Photo: Bart Everson
OKAY HONORARY CHEESEHEAD, this is the the southern Wisconsin cheese loop. With no traffic, the route will take about 6.5 hours. You may want to split it up over two days to ensure maximum cheese shopping time.
Mars Cheese Castle, Kenosha
Start your trip at one of Kenosha’s landmarks, the Mars Cheese Castle. It really is a castle (though newly renovated) full of cheese. Plus sandwiches, snacks, gourmet foodstuffs, wine, beer, and a huge selection of Wisconsin-only products. Buy a basketful and bring a blanket along so you can stop and picnic in the fields and at rest stops along the way.
Bobby Nelson Cheese Shop, Kenosha
From Mars, head just next door to Bobby Nelson’s, one of the older cheese shops in this part of Wisconsin. See how a traditional shop in the state operates as opposed to the newness of Mars. Bobby Nelson, the wrestler famous for the Half Nelson and Full Nelson holds, opened the shop nearly 70 years ago. You can also get a huge supply of locally made sausages here, and a local specialty: brick cheese. The current owners and staff (Nelson died in 2002) are incredibly accommodating and have been known to stay open an extra hour if they know someone is on the way for a visit. Keep in mind this is a cash-only business.
Cheeselovers, it’s time to get excited. This stop on the tour is very important. Roth Cheese won the 2016 World Championship for its Grand Cru Surchoix—the first American company to win the top prize in about 30 years. The winning cheese is a washed-rind Alpine style. This type of cheese is common in Wisconsin because our climate mirrors that of the Alps, but without the mountains (and some may say our limestone-rich ground makes for even better cheese than the traditional ones in the Alps). The cheese itself tastes a little nutty, fruity, floral, and mellow all at once; grab a wedge for yourself and see which aspect stands out the most for you.
Carr Valley Cheese, Sauk City
Carr Valley is one of the most well known brands in Wisconsin. All the milk comes from local dairy farms, and the cheese plant makes more than 100 varieties from sheep, goat, cow, or mixed milk bases. And many of the cheeses are one of a kind, made just for Carr Valley and unavailable anywhere else in the world. Try the Black Sheep Truffle, Goat Cheddar, or Shepherd’s Blend for a more artisanal taste, or go more Wisconsin traditional and try an award-winning cheddar.
This is about the halfway point. If you’re taking a two-day trip, stop in Sauk City for the night, or drive to Theresa and lodge there.
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa
Start your day heading east into the historic village of Theresa. As another one of Wisconsin’s oldest cheese shops, Widmer’s has been around since the 1920s. The store specializes in brick, cheddar, and Colby, all made by master cheese maker Joe Widmer. He knows what he’s doing, too—Widmer learned to make the Cellars’ cheese from his father, and both of them grew up and raised families in the apartment above the on-site cheese plant. Plus, he’s one of the few cheesemakers in Wisconsin certified as a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker, an honor bestowed on those passing a rigorous three-year course. Widmer passed it twice.
If you get here early enough on your drive over from Widmer’s, you may catch the cheesemakers in action. They work every morning making new cheese—the store sells 30 different types—in this old-fashioned cheese factory. On the first Saturday of each month, you can try the freshest samples around: cheddar or jalapeno curds right from the vat. Watch the store’s Facebook page for updates on what they’re making and sampling.
Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Milwaukee
Feast your eyes on more than 150 pure Wisconsin cheeses in this shop that’s been open since 1938. They sell other products too (like sausage, local craft beer, other regional food), but cheese is the specialty. Stop in for a sampling snack—usually about 10 types of cheese are being sampled at once. I recommend trying the Morel and Leek Jack cheese, or the Chocolate Fudge Cheese. They’re local favorites.
Uber Tap Room and Cheese Bar, Milwaukee
Mix Milwaukee’s German heritage with its dairy heritage right next door from the Cheese Mart (you don’t even have to actually go outside; the two are connected inside). Try a beer from one of 36 local brews on tap, but don’t just fill up on that—Uber pairs its beer with Wisconsin cheese. Ask your waiter to tell you what goes best with what, or try a cheese flight, mac and cheese, or grilled cheese. You can also get local sausage, but with all that cheese, why would you want to?
Clock Shadow Creamery, Milwaukee
End your trip at a Wisconsin first: Clock Shadow was the first urban creamery in the state. Try the curds—remember, the squeakier they are, the better—and the quark, a spreadable cheese that packs a flavorful punch. For a sweet dessert treat to finish the drive, Clock Shadow also sells Purple Door Ice Cream, a local brand that has unique area-specific flavors like Kinnickinnic Whiskey, Brandy Old Fashioned, or Beer and Pretzels.