Cheese: A perfect gift for the holidays or anytime

John Oncken

Thanksgiving is the official start of the year's holiday season for most people and everyone loves Christmas – the friendly spirit, family get togethers, receiving presents, the big dinner, holiday music, vacation days and the memories of Christmases of the past. 

Cheese boxes are the perfect gift for the hard to shop for person on your Christmas list.

However there is one aspect of the season that most everyone faces and dreads: giving presents. Whether it be to children, parents, cousins far away or employees in the barn. What kind of a present do we give to a few of our relations and friends? They have been good to us, given our family presents at weddings, confirmations, baptisms and the like.  We think and think and ponder and ponder but the answers are still up in the air and it’s getting close to Christmas.

Take for instance the uncle and aunt who live a 1,000 miles away in Texas. They have no need for clothes, household goods or accessories for their car. They are retired and flew south for the winter. The friend at work who has done us an occasional favor, giving a ride when our car was in the repair shop and helping with a garage door last spring.  We want to give him something (not money), but what?

Indeed, I’ll bet most every family in Wisconsin, the Midwest or anywhere has the same challenge and time is short and we’re busy. 

The answer is simple and right before us – give Wisconsin cheese! The kind of cheese you get direct from a Wisconsin cheese factory, made by cheesemakers you can call by name, from milk cows living on Wisconsin dairy farms milked by Wisconsin farm families. 

How do we do that? 

You can begin by firing up your computer or smart phone and going to and wading into the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin website that will tell you most everything you’d ever want to know about cheese and where to buy it. 

Or you can read about a few Wisconsin cheese factories I’ve visited over the years, that are small, have cheese stores and websites and have been around for decades and where you can always talk directly with the owner or cheesemaker.

Decatur Dairy at Brodhead is one of those unusual smallish cooperatives very unique to Green county where the dairy farmer patrons own the building and provide the milk and the cheesemaker owns the equipment and makes and markets the cheese. (This is in contrast to the large cooperatives across dairyland where the farmers own everything and employ others to make and market the cheese.)

Master cheese maker Steve Stettler is the owner of Decatur Cheese, a small cheese company based out of Brodhead, Wis., that has been making world-class cheese and cheese curds since the 1940's.

A Master

Steve Stettler, who has managed and made cheese at the Decatur Swiss Cheese Co-op since 1982, is a Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker and has added to the facility over the years. This includes a cheese sales shop that draws a surprising number of visitors considering the location on rural County F a couple miles west of  Brodhead. 

Stettler recently won best in class in the unflavored cheese curd category for his Muenster Cheese Curds.

“To get first place in fantastic,” said Stettler. “Being the first Master in cheese curds and then this being the first time it was a cheese category in the World Cheese Contest last spring, I can’t ask for anymore."

Customers are always looking for new and different flavors of cheese like this Maple Syrup Cheese produced by Nasonville Dairy and sold by Weber's Farm Store in Marshfield, Wis.

Looking for flavor

“People seem to be looking for something a bit unusual, something their neighbor hasn’t heard of,” Stettler says.  With that, Stettler holds up a hunk of Colby-Swiss, a mixture of traditional Colby and Swiss cheese that he began making several years ago.  “People who try it, buy it,” he says. “It’s is great at a tail-gate party.” 

Although he says people are willing to try new cheeses and new flavors, Stettler admits his Stettler Swiss, Championship Harvarti and World Champion Muenster cheeses are his biggest sellers. 

In addition to the cheese store, Decatur Dairy has a very complete web site offering cheeses along with cheese boxes and some sausages, But, you’d better hurry if you want delivery by Christmas.  As with most smaller cheese makers, they offer suggestions and advice for that special gift. Call them at 608-897-8661.

Bill Hanson, owner of Arena Cheese, says his store has a lot of walk-in traffic thanks to the good cheese and nearby, busy Hwy 14.

Where Co-Jack began

Arena Cheese Inc., located on busy US Highway 14 west of Madison is where Co-Jack cheese was invented by the Peterson family and first sold in 1979. 

Then there are the cheese curds: Those salty, half made cheese bits that are both habit forming and oh so delicious. 

“We’ll sell 250 to 500 , 12-ounce bags on a weekend, “ owner Bill Hanson says. “Our major highway location makes it convenient to stop and we sell to a lot to stores in the area.”

An interesting aspect of Arena Cheese is the viewing area where you can watch cheese being made but best to come early in the day. 

Of course, you can order Arena Cheese at 608-753-2501 or their web site  

Henning's Cheese near Kiel, Wis., had been in business for over 100 years.

100 years in the family

Henning's Wisconsin Cheese is a fourth generation family-owned cheese factory located seven miles from Kiel in Manitowoc county.  There, in that rural setting, you will find a humming cheese factory that recently celebrated it’s 100th year in business.

From a humble start, the company has expanded over the years and now offers a myriad of cheese varieties including ‘hot” varieties like their Mango Fire and Hatch Pepper.

“Yes, we have had a demand for highly flavored cheese,” says Kay Schmitz who with her brothers Kert and Kerry are the third generation of Hennings. “Our Colby and Cheddar are our mainstays but people really are seeking new tastes in cheese. ” 

Henning’s offers a full line of cheese and gift boxes on their web site or at phone 920-894-3032 that can make for a happy Christmas.

Decatur Dairy, Arena Cheese and Henning’s Wisconsin Cheese are but three of about 145 cheese factories in Wisconsin that altogether make the state the leader in U.S. cheese production. 

Cheese sales are brisk during the holidays, especially at small cheese stores across Wisconsin.

They will remember

There are several hundred varieties of cheese made in the Dairy State.  A little bit of research will bring you to a cheese that will make the ideal Christmas gift for that relative or friend you’ve been sweating over. They will remember you longer than if you gave something that might be stored away in a closet or shipped to Goodwill.  Be a hero, gift cheese!

John F. Oncken can be reached at