Image: Beechwood Cheese Co.
Michelle L. Johnson  /  AP
Cheese sits on the shelf at Beechwood Cheese Co. in Beechwood, Wis. The company specializes in specialty, flavored cheeses.
updated 3/23/2009 6:26:58 PM ET 2009-03-23T22:26:58

It's possible, even pleasurable, to eat one's way through Wisconsin.

The state has nearly 140 licensed cheese factories, and most are small operations that focus on a few specialty cheeses. That makes it the perfect place to do the dairy equivalent of a Napa Valley winery tour. In a few hours, foodies can sample the only Limburger made in the United States, meet one of the last cheesemakers to use glazed bricks to make brick cheese and try the state's signature cheese curds.

The Department of Tourism is introducing itineraries this spring for driving trips through the eastern and western parts of Wisconsin, and the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board has outlined alternate routes.

But be prepared to rise early and call before you hit the road. While many cheesemakers have retail stores that are open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., most limit access to the plant because of health regulations. Even at those offering tours or viewing, cheesemaking tends to start early and wrap up before 11 a.m.

Hiram Smith, a farmer on the University of Wisconsin Board of Regents, opened Wisconsin's first cheese factory near Sheboygan in 1859. Today, 1 in every 4 pounds of cheese sold in the U.S. is made in Wisconsin, according to the Milk Marketing Board.

"Just like Napa Valley has become synonymous with the wine country, Wisconsin has developed a reputation as an epicenter for specialty cheese," Tourism Secretary Kelli Trumble said.

The U.S. and World Championship Cheese contests are held in Wisconsin in alternate years (this year, March 17-19 at Lambeau Field Atrium in Green Bay), and the state's cheesemakers have done well in both.

There's no cheesemaking plant in Milwaukee, but groceries and cheese shops carry varieties from around the state. West Allis Cheese and Sausage Shoppe in the Milwaukee Public Market and Wisconsin Cheese Mart are two downtown shops with particularly large selections. Both will package cheese for air and other travel.

Watch the action
One good place to see cheese being made is Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, about an hour northwest of Milwaukee. The shop opens onto the cheesemaking operation, and visitors can see large vats holding milk and curds.

Image: Wisconsin cheese
Michelle L. Johnson  /  AP file
Cheese curds are placed in metal tins and then compacted using glazed bricks at Widmer's Cheese Cellars in Theresa, Wis.
Work at Widmer's starts about 4:30 a.m. Workers pasteurize milk and add bacteria to ripen and flavor it. About 40 minutes later, they add rennet, an enzyme that curdles and thickens the milk. Then workers cut the cheese into cubes, or curds, which are washed and drained.

Widmer's specializes in brick cheese, which is formed when workers pack curds in molds and place a glazed brick on top to compress the chunks into a solid block. The company is one of the last to use actual bricks, which third-generation cheesemaker Joe Widmer inherited from his grandfather.

Widmer's offers daily tours at 9:30 a.m. for those who call in advance, and Joe Widmer will greet visitors and answer questions about his family history and cheesemaking.

From Widmer's, it's a half-hour drive to Beechwood Cheese Co. in Beechwood. The company is probably best known for its "curd days," when 400 to 500 people line up to buy fresh, warm curds starting at 11 a.m. on the first Saturday of the month.

The curds Wisconsinites eat haven't been pressed or drained of liquid whey, and at Beechwood, they come in eight flavors, including jalapeno and dill-garlic. Operations manager Kris Heise created those flavors as well as Beechwood's trademark Chicken Soup Cheese, a Monterey Jack tinged with celery, chicken broth powder and some secret ingredients.

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"I thought, 'Well, you know, if they can do this with crackers, why can't I do it with cheese?" she said.

Signature cheeses
Wisconsin produces more than 600 cheeses, but most cheesemakers have a few signature items.

It's A Snap! Readers' best shotsArena Cheese invented Colby Jack in Arena, about 30 miles west of Madison. Visitors can watch cheesemaking there through a viewing window. The best time to catch the full process is between 8:15 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays. (Colby is made throughout Wisconsin, but not in the town of Colby where it was invented.)

Carr Valley Cheese Co. in La Valle has become increasingly known for so-called mixed-milk varieties that blend milk from cows, goats and sheep. The company has three plants and seven stores in Wisconsin, along with a Sauk City cooking school that brings in chefs from around the nation.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe is the only U.S. maker of Limburger, a strong-smelling semisoft cheese that originated in Belgium. It offers no plant tours, but has a retail shop open from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. weekdays and 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays.

Monroe and surrounding Green County, about an hour southwest of Madison, is home to the state's largest concentration of cheesemakers as well as the National Historic Cheesemaking Center. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, April 1 to Oct. 31.

Wisconsin visitors also can learn to make their own cheese. Home brewer and cheesemaker Steve Shapson teaches weekend cheesemaking workshops at bed-and-breakfasts throughout the state. The $145 sessions include a cheesemaking kit and lessons in making Camembert/brie, ricotta, feta and chevre. Shapson also does two-hour, $76 weekday classes on making Camembert/brie at the Screamin' Tuna Surf Shop in Cedarburg. Reservations are needed.

If you go
Wisconsin Department of Tourism Cheese Trail Web site: http://www.travelwisconsin.com/Great_Cheese_Trail.aspx

Here are a few cheese stores and producers:

West Allis Cheese & Sausage, 400 N. Water St., Milwaukee, Wis., http://www.wacheese-gifts.com/ or 414-289-8333. Store.

Wisconsin Cheese Mart, 215 W. Highland Ave., Milwaukee, http://www.wisconsincheesemart.com/ or 888-482-7700. Store.

Widmer's Cheese Cellars, 214 W. Henni St., Theresa, Wis., http://www.widmerscheese.com or 920-488-2503. Store and viewing area. Tours by reservation.

Beechwood Cheese Co., N1598W County Rd. A, Beechwood, Wis., http://www.beechwoodcheese.com or 877-224-3373. Crowds line up to buy fresh, warm curds first Saturday of the month, 11 a.m. Store and viewing window.

Arena Cheese, 300 Highway 14, Arena, Wis., http://www.arenacheese.com/ or 608-753-2501. Store and viewing area. Talk on cheesemaking by reservation.

Carr Valley Cheese Co., S3797 County Rd. G, La Valle, Wis., http://www4.mailordercentral.com/carrvalleycheeseco/ or 608-986-2781. Best time for tours, 8 a.m.-10:30 a.m. Carr Valley Cooking School: http://www.carrvalleycheese.com/cooking-classes.html.

Chalet Cheese Cooperative, N4858 County Rd. N., Monroe, Wis., 608-325-4343. Only Limberger maker in the U.S. Store.

National Historic Cheesemaking Center: 2108 Sixth Ave., Monroe, Wis., http://www.nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org/ or 608-325-4636. Open April 1-Oct. 31, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board: http://www.eatwisconsincheese.com/

Cheesemaking classes: http://www.thecheesemaker.com/

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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