Green County boasts some of the best cheese in Wisconsin

Samantha Hendrickson
Wisconsin State Farmer

Friday was a beautiful day for cheese. 

While it's a beautiful day for cheese any day in Wisconsin, driving through Green County with my dad in tow felt special. My dad's palate has been all over the world, and I couldn't imagine a better person to take on a cheese-tasting tour in the south of America's Dairyland — even as he laughed while distracting me in the middle of my social media video updates the whole way there.

Our latest adventure brought up memories of our past cheese-centric traditions. For many years, before my sisters moved to the southwest, we'd take trips not unlike the one we took Friday — driving all over America's Dairyland to find the best, most unique or weirdest cheeses. We fancied ourselves amateur cheese experts, hunting for the right, high-quality cheese to fill our Thanksgiving smorgasbord.

Wisconsin State Farmer reporter Samantha Hendrickson and her father, Mark Hendrickson, drive to Green County, Wisc to taste test some of Wisconsin's best cheeses on what Samantha calls "Bring Your Dad to Work Day."

With the holidays fast approaching, cheese is in high demand, even in an industry hit hard by labor shortages and other supply chain issues. Local and national cheese loyalists are already keeping Green County's cheese shops busy with all their charcuterie needs. 

While visiting all of Green County's cheesemakers in one day is impossible, my dad and I did our best to hit a variety of places. While much of "America's Little Switzerland" is left unexplored, we hope this bird's eye view of cheese shops, manufacturers and restaurants will give you an idea of what should sit on your holiday table this year.

Maple Leaf Cheese Store

We stopped first, bright and early, at Maple Leaf Cheese Store in Juda. 

This little store, nestled just off State Road 11 in a gas station and restaurant complex, is run by father and daughter duo,  though Shauna Bergemann will take over fully by January. 

Maple Leaf boasted the most variety of any place we visited. The store sells cheese from all over the state, and even imports a few items from Scandinavia, though it's pride comes from its amount of local cheeses to select. 

"We have the best of (Wisconsin) cheese places," Bergemann said, adding that you can buy assortments of cheeses all in one go that you can't buy from any caterer for your holiday.

Maple Leaf Cheese Store off State Road 11 in Juda, Wisc.

Bergemann had a plate ready for us immediately, with more mild cheeses they usually include in their cheese plates for sale or their make-your-own charcuterie boards, such as a mild cheddar, a gouda and a Havarti cheese. We quickly rendered the neatly-arranged cheese slices much less neat, and dove into our first taste-testing of the day.

While Thanksgiving is still a couple weeks away, Bergemann said that now is the best time to order. With shipping and distribution issues nationwide, consumers should be thinking well ahead of time if they want cheese for their holiday celebration. 

You can order in-store, online or by phone, and Maple Leaf ships to all 50 states. 

A cheese plate from Maple Leaf Cheese Store in Juda, Wisc.

Chalet Cheese Co-op

Our second stop of our cheese-tasting day looked much different than our first — the Chalet Cheese Co-op in Monroe sat amid a few green, rolling hills, surrounded by pastures full of Brown Swiss and Holstein cows. We waited patiently for a large milk truck to turn out of the lot before we turned in, and were greeted with the loud hum of machinery hard at work. 

After a short hike up a concrete hill, we met Master Cheesemaker and the chalet's director of operations, Jamie Fahrney, in his office. 

The co-op is currently the only plant in the United States to produce the famous Limburger cheese. It's a cheese unique to Wisconsin, and has built quite a reputation due to its strong taste and smell. According to Fahrney, construction workers in Pennsylvania first made Limburger cheese sandwiches popular, using it as a cheaper meat substitute. 

"The connotations of Limburger is that is smells," Fahrney said. "And that's true, but what we tell people is to just try it out and taste it."

Fahrney laid out the chalet's finest for us. Besides the Limburger, which we saved for last, we tasted pannaro, Swiss and harvarti cheeses that melted in our mouths, despite the chilly day.

The pannaro, also unique to the chalet, is a parmesan and gouda blend that keeps the bold flavor of the parmesan with the creaminess of a gouda. If you're looking for something to shred and sprinkle on pizza, bruschetta or maybe potatoes, this is your cheese. 

The Swiss is one of the chalet's best sellers, and one of the cheeses Fahrney is a master cheesemaker for. We tried the harvarti with and without peppers. I'm picky about my harvarti, it's my favorite cheese, so I don't say lightly this was one of the best I've tasted — the smooth and soft textures were exactly what I'd want on any piece of toast with my grandma's cranberry jalapeño jelly.  

Lastly, we tried the Limburger. The taste is something not unlike a stronger cheese, like blue or gorgonzola, but with a heartier, creamier texture. I could see why those Pennsylvania construction workers made it the base of their sandwiches. Adding some bacon, lettuce and tomato would be a delicious lunch before a big Christmas evening meal.

Chalet Cheese Co-Op has a small on-site store, but they distribute to grocery stores as well. While the cheeses may be under a different label, look for who the manufacturer is in the fine print and you might see the co-op's name there. You can also order online, and the co-op ships to all 50 states. 

Edelweiss Creamery

Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, Wisc.

We hurried out of the chalet and drove just three miles down the road to Edelweiss Creamery. Sadly, Edelweiss' in-person storefront closed due to the pandemic, but the creamery is still making tons of cheese per week and still has an online store

Owner Bruce Workman waved us onto the gravel driveway, and after a few introductions, took us back into a cozy work kitchen for a more at-home feel tasting.

At an antique, green wooden table we cut our own slices of muenster, butterkase and and 10-year white cheddar.  

Bruce Workman lays out a cheese plate at Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, Wisc. including muenster and butterkase.

Butterkase is a special cheese that is made with butter cultures, and you can taste it right away. The saltiness of the butter hits the back of your tongue, and the slice is the perfect mix of creamy and salty. According to Workman, mix that with his muenster, and you've got the "best grilled cheese on the face of the earth."

But Workman suggests anyone making a grilled cheese should always be using two different cheeses, and my dad, as usual, argued for bacon in there as well.

"We want people to know about the pride and care that we take in making our product," Workman said. "We never make a piece of cheese that's not gonna be wholesome... We do everything by hand." 

Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern

We couldn't stop in Monroe without stopping at Baumgartner's. 

Wisconsin's oldest cheese store remains a cheese store, but also a tavern, and a staple in Monroe's quaint historic town square since the early 1900s. You can buy cheese at the front of their cozy restaurant, or stay for a beer and one of their delicious sandwiches made with local ingredients, some of which we'd already tested that day. 

Besides an old town feel, Baumgartner's has some quirky details that amplify the small town staple feel. The ceiling above their bar is stuck with dollar bills, which employees take down once a year to donate to charity. The walls are painted with murals of a war between wine bottles and beer steins, or covered in maps where visitors can pin where they're from.

As someone with a gluten allergy, I was afraid my dad would be eating alone. But I was pleased to find out that Baumgartner's has several gluten-free soup and beer options, as well as gluten-free bread. 

We both had the chili, a tangy, salty and hearty starter that reminded me of Friday chili nights at my high school friend's family's house, watching movies in the living room with her and her nine siblings and keeping out the cold with beef and beans. 

My dad opted for the classic Limburger sandwich, while I had their special of the day, a pastrami Rachel sandwich with Swiss cheese from the Chalet Cheese Co-op. If you're looking for a way to experience Monroe's cheeses first hand, all you need is to order a sandwich at Baumgartner's, and pull apart that perfectly toasted bread to see that beautiful stretch from the Wisconsin cheese, likely sourced just a few miles away. 

A pastrami Rachel sandwich from Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern in Monroe, Wisc.

Alp and Dell Cheese Store 

We ended our "Bring Your Dad To Work Day" with a stop at Alp and Dell cheese store, owned by Swiss native and famous local yodeler Tony Zgraggen.

Alp and Dell Cheese Store owner, Tony Zgraggen, slices cheese for a tasting in Monroe, Wisc.

Zgraggen, who studied agriculture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an exchanged student in 1978, has called Wisconsin home since 1981. His store, settled right next to award-winning cheese manufacturer Emmy Roth, not only has special imported and local cheese, but wines, jams, jellies and other local products, which Zgraggen is purposeful about supporting. 

"We always want to have great quality cheese at an affordable price," Zgraggen said. "I can drive to the cheese factories around here and only be gone an hour and a half. We assemble everything here, we cut out the middle man, and we keep the price low, that's our strength." 

Alp and Dell keeps busy, especially around the holidays. They sell upwards of 300 pounds of cheese curds a week, and are already packing up their regular holiday surge of customizable cheese boxes, where customers can pick out whatever they like from the store and have it priced. Some Mondays, Zgraggen said, he and his employees will be packing over 150 boxes to ship out that day. 

I didn't think I could talk about cheese anymore that day, let alone taste anymore, but Zgraggen's quiet passion for cheese is infectious. Without a second thought, he ripped open several packages of cheese for us, including a horseradish harvarti, a spinach artichoke gouda, Emmy Roth's award-winning Surchox Grand Cru, and a 12-year-old cheddar. 

The aged cheddar is a must for any fans of older cheddar cheese, and the horseradish harvarti is an interesting flavor for those looking to try something new. My personal favorite, the Surchox Grand Cru, was bursting with flavor. A harder cheese full of lactic acid crystals that danced on every part of your tongue, it would pair well with olives and salami or prosciutto on a skewer or charcuterie board for a holiday appetizer. 

Zgraggen offered his own personal favorite cheese combination — a crisp apple and cup of hot tea. 

Customers can order online, in-store or over the phone at Alp and Dell, but the sooner the better, as shipping delays and high demand may mean you have to wait longer than you like.

By the end of the day, my dad and I were certain we'd eaten more cheese in eight hours than we had in a whole year. But we came back with plenty of ideas for our holiday spreads this year, and we'd bought enough cheese to last us well though the season. 

While Monroe boasts many different cheese tasting and buying locations, there was a commonality to the ones we visited (besides the cheese.) Whoever you're buying from, you're buying from someone who cares about their product and the legacy Green County has carried as a cheese capital. 

Your only mistake in buying cheese from America's Little Switzerland is not buying it soon enough.

Samantha Hendrickson can be reached at 414-223-5383 or shendrickson@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at@samanthajhendr.