Wisconsin cheese and beer tours: Wine tasting for real men (and women)
Wisconsin's state motto may be "Forward," but for anyone serious about cheese and beer it might just as easily be "Upward."
At least as far as personal caloric intake is concerned.
When waves of Germans immigrated to the state in the 19th century due to religious persecution in Europe, centuries of brewing traditions met favorable Midwest geography. For more than a century, mega-breweries like Pabst, Blatz, Schlitz and Miller made Milwaukee “the beer capital of the world."
Today, only Miller remains of the large domestics (Pabst, the last to leave, pulled out in 1996), but dozens of independent microbreweries have emerged in their place and have kept Wisconsin at the forefront of the craft-brew revolution.
Wisconsin is also the top cheese-producing state in the country, churning out almost 1.18 billion kilos annually.
As the sole state to offer a Master Cheesemaker program, it's rivaled by only France in international competitions.
For the best Wisconsin cheese and beer pairings, a trip to the tasting rooms of the United States’ heartland is in order.
Roth Käse/Alp and Dell Cheese Store, Monroe, Wisconsin
Roth Käse has garnered more than 100 national and international cheese awards, and the biggest source of pride is their Gruyère, the only traditionally produced Gruyère in the United States.
In homage to their Swiss ancestry (the Roth family has been in the cheese business in Switzerland since 1863, but didn't settle in Monroe until 1990) the Roth Käse plant is housed in a Swiss-style chalet.
The surrounding Green County is known for its exceptional dairy land, which produces unparalleled milk.
At one point, more than 100 small cheese makers operated in Green County, all producing one very smelly cheese called Limburger.
While the number of cheese factories has since contracted to nine, it's still the largest number of cheese factories in any one county in the state.
Tours start at the Alp and Dell Cheese Store.
What to try: Moody Blue, Gran Queso, Grand Cru Gruyère Reserve and Ostenborg Havarti.
627 2nd St., Monroe, Wisc.; Monday–Friday, 9 a.m.–6 p.m., Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; +1 608 328 3355; www.rothkase.com; reservations required
Lakefront Brewery, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Founded in 1987, Lakefront Brewery began as a sibling argument between brothers Russ and Jim Klitsch.
At the heart of the rivalry was the question of which brother could brew a better beer.
Lakefront is now one of the largest craft breweries in Wisconsin.
Housed in an old coal-fired power plant on the Milwaukee River, Lakefront produces 23,500 barrels of beer a year.
Of these are the seasonal Lakefront Cherry Lager, the first post-Prohibition fruit beer; New Grist, a gluten-free beer; and Local Acre, the first beer since Prohibition to use only Wisconsin-grown ingredients.
In 2010, Trip Advisor ranked Lakefront's tour the fourth best brewery tour in the United States.
For some historical context, the main hall is decked with renovated lights from a pre-Prohibition beer garden.
A patio overlooking the river allows visitors to finish beer samples before trading in their tasting cups for a souvenir pint glass.
Fridays feature a fish fry.
1872 North Commerce St., Milwaukee, Wisc.; +1 414 372 8800; www.lakefrontbrewery.com; tickets available on first-come, first-served basis, or available in advance via the website for $7 per person
Carr Valley Cheese Company, Inc., La Valle, Wisconsin
Owned by the Cook family and in operation since 1902, Carr Valley is all about old-fashioned craftsmanship.
In charge is Sid Cook, fourth-generation cheesemaker, who is currently the most awarded Master Cheesemaker in the country.
In the past five years the cheesery has won more than 400 national and international cheese awards.
Carr Valley’s great cheese starts with great milk, all locally sourced. The cheeses span from traditional aged cheddar to cutting-edge American Originals like Cocoa Cardona and Gran Canaria.
The tour starts with a short video and proceeds to a viewing area overlooking the entire process.
The wax room, where the cheeses are sealed, is also available for viewing.
S3797 County G, La Valle, Wisc.; Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m.; +1 608 986 2781; www.carrvalleycheese.com
New Glarus Brewery, New Glarus, Wisconsin
New Glarus is one of the most award-winning craft breweries of its size, and its beer is sold only in the state.
The brewery produces six regular beers as well as seasonal brews and the occasional “special” beer.
These include the highly coveted Unplugged brews that Brewmaster Dan Carey creates in limited editions.
New Glarus has two tour options. The self-guided tour at the Hilltop brewery facility allows visitors to explore the operation at their own pace. Brewery “ambassadors” are stationed at kettles and along the bottling line to explain the process.
A more immersive tour is the “Hard Hat Tour” on Fridays, which includes Hilltop and the original facility, Riverside.
2400 State Highway 69, New Glarus, Wisc.; free self-guided tours Monday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Hard Hat Tour, Friday, 1 p.m.; US$20.00 for hard hat tour, US$3.50 for tasting room samples.; +1 608 527 5850; www.newglarusbrewing.com
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, Wisconsin
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars is a third-generation cheese plant now in the hands of Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer.
He and his father were both raised in the rooms above the plant his grandfather purchased in 1922.
Much of the plant still operates according to traditional Swiss processes, with tended open vats, hand-scooped or formed curds and the famous bricks.
Brick cheese, a Wisconsin original, is similar to the washed rind cheeses of Europe.
Despite brick cheese’s popularity, only a tiny fraction of the cheese sold as brick is authentic. Most is made in large factories where it's artificially colored and flavored to mimic the taste of the original.
True brick requires complex ripened bacteria linens and the time to let them do their work.
The only real brick cheese currently in production is the cheese made at Widmer’s.
The bricks used to press the whey from the curd are the same bricks Joe’s grandfather used 80 years ago.
What to try: Aged Cheddar, Colby, and, of course, the Aged Brick.
214 W. Henni St., Theresa, Wisc.; Monday–Friday, 6:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday, 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m. Open June-October; +1 888 878 1107; www.widmerscheese.com
Ale Asylum, Madison
The Ale Asylum is a Madison hot spot that's both a full-time brewery and great place to hang out.
Focusing on the four main ingredients hops, malt, water and yeast, the Asylum produces a surprising variety of flavors, including the local favorite Hopalicious.
The tour is free and beer samples are numerous.
"You can’t even start the tour without a beer in hand," insists a spokesman from the brewery.
3698 Kinsman Blvd., Madison, Wisc.; Saturday, 6 a.m.-6:45 p.m.; Taproom, Monday-Thursday 11 a.m.-midnight, Friday–Saturday, 11 a.m.–bar time, Sunday, 2 p.m.-midnight.; +1 608 663 3926; www.aleasylum.com
Arena Cheese Factory, Arena
In operation since the 1850s, Arena is one of the oldest continually operating cheese factories in Wisconsin, and has won seven domestic and international cheese awards. It's famous locally for inventing Co-Jack (also known as Colby-Jack) cheese.
A viewing area looks into the heart of the cheese plant. After the tour, freshly made cheese curds are available for tasting.
A note on cheese curds: when they're fresh, they're sublime.
A fresh cheese curd will be smooth, firm, creamy and a little salty on the finish.
A telltale squeak when you bite into the curd indicates peak freshness.
300 U.S. Highway 14, Arena, Wisconsin; Monday–Friday, 8 a.m.–5 p.m., Saturday-Sunday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; +1 608 753-2501; www.arenacheese.com