If you've ever toured the wine country of Sonoma or Napa Valley, you know that it's about more than just the wine. The wine is a good part of it, of course. But it's also about the beauty of the valleys, the rows of grapes edged with rambling wild roses; the golden light of California. Then there are the surrounding spas and famous restaurants. You might get a mud wrap somewhere and follow it with a good meal at Thomas Keller's French Laundry, in Yountville.
So could it even be possible for Wisconsin to become a Napa Valley-style destination for the beer and cheese set? For one thing, there are very few spas out New Glarus way. And the distances can be a challenge. In Sonoma County, you can stumble from one winery to the next; in Wisconsin, you can drive county trunk roads for miles before you hit the next stop.
On the other hand, beer and cheese devotees are much less interested in spas than oenophiles are. (Possibly for obvious reasons.) And after all, Chicagoans are known to travel the Monroe/New Glarus/Madison loop to check out Baumgartner's in Monroe, tour the New Glarus Brewery, shop the Saturday Dane County Farmers' Market, hit Ale Asylum or Capital Brewery, and leave with a cooler full of cheese and sausage and a few cases of Wisconsin-only beer in the trunk. Why let them have all the fun?
So pick a tour and discover our own beer-and-cheese version of the vaunted California wine tour.
One thing to note before you go: You may have seen the cheese map put out by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing board. It's helpful and colorful and somewhat unwieldy. Do use it as a resource. (It's available online at eatwisconsincheese.com, or at just about any cheese outlet.) But do not take everything printed on it as the gospel truth. For instance, Crave Brothers, outside of Waterloo, may be willing to book factory tours for your Cub Scout troop in advance, but you cannot just show up there and look through an observation window at the cheesemaking or buy cheese. I did get to see a super-large Whole Foods semi chugging out of the Crave Brothers lot and some cows from a distance, but that's about it.
Another thing to keep in mind is that cheese is made very early in the day. If you arrive after noon at a cheese factory that has an observation window, you might not even get to see them cleaning up. (It never hurts to call ahead and ask what might be going on during any particular day.)
At the Carr Valley factory on Highway G between Ironton and Cazenovia in Sauk County, for instance, I learn that the first worker gets to the plant at midnight; he starts heating up the tanks. A second worker rolls in about 2:30 a.m. Milk comes to the plant from local farms, from Amish to small commercial operations. Sixty thousand gallons of milk end up as 6,000 pounds of cheese.
Whey, a byproduct of cheesemaking, goes partly to a local butter maker; some of the rest is dried and used in an energy drink.
By 9 a.m., pale yellow curdlike blobs are arrayed in long stainless steel trays, waiting to become pepper jack. On the other side of the factory, a worker inspects large cheddar "daisies," big wheels of bright orange cheese - "about four hours ago, they were milk," I'm told. They're refrigerated; the following day they'll be dipped in red wax to prevent molding and then aged.
The fresh curds on the counter were made that morning, and the decibel level on the squeak goes to 11.
It's all over by noon most days, earlier in the winter.
Of course, it may simply be that you are more interested in eating cheese than watching it being made, in which case you have no worries.
FROM NEW GLARUS TO MONROE
Silver Lewis Cheese Factory
W3075 Hwy. EE (at Hwy. F), Monticello. 608-938-4314
Alp and Dell
657 2nd St., Monroe. 608-328-3355.
Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern
1023 16th Ave., Monroe. 608-325-6157.
Chalet Cheese Co-op
N4858 Hwy. N, Monroe. 608-325-4343. 7 am-3:30 pm Mon.-Fri., 8 am-10 am Sat. Tours for four or more by appointment.
W1668 Hwy. F, 3 miles west of Brodhead. 9 am-5 pm Mon.-Sat. 608-897-8661. Tours 8-11 am
Minhas Craft Brewery
1208 14th Ave., Monroe. 608-325-3191.
New Glarus Brewery
2400 Hwy. 69, New Glarus. 608-527-5850.
Puempel's Olde Tavern
18th Ave., New Glarus, 608-527-2045.
This is the triple-crème of southern Wisconsin cheese tours. Heading to Monroe via New Glarus offers the serious cheese tourist the highest concentration of cheese factories, plus two breweries en route. The highlight is storied Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern on the courthouse square in Monroe. But getting there is also a great trip.
The scenery, which fooled Swiss settlers into thinking it looked like Switzerland just as the Irish took it for the auld sod, is verdant and hilly; the hollows are decorated with Holsteins and Guernseys and goats and the occasional llama.
To start, take Highway 69 south past New Glarus, then keep on going south to Monticello, where a four-mile (or so) detour east takes you to Silver Lewis Cheese Factory. It's an old, extremely low-key place that gets its milk from local farmers and makes brick, Muenster and farmers' cheese, among a couple dozen others. The smoked farmers' cheese - indicated on the hand-printed whiteboard menu simply as "smoked" - is a must.
You can catch glimpses of the cheese being made in a back room; it's packaged pretty much right where you're standing at the retail counter. Someone will slice your cheese off to-order from large hunks in the cooler behind the cash register.
There's nothing touristy about Silver Lewis - no cheese-shaped hats or postcards or trinkets for sale; there aren't even any signs for the place. It appears suddenly at the bottom of a hill where County Highway EE meets County Highway D, where there's nothing in either direction but farms and fields and cows.
Retrace your route back to Highway 69 and continue south to Monroe. Just as you head into town you'll see the Alp and Dell Cheese Store, where Roth Kase is sold. Here you'll find a much more spacious store with lots of samples.
If you're looking to put a picnic together, crackers, knives and picnic ware are for sale too. However, since you've come this far, we do recommend that you continue on to Baumgartner's for lunch. And if you're living in southern Wisconsin and you have never been to Baumgartner's, make tracks.
The tavern sells cheese up front and is likely to feature at least one sheepshead game going on in back. A mural depicts the war between wine and beer. Baumgartner's advertises that they serve the world's second best chili but the best cheese sandwich in the world. Many make the pilgrimage for the stinky Limburger sandwich, which features the only Limburger made in the U.S., from Monroe's own Chalet Cheese Cooperative.
But if Limburger and onion is not your thing, the Swiss and mustard on rye can also transform your idea of how good a simple cheese sandwich can be. Beers on tap include Monroe-brewed Berghoff and Huber Bock, as well as New Glarus' Spotted Cow and Fat Squirrel and Capital Amber. And Schlitz.
If you want to extend your cheese gathering, at this point there are a half-dozen other cheese retail outlets within striking distance of Monroe - Chalet, the Limburger place, is five miles northwest of town on Highway N. Many people swear by the Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, famous for Havarti, about 15 miles to the east of Monroe.
The old Huber brewery in Monroe is now Minhas Craft Brewery, and it still brews the old Huber brand. Tours ($10) are Fridays at 1 p.m. and Saturdays at 1 and 3 p.m.
Heading back north to Madison at the end of the day, squeeze in a tour of the New Glarus Brewery. Self-guided tours are available 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily; a stop in the tasting room costs $3.50 for three three-ounce samples and a New Glarus tasting glass. A more thorough look at how the beer is made is available through the "Hard Hat Tour" ($20); these take place at 1 p.m. on Fridays only, and advance registration is required.
Another favorite spot to get fresh Spotted Cow on tap in New Glarus is Puempel's Olde Tavern, similar in welcoming quality to Baumgartner's (great murals here as well). If you're already hankering for another Limburger sandwich, that's on the menu too.
THERESA, WATERTOWN, LAKE MILLS
Widmer's Cheese Cellars
214 W. Henni St., Theresa. 888-878-1107. 7 am-5 pm Mon.-Sat.; 10 am-4 pm Sundays June-Oct. only.
Kraemer Wisconsin Cheese
1173 N. 4th St. (near the intersection of Hwys. 16 and R), Watertown. 920-261-6363 7 am-5:30 pm Mon.-Fri., 7 am-4 pm Sat., 8 am-noon Sun.
303 N. 4th St., Watertown. 920-261-7613. 8:30 am-5 pm Mon.-Thurs., 8:30 am-6 pm Fri., 8:30 am-3 pm Sat.
1025 Owen St., Lake Mills. 920-648-8699. 4:30-11 pm Wed.-Thurs., 3 pm-midnight Fri.-Sat., 11 am-7 pm Sun., free live music Friday and Saturday nights.
Maybe you're heading east-northeast from Madison, in the direction of Horicon Marsh or the northern Kettle Moraine. It's not the obvious cheese route, but you do have options.
The most noteworthy factory tour in this direction is at the loop's far point from Madison: Theresa, just east of Mayville and south of Fond du Lac and home of Widmer's Cheese Cellars. It's the only factory in the state that still uses bricks to press brick cheese - the same bricks used by the company's founder.
Tours take place at 9:30 a.m. Monday through Friday, but you need to reserve as spot in advance (see info box).
Head back south toward I-94 via Watertown and hit Kraemer's Wisconsin Cheese, a family cheese factory with a tidy storefront shop (no cheesemaking observation) for some fresh curds. A few blocks down the street from Kraemer's near the center of Watertown is Fendt Brothers homemade sausage shop, making "quality meats since 1919." Open the screen door and, in the shadow of a wall of photos that depicts the family's long history in the area (and over 90 years in this same shop), pick up old-world sausages like mettwurst, zultz, smoked Polish, potato sausage or summer sausage.
If you leave Watertown via Highway A, you'll end up practically on the doorstep of Lake Mills' Tyranena brewery taproom.
The makers of such brews as Bitter Woman IPA and Headless Man Amber Alt have a tasting room and beer garden, with their seasonals, special brews and year-rounders on tap. No food is served, but you're welcome to bring in the summer sausage and curds from your travels. Free brewery tours take place Saturdays at 3:30 p.m. only.
WESTBY, CASHTON, LAVALLE, REEDSBURG
Old Country Cheese
S510 Hwy D, Cashton. 608-654-5411. 8 am-5 pm Mon.-Sat.
Pasture Pride Cheese
110 Eagle Dr., Cashton. 608-654-7444. 9 am-5 pm Mon.-Sat., 11 am-5 pm Sun.
S3797 Hwy. G, LaValle. 608-986-2781. 8 am-4 pm Mon.-Sat.; call ahead for tour options.
100 East Main St., Reedsburg. 608-524-8989.
Possibly the best way to keep from driving all over creation in search of cheese is to stay with the cheesemaker. And that's possible at Westby's Hidden Springs Creamery. A bed-and-breakfast was added to the farm in 2009 "for those more interested in learning than layovers," as the Hidden Springs website puts it.
Everything is in place for the B&B, says cheesemaker Brenda Jensen, and "we're eager to get started." The only drawback: a logistical conflict. Currently the Jensens head into Madison every Saturday for the Dane County Farmers' Market on the Square, which makes hosting weekend guests at the farm problematic. But midweek is no problem, and after July 4, the Jensens' spot at the market turns over to another vendor, so they'll be around.
Another good time to visit the farm is during lambing season, January-April, Jensen notes.
Connected to the main house, the bed-and-breakfast features a private bathroom, small kitchen and a great back porch with a swing that looks over the pastures. "There's nothing better than sitting on the porch watching the sheep graze," says Jensen. There's plenty to explore, but you can also just sit back and bliss out.
"We can't let people just wander around the farm," Jensen explains, "but we will show you around, and cheesemaking can be observed through the windows." Actual participation in the process is against the rules. But if you're looking for other occupations, there's dish television, a hot tub and a full body jet shower.
On your way to and from Westby, wend your way past two cheese factories near Cashton, Old Country Cheese and Pasture Pride cheese; then dip down to the Carr Valley Cheese headquarters between Ironton and Cazenovia. (Although Carr Valley has retail outlets all over southern Wisconsin, the factory on highway G is the original; a second factory in Mauston is where the specialty cheeses are made.) Then head east to Reedsburg to have a beer and a burger at the unassuming Corner Pub, which looks like the prototypical Wisconsin corner tavern but features home-brewed beers on tap including cream ale, an IPA and milk stout.