Where possible, get your cheese locally from your favorite local cheese factory. They’ll often carry artisanal cheeses from other factories too, as long as they’re not competing specialties. But as Athena rightly noted, roadside cheese shops can have fantastic selections.
No one state has a monopoly on superior cheese. Some cheese factories in Wisconsin make some pretty ordinary products. Some make cheeses to die for. Some different batches from the same factory can run from “meh” to “OMG!!”.
Look, some of the best meals of my life have been at strip malls, or podunk grocery stores, or whatnot. But what I’ve found on the Illinois-Wisconsin border along the interstate has been absolutely run-of-the-mill cheddar. The only thing that is good is the curds. Those are reasonable. At least they (usually) got the squeak. As for top-tier cheddar, I’ve had no luck at these places. They tend to have a lot of “novelty” cheddars like horseradish cheddar, or habanero cheddar, or bacon cheddar, or whatnot. The straight cheddars they’ve had tend to be gummy texturally and bland in flavor, even the extra sharp. I’m just looking for a great, artisanal cheddar, with a bit of texture, and a little bit of funk. That’s why I’m asking for specific brands, so I can look for them specifically, as the plastic-wrapped cheddar at the big interstate cheese stands all look the same.
Looking at images, those look like cheddars I would like. (Maybe not so much the Gibbsville, but you can only tell so much from the photo.) This Widmer’s looks great, for instance. Or this is the kind of texture I’m looking for when I’m seeking out a good cheddar.
I’m talking about places along the lines of Mars Cheese Castle, the stuff sold at Kenosha’s Brat Stop, and similar types of places along I-94 or I-90. I suppose it’s also possible that I just don’t like the predominant style of cheddar cheese made in Wisconsin but, like I said, I have had decent cheddars that were recommended to me at the Milwaukee Public Market. I just haven’t been able to find those.
Same thing happened to me in Buffalo. People were telling me how much Kutter’s cheese has great cheddar. I stopped by the factory outlet. I was disappointed in what I found. Maybe I just have a different metric for what I like in my cheddars.
That said, I know what you mean - a lot of the roadside places have a ton of the flavored stuff, which can be good but I see as more of a novelty. I look past that for the small cooler in the back where the aged stuff is, and more often than not I find it.
Wisconsin is getting into more of a 2-tiered cheese market, though. Carr Valley and probably some of the other ones Qadgop mention are doing more European-style cheeses as well as the more traditional cheddars. Last time I was at the Madison Farmer’s market, the number of stalls selling small-producer artisinal cheese was astonishing, and the bulk of it seemed to be various riffs on European styles.
Then you get into the more traditional Wisconsin cheddar, Swiss, curds, etc. They’re not as fancy but heck, I love 'em. A 1-year-old Wisconsin cheddar is a TON better than supermarket cheese, even the lowbrow brands. This is the stuff you find most often in the side-of-the-road Cheese Palace kinds of places.
I love that Wisconsin is doing both kinds of cheese. And beer. Ooooh, the Wisconsin beer… and I’ve also found a small-producer Charcuterie place out of Madison. I wish the state would just up and annex the UP, we’re so much more like you than the wasteland that is Lower Michigan!
I’m familiar with those places, but I don’t know if they make their own cheese (I think not). But many Wisconsin cheese factories are in small towns and usually have an outlet store, so you can’t tell by their appearance.
Well, I said they’re probably not the best place, and the ones I’ve encountered from Illinois to Wisconsin certainly aren’t. I’ve never seen any cheeses like the ones in Qadgop’s link. I didn’t mean to imply that there are no good roadside cheese stands. That’s where, in my experience, I expect to find good cheese, but it hasn’t been the case in my forays into Wisconsin. The cheese I like and consider good I’ve only found in specialty cheese shops in Wisconsin, which surprised me, because I expected it to be ubiquitous. Perhaps the road from the Yoop down is better studded with good cheese outlets. But, like I said, cheese curds are generally pretty good in most places.
Anyhow, I agree about Wisconsin beer. New Glarus has some of my favorite brews, and I can’t get them here in Illinois. Every time I pop into Wisconsin, I’m sure to stock up. And that’s just the obvious stuff. I’ve had great beers from somewhere in the Eau Claire region (I forget the name of the brewery–no, not Leinenkugel out of Chippewa Falls, but some smaller places around there. Leinie’s Big Ed series, though is really good, even though I’m pretty meh about their regular line of beers) and all around the Madison area there’s a bunch of solid breweries. Oh, and Lakefront in Milwaukee has the best brewery tour I’ve been on, and a number of very good beers.
No, they sell a variety of Wisconsin cheeses, nothing in-house. I’ve also popped into some supermarket in the Beloit area, right on the border, to stock up on New Glarus, and, while the cheese selection was huge, it all seemed kind of generic looking to me. Just those rectangular, shrink-wrapped slabs of cheddar that had a uniformity of texture and color that is not what I look for in the types of cheddar that I like.