Join Us on a Tour of Wisconsin's Storied Cheesemaking Past.
Wisconsin Cheeses have an illustrious heritage of more than 160 years of quality and craftsmanship. During this long and rich history, the art and science of cheesemaking have been captured in time-honored traditions that produce cheese varieties of unsurpassed excellence. Today, Wisconsin produces more than 600 varieties, types and styles of American, international-style and original cheeses that win more awards than any other state or country.
Prehistoric - Nature set the state, as glaciers cut through Wisconsin
The story of Wisconsin's dairy industry has roots in prehistoric times. Nature set the stage for America's Dairyland during the last Ice Age, when glaciers cut through what is now Wisconsin. As they receded, the massive mountains of ice left behind a countryside of rolling hills and lush pastureland.
Millions of years later, when European immigrants migrated west, they found the nation's heartland, which reminded many of their homelands. Climatic conditions suited farming well, and initially, farmers grew wheat, hops, and other grains. Dairy farming followed naturally, and dairy farmers soon produced an abundance of top-quality milk. To preserve excess milk, farmers made cheese. The move from producing cheese for family use to making cheese to sell was a short step. However, commercial production of cheese in Wisconsin began on a small scale.
1841 - Wisconsin’s first cottage industry cheese factory
In 1841, Mrs. Anne Pickett made cheesemaking history when she established Wisconsin's first cottage industry cheese factory using milk from neighbors' cows.
1858 - John J. Smith obtained the first cheese vat and made cheese
Seventeen years later, John J. Smith obtained the first cheese vat and made cheese at home in Sheboygan County. Smith also instituted the marketing of cheese outside Wisconsin.
1859 - Hiram Smith founded a full-scale cheese factory
A year later Hiram Smith, a farmer on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, founded a full-scale cheese factory. He purchased milk from other dairy farmers or processed their milk for a percentage of the finished cheese. The cheesemaking industry in Wisconsin had taken hold.
1864 - A factory is built that uses milk from over 300 cows
In 1864, Chester Hazen built a factory in Ladoga. Many doubted the success of this venture, dubbing it "Hazen's Folly." Critics were silenced when, after just one year of operation, the factory used milk from more than 300 cows to produce Hazen's cheese. His success heralded the rapid growth of the cheese industry in the state.
1872 - Procedures are established to market Wisconsin cheese
Such rapid growth did cause some problems, however. Until that time, there had been no uniform grading system tied to standards of identity for cheeses. To remedy the situation, in 1872 the Dairymen's Association, composed of seven leaders in the dairy industry, sponsored a new Board of Trade in Watertown to establish procedures to market Wisconsin cheese. The Board also secured a 60 percent reduction in freight rates, which contributed significantly to the efficient marketing of cheese from Wisconsin to other states. Clearly, cheesemaking had become an important and prosperous industry for the state.
1886 - College courses for dairy farmers and cheesemakers
By 1886, the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture offered short courses for dairy farmers and cheesemakers and sent experts in the field to extend the education process.
1890 - Stephen Babcock develops the milkfat test
In 1890, Stephen Babcock of the University of Wisconsin developed the milkfat test that allowed dairymen to determine which cows produced the richest milk, the best for cheesemaking. This test is still used today.
1921 - Wisconsin was the first state to grade its cheese for quality
In 1921, Wisconsin became the first state to grade its cheese for quality. This leadership role in quality assurance coupled with Wisconsin's central location for distribution enabled the industry to continue to grow rapidly. By 1922, more than 2,800 cheese factories existed in the state.
1922 - Over 2,800 Cheese factories existed in Wisconsin
Cheesemakers and dairy farmers newly immigrating to the United States often chose Wisconsin as their destination. This influx of talent and energy kept the cheese industry vigorous. These men and women represented almost every country in Europe. They arrived with a strong work ethic, determination, treasured family secrets, and the tradition of making favorite cheeses from the old country. These cheeses quickly gained popularity in the United States.
Swiss, among the first Old-World cheeses produced in Wisconsin, originated, as the name suggests, in Switzerland. Italians brought Pasta Filata cheeses such as the popular Mozzarella and Provolone, as well as the blue-veined Gorgonzola. The French gave us creamy, soft-ripened Camembert and Brie, as well as Blue varieties. From Germany came the secrets of Muenster and Limburger. The English contributed Cheddar, and the Dutch, Gouda and Edam. These immigrants are responsible for much of the rich variety of cheeses produced in the state. Additionally, innovative Wisconsin cheesemakers created original cheeses such as Brick and Colby.
1945 - More than 1,500 cheese factories in Wisconsin produced about 515 million pounds of cheese a year
By 1945, more than 1,500 cheese factories in Wisconsin produced about 515 million pounds of cheese a year.
Today - Approximately 10,000 dairy farms with over 1.27 million cows
Today, approximately 10,000 dairy farms, with over 1.27 million cows producing an average of 21,436 pounds of milk each per year, continue the reputation for quality milk from Wisconsin. Cheesemakers use approximately 90 percent of this milk to produce cheese at 126 plants.
Wisconsin has more skilled and licensed cheesemakers than any other state. These cheesemakers must complete rigorous studies in dairy science and cheesemaking before they can be licensed. They also may serve as an apprentice under a licensed cheesemaker. Additionally, Wisconsin is the only state to offer a Master Cheesemaker program, patterned on the rigorous standards of similar programs in Europe.
These fine craftsmen produce over 2.8 billion pounds of cheese each year, over 25 percent of all domestic cheese. These quantities continue to grow to meet the nation’s demand for quality and variety of cheese from Wisconsin, America's Dairyland.