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Wisconsin Cheese Mart showcases state varieties

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By Nancy A. Herrick

When Europeans came to America more than a century ago, it was no surprise so many of them chose to live in Wisconsin. Here they found the rolling countryside, rich soil and clear water reminiscent of their homeland.

So they set to work doing what they knew best: making cheese.

“Wisconsin provided just about every type of landscape that existed in Europe,” explains Ben Raatz, general manager of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart. “I can find a Wisconsin equivalent for just about any European cheese, and the heritage remains strong.”

Most of those equivalents — hundreds of them — are sold by the pound at the Wisconsin Cheese Mart at the corner of Old World Third Street and Highland Avenue in downtown Milwaukee. Established in 1938, the mart has grown from a small shop into a popular destination for Wisconsinites as well as visitors from around country and the world.

“We specialize in Wisconsin cheese,” he says. “Actually, Wisconsin products in general.”

Ken and Melissa McNulty bought the business 10 years ago and have turned it into a showcase for state varieties.

“When I bought it there were mostly European cheeses,” says Ken McNulty. “But we decided to focus on what Wisconsin has to offer. That’s getting even easier now because there actually are more creameries in the state, and they’re doing wonderful things.”

Much of the business is from visiting out-of-towners who may be in Milwaukee for vacations, conventions or sporting events.

“Many people drop in as they stroll along Old World Third Street, with its German architecture. And some people find us while waiting for their Edelweiss boat cruise along the river, which takes off right around the corner,” says Raatz.

The mart has become known for its cheese tastings, in which the subtle and not-so-subtle flavors are demonstrated. Its adjacent Uber Tap and Cheese Bar, which opened in 2008, offers 34 Wisconsin beers and a variety of cheese-focused items for lunch.

“You can spend a lot of time here,” says Raatz, laughing. “A little cheese, a little beer. A little cheese, a little beer.”

At its beer and cheese pairing events, representatives from local breweries are on hand to help explain which cheese varieties go with which types of beer.

“The goal is similar or complementary choices,” says Raatz.”The rule is to not overpower anything, so a mild beer would go with a mild cheese.”

For example, the award-winning Dunbarton Blue Roelli, a cellar-aged cheddar, pairs well with a full-flavored India pale ale, says bar manager Sarah Marcks. “Or at this time of year Lakefront Brewery’s Pumpkin lager might go well with a chocolate cheese fudge made from cheddar, for a sweet and spicy combination.”

Speaking of cheddar, the Wisconsin Cheese Mart has a big inventory and is a good place to taste the differences among this popular variety.

“With cheddar, the older the cheese, the sharper the flavor,” says Raatz. “A mild cheddar is aged two months or so, a medium cheddar, four to six months, and a sharp cheddar at least nine months. But there really is no upper age limit.”

Marcks says: “The oldest cheddar we’ve had was 40 years old. It tasted almost like bleu cheese.”

Cheddars are famous for growing more flavorful with age, but some goudas, Swiss and Parmesan cheeses also age well.

After learning about cheese, many visitors to the Wisconsin Cheese Mart will purchase some of the favorites they’ve tasted, either to take home for themselves or as gifts.

“Most cheese travels well without refrigeration for at least a few hours so you can get them home without any trouble, even in hot weather,” says Marcks.

As part of its growing Internet catalog operation, Wisconsin Cheese Mart will ship cheese boxes all across the nation.

“The first year I worked here, in 2007, we shipped about 500 packages,” says Raatz. “Last year we did 5,000.”

The Nibbler Crate is a popular choice, with five cheeses of one-half pound each. The Supreme Sampler also is a favorite, featuring cheese, Usinger sausage, candy and mustard. Or you can create your own gift box.

It’s not just during the holidays that the catalog operation is busy.

“I hate to see the Packers lose,” says Raatz. “But when they do we wind up sending out a lot of cheese all around the country to settle bets.”

Three sidebars

If You Go

What: Wisconsin Cheese Mart, established in 1938. The retail store offers hundreds of varieties of cheese, tastings, a lunch menu that focuses on cheese dishes and special events with beer and cheese pairings.

Where: 1048 N. Old World Third St., in downtown Milwaukee. Nearby are the Usinger’s Sausage Shop, the Spice House, Mader’s German Restaurant and Buck Bradleys, which is said to have the longest bar east of the Mississippi.

To get there: Take I-94 north toward downtown Milwaukee, then I-43 north toward Green Bay. Take the McKinley Ave. exit (exit 73A) and turn right (east) onto McKinley. Take a right onto Old World Third St. and go two blocks. Wisconsin Cheese Mart is on the left on the corner of Highland and Old World Third St.

For information or to set up private tastings: (888) 482-7700 or

Extra cheese

Here are five fun facts about cheese in Wisconsin, courtesy of Ben Raatz and Sarah Marcks of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart.

1. Wisconsin produces more than 2 billion pounds of cheddar every year, enough to supply the whole nation.

2. Wisconsin is the only state where limburger cheese is made. One of Wisconsin’s stinkiest cheeses, it actually is just the outside washed rind that smells; the inside is extremely mild.

3. Colby and brick cheese were invented in Wisconsin.

4. Cheese curds squeak. That’s how you can tell this Wisconsin favorite is fresh.

5. The milk fat tester, which revolutionized cheese-making, was invented in Wisconsin.

The why of curds

Cheese curds are the youngest form of cheese, created when the curd separates from the whey during the cheese-making process. These irregularly shaped nuggets are made of milk, salt, rennet and citric acid.

They also squeak when you bite into them.

“That’s because of their tiny air pockets,” explains Ben Raatz, general manager of the Wisconsin Cheese Mart.

While there are creameries in California and Vermont that make and sell cheese curds, Wisconsin produces and ships exponentially more than any other state.