There are only two places in the world where a cheesemaker can earn a Master Cheesemaker certification — Switzerland and Wisconsin. The Master Cheesemaker program, also referred to as a PhD in cheese from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, ensures that Wisconsin cheese remains of world-class quality. Only Wisconsin cheesemakers with at least 10 years of experience can apply and hope to be accepted. A little over 90 people have earned one of Wisconsin’s highest honors since the program’s beginning.
As a result, Wisconsin cheeses consistently rank among the world’s best. For example, seven of the 20 finalists were from Wisconsin at the biennial 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest, held in Madison, Wisconsin. Additionally, Wisconsin cheeses won Best of Class in forty-five of 144 categories by cheesemakers representing 29 countries. Fifty-three international judges representing 16 countries and 13 states determined the winners.
Meet three Master Cheesemakers and their shops to see why you need to visit Wisconsin for an authentic cheese experience.
How Wisconsin’s Remarkable Cheese Culture Began
After completing the Erie Canal in 1825, European immigrants settled in the new Wisconsin territory via the Great Lakes. Most immigrants came from northern European regions such as Germany, Scandinavia, the British Isles, Poland, and Italy. So naturally, they brought old-world cheesemaking recipes and traditions, but chose easier wheat farming, which became unsustainable.
Wheat farmers already owned dairy cows to supply milk, homemade butter, and cheese for the family. After wheat production dropped, farmers switched to dairy farming and making batches of cheese curd to sell to small local dairies for cheesemaking. Because curd quality varied from each farm, making quality cheese was difficult until factories transitioned to buying bulk milk instead of curd. As the number of dairy farms grew, cheese factories opened nearby. Better quality resulted, and Wisconsin passed New York as the nation’s leading dairy-producing state in 1910. It became known as “America’s Dairyland.”
It’s debatable where Wisconsin’s first cheese factory began, but a plaque hangs in Fond du Lac County at Chester Hazen’s original cheese factory in Ladoga. The plaque reads, “Erected in Honor of Chester Hazen, Father of Wisconsin’s Cheese Industry. Erected a Factory on this site, 1864.”
Where To Find Specialty Cheese
Most cheese factories were, and still are, found in rural areas near dairy farms. Even though many small-town cheese factories no longer exist, finding one is a special treat. Wisconsin still has over 1,200 licensed cheesemakers producing more than 600 varieties, with a good deal of them in small-town artisanal factories. Per the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, forty-seven percent of all specialty cheese made in the U.S. comes from Wisconsin.
Wisconsin cheesemaking ascended into world-championship quality cheese because of many dairy advancements. In particular, these included the development of the Babcock Butterfat Test in 1890 and the establishment of the Center for Dairy Research (CDR) in 1986. In addition, the CDR and Dairy Farmers Wisconsin established the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program in 1994.
You’ll find some of the best artisanal cheese in small rural cheese shops. If you look for small-town cheese factories, you will most likely find Master Cheesemakers quietly perfecting their craft.
Pro Tip: This is a complete list of Master Cheesemakers. Scroll to the bottom to find your favorite cheese varieties.
How The Wisconsin Center For Dairy Research Helps World Travelers
The Center for Dairy Research (CDR), part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, supports Wisconsin’s dairy industry through educational training, research, and development. Notably, the Certified Master Cheesemaker program has earned Wisconsin cheesemakers worldwide recognition.
Wisconsin’s past dairy advancements and the CDR have combined to create quality dairy products, specifically cheese. Furthermore, over 90 percent of Wisconsin’s milk is used for cheese production. University of Wisconsin’s CDR teams with cheesemakers to help shorten the learning curve when creating new cheeses. For instance, the CDR assisted Ken Heimen of Nasonville Dairy by cutting research and development time with feta. By eliminating much of the trial and error process, Heimen perfected his feta recipe quicker and sent it to market faster.
The CDR also helps market Wisconsin cheese worldwide. Egypt, for example, has shops full of cheeses from Europe but not from Wisconsin. The CDR is working with cheese manufacturers to get their products placed in Egyptian stores.
Aside from science and awards, traveling to Wisconsin for great-tasting cheese is a must-do experience. Travelers often want to taste the cheeses they find in foreign countries. In addition, people remember the taste and texture and want the same experience at home. Now, travelers can likely find the same cheeses in Wisconsin with matching or better quality.
Why You Should Look For The Master’s Mark For World-Class Cheese
The Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program is a CDR and Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin joint venture. Licensed Wisconsin resident cheesemakers can apply after 10 years of experience. Five must be in the variety they choose for certification.
Getting accepted into the program isn’t easy. Ken Heimen, a Master Cheesemaker from Nasonville Dairy, states,“They want to know how you’ve done in competition. What do you really know about cheese, products, milk, and sanitation? All of these things affect flavor, the outcome of what the consumer will taste.”
The grueling program initially requires courses, then entering into a three-year apprenticeship where the CDR consistently grades cheese samples. So, at best, a minimum of 13 years of cheesemaking experience before earning a Master Cheesemaker certificate is possible. The last hurdle is a rigorous final written exam that takes twenty-five to forty hours to complete. After that, a Certified Master Cheesemaker can use a blue Master’s Mark image of their face on their products. However, obtaining a Master Cheesemaking certificate for additional cheeses requires the same steps as the first. There are no shortcuts.
Meet Three Master Cheesemakers And Their Shops
Although Wisconsin has over ninety Master Cheesemakers, each one found their niche, and each shop is a different experience. Most cheese shops are throwbacks to the old days when a small, no-frills shop shared space in the cheese factory. Factories produced certain varieties each weekday, and residents bought cheese based on the factory’s schedule. Each of these featured Master Cheesemakers offers a similar experience. Flashy cheese shops are good for finding various brands and flavors, but take our word; visiting these shops will be richly rewarding in taste and experience.
Ken Heimen Of Nasonville Dairy: Science And Exports
Master Cheesemaker Ken Heimen earned his cheesemaking license at age fifteen before he could drive a car. Ken and his two brothers, Kim and Kelvin, own Nasonville Dairy, a few miles southwest of Marshfield. The brothers grew up making cheese in the dairy their parents bought in the 1960s. Now, all the wives and six sons are involved in the factory or their numerous dairy-related businesses.
Happy cows make better cheese. At Heimen Holsteins, another dairy business owned by the brothers, dairy cows love riding the 40-cow rotary milking parlor, similar to a merry-go-round. According to Ken, cows line up and fight for the eight-and-a-half-minute ride, but getting the cows off is more difficult. Along with Heimen Holsteins, Nasonville Dairy receives more than 1.5 million pounds of milk daily from over 190 local family farms. Some have been with the dairy since 1885.
Heimen earned Master Cheesemaker certificates in Asiago, Cheddar, feta, and Monterey jack cheeses. Nasonville Dairy also has three additional Master Cheesemakers; all four combined have eighteen Master Cheesemaker certifications. Nasonville produces a wide variety, but our favorites are Asiago, two-year Cheddar, bacon Cheddar, Muenster, cheese curds, and baby Swiss. We also recommend Blue Marble Jack, similar to blue cheese, for which Nasonville owns a patent. In any case, hot varieties are the most popular. From a mild pepper jack to Carolina Reaper, a pepper that rates at 2.2 million Scoville units of heat, finding a cheese with the right amount of heat shouldn’t be a problem.
Three Cheese Shops You Shouldn’t Miss
Nasonville Dairy has three cheese shops near Marshfield, one at the main Nasonville plant and another in Curtiss on Highway 29, near Colby, where Colby cheese originated. On a road trip, we almost always stop at one of these for a fresh bag of cheese curds. Regardless, soft serve ice cream at Weber’s Farm Store, on the western edge of Marshfield, is the best anywhere. We always get ice cream with our cheese order.
Ken Heimen’s Focus On New Cheese Markets
Nasonville Dairy maintains a close working relationship with the Center for Dairy Research. Together they have created Snow Feta; powdered feta exported to China and mainly used on pizza; all-natural feta for slicing; and kefir, a fermented milk drink similar to yogurt, to name a few.
Heimen is passionate about exports too. Nasonville Dairy produces cheese products for more than 123 customers, their private labels, their numerous brands, and brands for distributors. Nasonville Dairy exports products to China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Canada, Vietnam, Morocco, Panama, Chile, and the British Virgin Islands.
Joe Widmer Of Widmer’s Cheese Cellar: Tradition In Small Batches
Twenty-five miles south of Fond du Lac, in Theresa, Widmer’s Cheese Cellar has been producing hand-crafted cheese since 1922. Widmer’s, a traditional family-owned artisan cheese factory, uses the same old-world recipes and traditions passed down to four generations for crafting award-winning cheeses. They make cheese in small artisanal batches with milk from local dairy farms within a fifteen-mile radius.
Originally from Switzerland, the Widmer family proudly displays their Swiss roots. Outside the family-owned cheese shop, flags of Swiss cantons from founder John Widmer’s Bern heritage decorate the building. John, Joe Widmer’s grandfather, immigrated from Switzerland in 1905, became a cheesemaker, and bought the cheese plant in 1922. Three generations of Widmers have raised their families in the house above the plant since.
Joe Widmer belongs to the second Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers class and earned Master Cheesemaker certificates in Brick, Cheddar, and Colby. He firmly believes in following old-world traditions and recipes from his grandfather to create the best quality cheese. Joe points out that he only uses top-quality ingredients and takes no shortcuts.
Widmer and his staff are the only cheesemakers left in America who carry on the tradition of using bricks to make cheese. Joe’s grandfather used the same five-pound Nelsonville, Ohio, ceramic-coated baking bricks when he opened Widmer’s in 1922. The brick’s weight separates the whey from the cheese when placed on curd-filled forms.
Widmer’s Award-Winning Cheeses
Widmer’s Cheese Cellars specializes in hand-crafting the finest old-world style brick, aged brick cheese spread, Colby, and Cheddar cheeses in the world. All cheeses have various flavors, but mild brick is the most popular. Furthermore, aged Cheddar is available in increments from one year to fifteen years. Like most Wisconsinites, we enjoy fresh cheese curds. Widmer’s Cheese Cellars also makes cheddar and brick cheese curds. But, as far as we know, Widmer’s is the only place that makes brick curds.
Undoubtedly, Widmer’s aged brick cheese spread is a stroke of genius. Its combination of aged brick and Cheddar has won over fifteen national and international awards, including three World Championship Cheese Contest titles, three Best of Class awards, and six times named the Best Cheese of America by the American Cheese Society. In addition, the creamy cheese spread won bronze at the United States Championship Cheese Contest in February 2023. Likewise, Widmer’s Matterhorn Alpine Cheddar won Best of Class in February 2023 at the United States Championship Cheese Contest. Nevertheless, watch for Widmer’s newest creation, Butterkasse, a creamy, buttery cheese, to rise in popularity.
While in the cheese shop, look for Swiss decorations, particularly an old photo of the Swiss Alps displayed above the counter. It’s been there for ages. Visitors can watch old-world-style cheesemaking in the factory from the adjoining cheese shop on an elevated section of the production area.
Joey Widmar & Dustin Wallendall: A New Generation Of Cheesemakers
After receiving his MBA degree in 2014, Joey returned home to work in the family business. Along with being Vice-President of Operations, Joey has been a licensed cheesemaker for eight years, two years shy of entering the Master Cheesemaking program. The younger Widmer is considering applying for the program when he becomes eligible. When I asked which cheese he would like to enter with, he quickly said, “Brick. After all, it’s what we’re known for.” Then, he paused and said, “Also in Cheddar and Colby, in that order.”
Like other Master Cheesemakers, competitive passion for excelling runs deep. But, in our conversation, Joey Widmer’s enthusiasm slid to his other passion, the American Birkebeiner, or Birkie, North America’s largest cross-country skiing race. Participants worldwide compete on trails from Cable to Hayward in northwest Wisconsin. In February, Widmer raced in his fifth Birkie on Team ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease). Widmer said, “I just decided that if I was going to ski that far, I might as well do it for a good cause.”
At Widmer’s Cheese Cellar, it’s not only the family that’s passionate about making world-class cheese. Dustin Wallendall, a fifteen-year employee, is currently applying to the Master Cheesemaker program, also for brick.
Steve Stettler Of Decatur Dairy: Master Of Cheese Curds
In Brodhead, near the Illinois border, the world’s first certified Master Cheesemaker for cheese curds works his expertise at Decatur Dairy. Steve Stettler earned six Master Cheesemaker certifications in brick, Cheddar, farmers cheese, Havarti, Muenster, and specialty Swiss before bending the ears of the Master Cheesemaker Program to include cheese curds. Five years later, Stettler, owner of Decatur Dairy, earned his seventh certification and has since won first place at the 2022 World Cheese Championship for his Muenster cheese curds.
Stettler’s passion for cheese curds was evident when he said, “Cheese curd is our claim to fame in Wisconsin, and it should be a master cheese. Curds have varying quality all over the state, depending on where you buy them. It was important to me to make a standard because we do a lot of cheese curds.”
Decatur Dairy has won 116 awards from the Wisconsin State Fair Cheese and Butter Contest, the United States Championship Cheese Contest, and the World Championship Cheese Contest. In the World Championship Cheese Contest, Decatur Dairy has placed first multiple times with Muenster, Havarti, and Pepper Havarti. Dill Havarti has placed twice in second and third places, and brick won second place once. Because of his dedication to crafting exceptional Wisconsin cheese, Stettler won the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association Life Member Award in 2016.
Why You Need To Taste Rare, But Popular Colby Swiss and Chedster
Decatur Dairy is mainly known for Muenster and Havarti cheeses but also makes large amounts of farmer’s cheese and cheese curds. However, everyone should try two kinds at Decatur Dairy: Colby Swiss and Chedster. Delicate and lacelike from its tiny holes, Colby Swiss has a smooth Colby flavor with a trace of Swiss. Decatur Dairy is the only place in the country that makes it. Stettler says it’s a crowd favorite; almost everyone walks out with it. Chedster began as a 200-pound custom-made order. The owner liked the flavor but didn’t think the cheese would sell. Now Chedster, a combination of Cheddar and Muenster, has become another customer favorite at Decatur Dairy. Stettler recommends allowing the cheese to warm to room temperature before eating. The Muenster’s buttery creaminess mellows out the aged Cheddar taste.
Stettler’s passion for crafting the best artisanal cheeses can be found during cheesemaking and traveling. On trips to Europe, Stettler enjoys visiting cheese factories. One particular factory used a curd slide that he liked. While moving down the slide, whey separates faster from the curd before filling cheese molds, making the process easier and more efficient. After returning home, he shared his idea with a fabricator who built it.
On the way out, order a grilled cheese made with smooth, creamy Stettler Swiss. Another place to find Decatur Dairy’s award-winning cheese curds is at Stoughton’s Syttende Mai festival in May. Look for the Lion’s Club food tent, where Stettler is a volunteer. Cheese curds are hand-dipped into beer batter and then deep-fried until crispy golden brown.
When asked how to taste cheese as a Master Cheesemaker properly, Stettler said, “You just eat it!”
Cover photo courtesy of ©Scott Lanza Photography