Wisconsin was able to overtake New York as the nation’s leading cheese-producing state in 1910. As Wisconsin’s cheese industry became increasingly commercialized, specific areas of the state became associated with certain types of cheese.

For instance, Sheboygan County became famous for its American and cheddar cheeses. Southeastern Wisconsin became well-known for foreign cheese types like Limburger and Swiss. Other counties continued to produce a range of cheese. In fact, at one point, Green County could boast a cheese factory for every three miles of its territory.

Today, Wisconsin continues to be the nation’s cheesemaking leader. The state features more licensed and trained cheesemakers than any other state. When visiting Wisconsin, cheese lovers will be able to find not only their favorite common types of cheeses, but also artisan cheeses and a myriad of cheese-related products. The state produces more than a quarter of all the country’s cheese and it’s the only state that features Master Cheesemaker programs. Not surprising, the only U.S. cheeses to ever win at the World Cheese Championship hail from–where else–Wisconsin.

Varieties of Cheese!

If you’re craving cheese–really good cheese, make it a point to road trip to Wisconsin. Take a factory tour; many cheese factories offer them. It’s even said that Wisconsin’s gas stations offer better cheese than you’ll find in supermarkets in any other state. To find out, you’ll have to travel there and taste for yourself.