Say Cheese!

Posted on June 30, 2023 by Grace Olson

Wisconsin’s Worth-the-Drive Dairy

Inside the Renard’s Cheese Factory in Sturgeon Bay, Door County, Wisconsin. Photo by Len Villano.

We’re not known as “America’s Dairyland” for nothing, and we have the history to prove it.

The slogan became a fixture on license plates beginning in 1940, but Wisconsin has been an industry leader in dairy production since the 1870s.

The state remained in top place throughout the 1900s. In the 21st century, our state has its fair share of competition, but according to the Wisconsin Historical Society produced more than a quarter of the nation’s cheese, ranking first (California wins for overall dairy production) for several years.

Many of our state’s hardworking cheesemakers are multigenerational family owned businesses that have seen the shifts and technology changes in their craft, and they continue the traditions while adding modern twists and creative spins that reap rewards—or more accurately, collect national awards.

Grab your keys and bring an empty stomach (plus a cooler!) while you visit some of Wisconsin’s worth-the-drive delicious and historic cheese shops.

Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese – Kiel

Henning’s Cheese is celebrating its 110th anniversary next February, something Rebekah Henschel, 4th Generation Co-Owner, doesn’t take lightly.

“Our mission is to keep our small family dairy farms in business for another generation… We still hand craft cheese like our great grandfather did years ago but have modernized where we’ve needed to. We also only use milk from small, local family dairy farmers located within a 30-mile radius of our factory. Great cheese can only be produced when you have great milk so “thank you!” to all our farmers for that.”

What makes your cheese stand out? In the mid 1960s there were about 1,800 cheese factories in Wisconsin and now there are only 125. Hard work, dedication, finding our niche and some help from God is what keeps our business thriving. Our focus here at Henning’s is on high quality, great tasting cheese with a flair for creativity.

Most popular cheese: Medium Cheddar, Aged Cheddar, Colby and Colby Jack

Most unique flavors: Blueberry Cobbler Cheddar, Mango Fire Cheddar, Hatch Chile Cheddar, Maple Bourbon Cheddar, Louisiana Lagniappe Cheddar.

“All our product labels include recipe suggestions so our customers can try our cheeses in their favorite recipe,” Henschel adds.

Recent Awards: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th place in the Traditional Waxed Cheddar – Sharp to Age category.

Visit the shop! “Not only do we have a wide variety of cheese, sausage, souvenirs, Wisconsin wine, ice cream, and more but you can browse through our museum that has my grandfather’s cheese making and butter equipment,” Henschel explains. “You can watch cheese being made Monday through Friday mornings. Fresh squeaky cheese curds are available Monday through Friday as well… if you can’t make the drive to visit us here, then shop your local grocery store to find our great tasting cheese!”

Renard’s Cheese – Sturgeon Bay

Renard’s Cheese in Sturgeon Bay has been in business since 1961, but Ann Renard, President, clarifies that they’re anything but stagnant in how their family business is done as they’re constantly being inspired to keep an open mind while maintaining quality.

“Our vision is to expand our factory to increase production while staying true to our roots,” she says. “Our inspiration is our customers who drive the cheesemakers to create new blends and flavored infused specialty cheeses. We will continue handcrafting cheese in open vats and small batches.

“All of the milk used to produce cheese at Renard’s comes from Door and Kewaunee

County family farms and is RBGH free. It takes 10 pounds of milk to produce one pound of cheese so we bring in about 30 million pounds of milk per year to produce 11 varieties of cheese and over 50 flavor infused specialty cheeses which has won us numerous awards.”

Most popular cheese: Bandaged Style Cheddar, known as Hoop Cheddar (Voted Best in Class, First Place in the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest). “Our Hoop Cheddar is irresistibly delicious,” Renard says. “Dipped in red wax, these wedges are visually appealing, so they work great for gatherings, special occasions or charcuterie displays.  A vibrant nutty flavor lends itself to a wide variety of uses in recipes. Enjoy it on a cracker or with a glass of red wine.”

Most unique flavor: Terrific Trio. “Terrific Trio is an exquisite fusion of three cheeses, made up of Renard’s handcrafted white cheddar, parmesan and gouda. The saltiness of this cheese heightens the nutty, buttery flavors for a taste you can’t forget. It’s divine by itself or shave it atop pasta, chicken, or vegetables to take your recipes to the next level.”

Recent Awards: 3rd Place in Whip String Cheese Category, United States Championship Cheese Contest.

Visit the shop! “Renard’s Cheese features complimentary cheese and wine sampling daily. Our in-store Bistro, Melt, features Artisan dishes incorporating Renard’s Cheese varieties and fresh local ingredients,” Renard explains. “Melt offers Grab & Go and Catering options as well.”

Weyauwega Star Dairy, Inc. – Weyauwega

While most Wisconsinites can say they have a fondness for string cheese, Weyauwega Star Dairy Inc. in Weyauwega takes that affection to a whole new level. In fact, they’re consistently breaking records by creating the longest string cheese at over 3,800 feet.

“Weyauwega Star Dairy has been owned and operated since 1975 by the Knaus Family. We are fourth-generation Artisan Wisconsin Cheesemakers,” Michael J. Knaus, VP and Co-Owner, says. “Gerard Knaus, a Master Cheesemaker, is a master of Brick, Cheddar, Colby, Feta, Monterey Jack, Muenster, Parmesan, and Provolone and he is currently working on getting a master of Havarti and Gouda.”

Hundreds of people lined the streets of downtown Weyauwega to help hold their piece of the record breaking string cheese that stretched 3,832 feet.
Holly Neumann Photo

It’s just one of the ways the family-owned cheesemaker feels like a part of their community.

We have a wonderful relationship with our dairy farmers,” Michael J. Knaus, VP and Co-Owner, says. “All are within a 50-mile radius of our cheese factory, and we’ve known most of them for over 40 years. We also have an excellent relationship with our customers, which we’ve established over the years.”

Cheese offered: Asiago, Brick, Diamond Marble, Feta, Farmers, Cheddar, Cheddar Curds, Colby, Muenster, Gouda, Havarti, Monterey Jack and varieties, Parmesan—block and wheels—Provolone, Mozzarella, String cheese: Plain, Pepper and Smoked.

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars – Theresa

Joey Widmer’s great grandfather began Widmer’s Cheese Cellars in 1922, with the 4th generation business celebrating 100 years last year.

The Vice President of Operations says it’s all about tradition and small batches.

“All cheese is handcrafted in open vats and also in small artisanal batches. We make the cheese using traditional cheese making recipes and techniques. Our Brick cheese is actually made using bricks in the process, which are used to press the curd into a block.”

Most popular cheese: Brick and Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar

Most unique flavors: Aged Brick cheese, a washed rind European style of cheese, or the Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar, which is our traditional cheddar recipe mixed with cultures associated with Alpine style cheeses.

“I will mention that we started making Butterkase cheese at the beginning of this year,” Widmer adds. “Butterkase is a creamy buttery cheese that is great for melting or enjoying on its own.”

Recent awards: Best in Class for our Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar at the United States Championship Cheese Contest. We also win a variety of awards every year for our Brick, Cheddar, and Colby at American Cheese Society, Wisconsin State Fair, United States Championship Cheese Contest, and World Championship Cheese Contest, etc.

Visit the shop! “You can watch us make cheese from our small retail store. The retail store is open to production allowing visitors to view cheese production. The best time to view cheese production is between 7 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.”

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