While Wisconsin is home to 600 varieties, types and styles of cheeses (according to the latest figures from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board), I'd be willing to wager that if you asked the average consumer what variety they buy most, the most common answer would still be cheddar.
Wisconsin produced 6.9 million pounds of cheddar in 2005 - including everything from artisan 10-year aged cheddars selling for $20 a pound to 40-pound blocks that last week were selling for $1.30 a pound on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. A great article by Janet Fletcher at the San Francisco Chronicle recently focused on America's inability to distinguish a $3 pound cheddar from a $30 pound cheddar.
Well, let me clear this up for you. Wisconsin cheddar rules. Not all of our cheddars may sell for $30 a pound (in fact I don't think we have any selling for quite that much), but every plant that I know making cheddar has only their most experienced licensed cheesemakers (and often the masters) in the make room.
In fact, if you're looking for a really good cheddar, here are some recommendations:
Alto Dairy Black Creek Cheddar. I know what you're thinking. This 100-old cooperative has made block cheddar for a century and sold it as private label. Well, they recently started aging out the premiere of their premiere cheddar and selling it themselves as Black Creek Classic. This is good stuff. They just started rolling out this label nationally, so it may be hit and miss on finding it. But when in doubt, buy it directly from the plant at the following ages: 9 months, 3-year and five-year. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to inquire about placing an order.
Bleu Mont Dairy English-Style Bandaged Cheddar. This only works if you're in Madison, Wisconsin and you're able to attend the Saturday's Dane County Farmer's Market (going on this winter at the Madison Senior Center on Mifflin St). Cheesemaker Willi Lehner is making an infinitely edible bandaged cheddar that was inspired by a recent trip to Europe. Or if all else fails, email him and see if he'll send you a chunk. email@example.com
Carr Valley Aged Cheddars. If you know anything about Master Cheesemaker Sid Cook, you of course know that above and beyond all his American Originals, his aged cheddars consistently earn awards at national competitions. His website's e-store even has a special section for his cheddars and prices range from $4.49 for day-old cheddar to $19.50 a pound for his 10-year cheddar. Personal note: my current favorite is his Applewood Smoked Cheddar - every time I take it to a party, people love me.
Henning Cheese. Whether you're looking for fresh cheese curds or a 12,000 pound mammoth cheddar, Henning's is your place. It's a fourth-generation family-owned and operated business and has been making cheddar for 90 years. All Henning cheese is custom-made, according to the wheel size requested by the customer.
Hook's Cheese Company. Tony and Julie Hook located their company in the historic "Shake Rag" district of scenic Mineral Point and have been making award-winning cheddars for 35 years. Their 5-year, 7-year and 10-year cheddars are in high demand and their 10-year cheddar claimed first in the 2006 American Cheese Society competition.
Widmer's Cheese Cellars. Last but not least, there's Master Cheesemaker Joe Widmer. In addition to mild cheddar, Joe crafts a 1-year, 2-year, 4-year and 6-year cheddar. His 6-year took first place in its class at the 2005 American Cheese Society competition. Joe and his family have been making cheese in Theresa, Wisconsin since his grandfather arrived from Switzerland more than 80 years ago.
And that about wraps up the Wisconsin artisan cheddar tour. Happy cheddar shopping!