These days, some 1,000 artisanal and farmstead cheesemakers can be found from coast to coast. That wasn’t always the case in the United States. For much of the country’s cheesemaking past, small and large cheesemakers alike largely created commodity cheeses. However, the extra margins can be found in creating uniquely branded cheeses with a host of special flavors and food experiences.
While specialty cheese production takes place across the United States, Wisconsin is the epicenter. Overall, 90% of the Badger State’s milk production goes into making cheese and 90% of that cheese production leaves its borders. Wisconsin first began sending cheese to customers outside Wisconsin when William Dempster Hoard secured a reduction in freight rates and obtained the first refrigerated rail car to ship Wisconsin cheese to eastern markets. And the Badger State’s creation of specialty cheese continues to grow with each passing year.
Fast forward to modern times. In 2012, Wisconsin accounted for 26% of the nation’s cheese production. A remarkable 22% of that total was uniquely crafted specialty cheese. A total of 611 million pounds was made by Wisconsin cheesemakers a decade ago. In those days, 92 of the state’s 126 licensed cheese plants were making at least one type of specialty cheese, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS).
The specialty cheese story has exploded as production moved from 611 million pounds to 928 million pounds. That’s a 52% growth rate in one decade from 2012 to 2022.
These days, 94 of the state’s 118 cheese plants create at least one brand of high-quality specialty cheese.