Straight from the chefs and shopkeepers who know best, here are the varieties—hard, soft and stinky—worth hunting down the next time you're in town.
If there was ever any doubt as to just how much Wisconsin dominates the American dairy market, consider this: the state's myriad cheesemakers produced a record-setting 3.37 billion pounds of the good stuff in 2017. That's 26.6 percent of the country's entire output, and the sixteenth straight year of marked gains from the land of milk.
Which is all well and good if you're someone who benefits from all those artisanal blocks and wheels, but what about us consumers? Walking into a specialty grocer or cheese shop and seeing nothing but the very best can be overwhelming to some, and induce panic in others. That's where the pros—from a butcher to a baker to a brewer—from the Madison region come in. They've shared their best recommendations, so you at least know where to start. Here is a rundown of the hard, soft and stinky varieties worth hunting down the next time you're in town….
"The Wisconsin cheese scene has grown so much since I started in this business and really exploded in the last 10 years. While we love new and exciting products, our customers also love the classics. The backbone of our cheese department is cheddars aged between two and 13 years. Another standout cheese is the fresh Basil Farmers from master cheesemaker Steve Stettler at Decatur Dairy. Skip Brennan collaborated with Steve on this cheese, and it's delicious—wonderful by itself, or in a grilled cheese or hybrid Caprese Salad." — Tim Mulcahy, owner, Brennan's Cellars
"One of my favorite cheeses to use in recipes is Andy Hatch's fantastic Pleasant Ridge Reserve. It's an award-winning alpine cheese made with summer milk from grass-fed cows on the Uplands Cheese dairy farm in Southwestern Wisconsin’s driftless area. It’s delicious, versatile, and good on its own or with French, Spanish and Asian-influenced dishes." — Patrick DePula, executive chef/owner, Salvatore’s Tomato Pies
During the spring and summer, "the Surchoix from Roth Cheese is a wonderful nutty cheese that lets you taste the grass from pasture-raised animals. The aging also brings out the richness and a really strong sweetness. As spring starts you wanna taste foods that remind of what it feels like not being holed up in the cold of winter. It's an easy cheese to serve, too, because it pairs so well with fresh fruit. The cheesemaker did the real work." — Jonathan Hunter, co-founder, Underground Food Collective
"Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville is a cheese I look forward to all year. It is only released in autumn and features the milk from cows transitioning from fresh pasture-feeding to dry hay. It is a soft-ripened, raw milk cheese, and made on the dairy farm where the cows live. The result is a custardy interior—at once sweet and earthy, with a mild lactic acidity. The perfect accompaniment to a whole grain sourdough bread." — Andrew Hutchinson, head baker/owner, Madison Sourdough
Hunter of Underground Food Collective agrees:"One of my favorite days of the year is when Rush Creek Reserve is released by Uplands Dairy. You can only get it for a few months—from October through the end of December—but that's what makes it special. It's incredibly rich and buttery, but because they age it for 60 days and use raw milk, it has the funk I appreciate in a soft cheese. Or as my 5-year-old daughter calls it, the "stinky cheese"—of which see eats an entire wheel. Since Rush Creek is a limited release, we love having it at the restaurant; it's one of the most versatile cheeses we have to cook with and pairs amazingly with root vegetables."
"There are so many exciting things are going on in Wisconsin. Since we opened the shop more than 11 years ago, the most encouraging change is the new generation of cheesemakers that have made their mark. These small-batch artisan producers are leading the way by not only focusing on cow's milk cheeses, but also on a variety of sheep and goat milk products.
One of our newest cheeses is Monroe, made by Roth Cheese. It's a brine-washed double-cream that is semi-soft and has a rich, buttery feel. It's creamy, fruity, and has 'the right amount of funk' according to one of our cheesemongers. We prefer it served with Fromagination's cranberry relish and a locally made caramelized onion crisp." — Ken Monteleone, owner/general manager, Fromagination
"When we first moved to Wisconsin, the first cheese we got hooked on—pardon the pun—was the Four-Year Cheddar from Hook's in Mineral Point. It's slightly acidic, sharp, and buttery after the first bite, leaving a creamy coating that lingers. I love it because it's not too sharp, can still go with a lot of foods, and is one of the few years that is white in color. It pairs incredibly well with our HopRocket IPA or Dachs Lager." — Isaac Showaki, founder, Octopi BrewingUntitled Art
"The best cheese I've had this year is the Bandaged Cheddar from Willi Lehner at Bleu Mont Dairy. It's made with raw, Uplands Dairy milk, and cloth-bound and aged for one year in Willi's cave. It is a rich umami bomb that has it all: salty, nutty, fruity, and that gentle kiss of naturally occurring MSG…. It’s incredible. Beyond its taste, what makes it special is what makes all cheese from Wisconsin special: the milk. This one takes it even farther because of the special relationship that exists between the cheesemakers. Andy Hatch at Uplands also makes arguably two of the best cheeses in the world called Pleasant Ridge Reserve and Rush Creek Reserve. The collaborative spirit of the two cheesemakers and their drive to make each other better makes this cheese even more unique!" — Tory Miller, executive chef/co-owner, GrazeL'Etoile
Virginie Ok, owner, La Kitchenette, agrees:"Coming from France, you have some expectations of course. And Wisconsin didn't disappoint! I was amazed to discover all these local makers, perfecting techniques imported from Europe and developing cheeses unique to Wisconsin. One of my favorites is Bleu Mont Dairy's Bandaged Cheddar. It is extra tasty and flavorful, a little like Comté from France. The aging brings the crunch—literally, like small salt crystals—and is balanced by floral flavors."
"Quite different in taste and texture (and smell!), but just as good is the Red Willow cheese from Willow Creek Creamery," Ok continues. It "reminds of a famous cheese from France called Port Salut. It is softer, but not overwhelming in taste—a cheese that couples very well with amber or brown beer. There is a reason for that; it's a recipe from Trappist monks! —Virginie Ok, owner, La Kitchenette
"Another one I enjoy a lot that's quite different is from Creme de la Coulee. Its cheese is softer and creamier—closer to a French Brie, but nevertheless full of flavor. Ideal on a fresh baguette, with a glass of Bordeaux. I could go on like this forever; maybe another time! Oh, and to finish, something I am still looking for is a goat cheese with a dry outer rind and a softer inner paste." — Ok of La Kitchenette
We'll consider that our next assignment!