Celebrating American Cheese Month!

Mixing Cultures

Artisan cheese production is alive and well in the US, making #AmericanCheeseMonth the perfect time to shine a spotlight on moo-ers and makers. 

The American Cheese Society designates May to recognize and amplify American cheeses’ quality, diversity, and heritage while supporting and promoting great cheese, local foods, family farms, and sustainable production practices. Back in the day, cheese making in the United States was a practice and way of life for the immigrant populations who settled in different regions of the country. And so, the title of this blog post has little to do with bacteria strains coming together to make a particular type of cheese. It is a reference to people of many different backgrounds coming together to preserve the time-honored methods of making glorious cheese.

For example, in New England, the focus was on cheddar and other cheese styles native to the British Isles. In Wisconsin (largely settled by Swiss and German immigrants) cheeses of the same provenance – Limburger, Gruyere, and similar varieties thrived. In California, the Italian and Spanish immigrants created hard, nutty table cheeses that mimicked the staples of their respective homeland.

The State of American Cheese

In “The Badger State,” or “America’s Dairy Land,” Wisconsin, cheese has been a domestic export for longer than Wisconsin has actually been a state (183 years), so we decided to Zoom with Michelle Trowbridge, Director of Retail Channel Marketing, and Abrielle Kane, PR Specialist, both esteemed representatives of The Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) to catch up on this year’s overarching campaign to elevate and ignite awareness. Wisconsin dairy farmers produce consistent, high-quality milk due to favorable terroir, including four seasons, lush pastures, and natural spring water.

There’s a saying in the cheese world: “Wisconsin is where makers become Masters.”

That’s because Wisconsin’s Master Cheesemaker program is one of only two in the world, so it’s no wonder every Master in America has called Wisconsin home at some point along their journey. The 5,552 awards (and counting) that the state’s cheesemakers have won tell the story of a highly dedicated, passionate bunch, obsessed with their craft or er…kraft. People pursuing a second career path in cheesemaking should know that Wisconsin’s esteemed program requires a prerequisite of 10 years of cheesemaking before applying.

Fun fact: 50% of all American artisan cheese is made in Wisconsin

You can’t celebrate #AmericanCheeseMonth without paying du fromage-homage to Wisconsin’s dairy farmers. Cheesemakers and dairy farmers share a special and close relationship, unlike any other bond in the industry.  In Wisconsin, dedicated farmers and practitioners make more flavors, varieties, and styles of cheese than anywhere else in the world. This underscores their deep belief in traditions stemming from various mother countries, producing everything from Italian classics, like parmesan and ricotta, to Swiss cheese and cheddar varieties. It’s important to know that  Wisconsin cheesemakers are renegade innovators and experimental trailblazers as well. This explains why the state has so many beloved originals, like colby and muenster varieties. Wisconsin’s 1,200 licensed cheesemakers have innovated 600 varieties, drawing on European heritage.

A Head for Cheese

Di Bruno’s mongers might be thought of as traditional “Cheeseheads,” (They sure do love their Eagles) but they do know their stuff. Many of them are walking Wikipedias of Wisconsin’s workmanship. So many different kinds of cheese hail from Wi, it can be hard to know what to buy, how to cut, what to serve, and what wines pair well with each selection. That’s where our passionate cheesemongers come in – most of them are certified cheese professionals (CCPs).

“Often is easier to wrap your head around the enormity of Wisconsin cheeses if you think about all the varieties in categories,” explained Tommy Amorim, a much-loved monger at Di Bruno Bros. “The main categories are Fresh, Blue, Stinky, Wisconsin Originals, Cheese with European Roots, Cheddar Style, Hispanic Style, the Mozzarella Family, Italian Style, Mixed Milk, and Wildcards like Roth Private Reserve, Cupola, and The Blue Jay,” he added.

There are so many proud makers coming out of Wisconsin, the easiest way to dive in is to visit wisconsincheese.com. There, you can explore companies by name and by cheese offering. You can also peruse countless recipes. One thing’s for sure, you’ll want to put The Art of Cheese Festival on your bucket list for September 2025 (it takes place every two years). It’s a haven for the world’s biggest cheese lovers and takes place in Madison. From exclusive excursions and tantalizing tastings to special menus and enormous events, it’s a not-to-be-missed experience for lovers of cheese (and wine).

Wheely Good Makers

There are so many Wisconsin standouts, that it’s nearly impossible to list them all and tell their uniquely inspiring stories. Here are a few of the more well-known legends.

Chris Roelli
Roelli Cheese Co.
Chris Roelli is a fourth-generation cheesemaker from Roelli Cheese Haus located just East of Shullsburg in the Southwest corner of Wisconsin. His Great Grandfather emigrated from Switzerland and began making cheese in the early 1920’s, thereafter his Grandfather Walter, and his father Dave continued in the tradition. After the closing of their commodity cheddar factory in 1991, Chris reopened the small artisan factory in 2006. Chris is currently hand-crafting and cellar-curing small batches of original recipe cheeses including his award-winning Dunbarton Blue, Red Rock and Little Mountain, as well as fresh curds, aged cheddars, Farmhouse Colby-style, Monterey Jack, Colby-Jack, Cheshire inspired and Alpine style cheeses. Chris is a partner in ownership of Roelli Cheese Co., Inc. which also includes a retail store and milk hauling business.  In 2012 he opened his state-of-the-art aging cellar that can hold one year’s worth of his production.In 2015 Chris became one of Wisconsin’s distinguished Master Cheesemakers, his first certification in cheddar.  In 2018 he completed two additional Master certifications in blue-style and alpine-style cheeses. In 2020, Chris was inducted into the Guilde Internationale des Fromagers and holds a Board of Directors position with the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Marieke Penterman
Hollands Family Cheese

Ahe grew up on her parents’ 60-cow dairy farm in the Netherlands. This is where her passion for dairy cows and dairy farming began. After getting her Bachelor’s Degree in Dairy Business, Marieke started a career as a farm inspector. In the meantime, her, then, future husband, Rolf Penterman, emigrated to Thorp, WI, and started a 350-cow dairy farm in May 2002. Thorp, with a vast dairy base and farm-friendly people, was an ideal location. Marieke followed Rolf a year later. Once in the United States, she missed the cheese from back home and began researching how to start her own business. Marieke decided to get her Wisconsin Cheesemaking License. She worked with a local cheesemaker and traveled back to her home country where she trained alongside two different cheesemakers throughout the week. There she learned how to make authentic Dutch Gouda cheese. Just four months after Marieke crafted her first batch of Gouda in November 2006, she captured a gold award at the US Champion Cheese Contest in 2007. Dozens of awards followed including her biggest win thus far, the United States Grand Champion in 2013. On January 24, 2015, Marieke won the Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer Award. She is the first female to win this award. In November of 2013, the Pentermans opened a brand-new facility along Highway 29 in Thorp, WI.  It includes a store and viewing windows to see the farm and cheesemaking from up close. This is where their ultimate dream came true; the opportunity to have a location where they can share their passion for modern family farming and handcrafting the best Marieke Gouda in an open and educational environment.                   

Chris Gentine
Deer Creek Cheese
Add a whole lot of personality to over 40 years of cheese industry experience and you’ll get Chris Gentine. Since starting his career in cheese at age 14, Chris worked his way up to developing Deer Creek. One of the main focuses of the brand is consistency of quality. This is ensured by a Wisconsin Licensed Cheese Grader (not to be confused with a Licensed Cheese Grater). This a passionate, professional, licensed by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection. Chris has been a licensed cheese grader since 1997. A Wisconsin grading license is a prestigious honor as it is the only one in the USA to provide those credentials. Under his wing, Deer Creek’s resident artist, Brand Manager, and Chris’ daughter, Sophie, apprenticed and obtained a license of her own to continue our passion for sharing the simple pleasure of exceptional cheese. Chris strives to showcase some of the best of what The Dairy State offers by blending traditional, sustainable cheesemaking methods with a unique cocktail of cultures and ingredients, a rigorous grading program, and a twist of whimsy. With the help of his family and a close-knit team of employees, Chris continuously brings award-winning, characterful, and creative cheeses to the marketplace.

Andy and Caitlin Hatch +
Scott and Liana Mericka

Uplands Cheese

Andy and Scott began as apprentices under the previous generation of owners – Uplands Cheese founders Mike Gingrich and Dan Patenaude. In 2014, Andy, Scott, Caitlin, and Liana purchased the farm from the Gingriches and Patenaudes, ensuring the future of a dairy farm where cows have been milked for over a hundred years.

After years of farming separately as neighbors, in 1994 the Gingriches and Patenaudes bought this farm together to join their small herds and manage them in a seasonal, pasture-based system. Dan and Jeanne had been, in the early 1980s, among the earliest people in the United States to feed cows by rotational grazing. Their new farm’s layout and location (up on Pleasant Ridge in the Uplands region of Wisconsin) were ideal for growing the diverse range of grasses, legumes, and herbs that give us such high-quality milk. It soon became clear that the milk our cows were producing on this new farm had exceptional flavors, and it seemed a shame to see it pooled together with milk from other farms at the local cheese factory. They began looking for a way to take advantage of these flavors and looked to other regions in the world where cheese is produced seasonally from grass-fed cows. Southern Wisconsin has a deep reservoir of cheesemaking knowledge, much of which has been passed down from the alpine cheese makers who have emigrated here over the past two hundred years. In 2000, Mike and Dan began working with local cheese makers and with the cheese scientists at the nearby Center for Dairy Research and eventually settled on their version of these ancient, alpine recipes. Today, their approach to making Pleasant Ridge Reserve is very traditional in the sense that we only use fresh, raw, grass-fed milk during the grazing season, but they have also developed new innovative ways of expressing the flavors of the farm, such as breeding methods behind their unique herd of cows.