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Wisconsin Cheese Culture

You’d never expect Wisconsin to be a major player in the cheese market. Wait a minute… of course you would! Long touted as America’s home of cheese, Wisconsin is a powerhouse both nationally and internationally, producing some of the finest curds the world has ever seen. They’re also proud of their beer, brats, and other fantastically rich foods, but it’s their devotion to dairy that makes Wisconsin cheese the marvel that it is.

Wisconsinites love cheese from the moment it solidifies, thus their addiction to all things cheese curd. Whether it’s idolized in foam-sculpted hat form, packaged as is, or deep fried and served bubbling hot (the chewy, bite-sized bits are the state’s food mascot–and the signature squeak the state anthem). For those patient enough to wait, Wisconsin cheese curds are also highly worshipped in cheddar form, or melted down atop a sizzling slice of pizza (Wisconsin has pizza farms… no, really). State producers even share their wonderful craft with the world in mass quantities, exporting nearly $400 million worth of dairy in 2013.

No matter how you take your Wisconsin cheese, you can be sure that it’s expertly crafted and locally sourced–because it has to be. Mirroring the strictness and watchful eye of Europe’s agricultural oversight organizations, Wisconsin is the only place in the United States to have a Master Cheesemaker program, an essential guarantee of quality worldwide. There are only 54 Master Cheesemakers, and each has been certified by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board through a rigorous series of courses, examinations, and oversight. Even before certifying, Master Cheesemakers are required to undergo apprenticeships and have a total of ten years’ industry experience working in an approved plant (and five dedicated toward a specific type of cheese). According to Wisconsin’s Master’s Program, candidates must also do separate certifications for each type of cheese.

Already highly skilled veterans before they begin the certification process, Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers are driven by a desire to continue learning and perfecting their skills. Most will tell you that becoming a Master is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and most will tell you they’d do it all over again. Many have done just that, completing the program multiple times to be certified as Masters in additional cheese varieties.

Their effort and dedication to the craft are certainly worthwhile. According to the Huffington Post, Wisconsin cheese took home 106 of 273 total awards at the 2014 World Championship Cheese Contest, a staggering amount when you consider that the other 61 percent of the awards were divvied up between makers from the rest of the world. If this is the major league of cheese, then Wisconsin is definitely the 2011 Green Bay Packers–devouring the competition.

Nick D'Errico

Nick D'Errico was raised in an Italian family where he developed an appreciation for good food, a fear of flying bedroom slippers, and a love of cheese. He works as an editorial intern at Culture and currently studies writing and publishing (he wanted to be an engineer, but can't do math). In his spare time, he dons 40 lbs of padding and stands in front of rubber projectiles as a hockey goalie.