Let it brie: Inside Wisconsin's fight for an 'official' cheese

2 months ago 17
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(CNN)Quick, what's the first thing you think of when someone says "Wisconsin?"

Chances are a big chunk of you said "Cheeseheads," the fans of the Green Bay Packers who wear their beloved dairy product on their heads.

Right? Right!

    Which is why I was floored when I learned this week that Wisconsin -- center of the Midwest's dairy churn (ahem) -- currently lacks an official state cheese. (Sidebar: This Wisconsin cheese website is mouthwateringly good.)

      Luckily for Wisconsinites, their politicians are ON IT. A bipartisan bill to make Colby the official cheese of Wisconsin had its first hearing in front of the state's Assembly Committee on Local Government on Wednesday.

      Questions? Well set your mind at cheese. I emailed Jessie Opoien, a political reporter at the Capital Times in Madison for some answers about all of this. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.

      And trust me, it doesn't get any cheddar than this.

      Cillizza: OK, let's start with the obvious: How the heck does Wisconsin -- whose football team's fans wear blocks of cheese on their heads! -- not have a state cheese?!?!

      Opoien: That's a great question!

      Wisconsin does have an official dairy product, which is, of course, cheese. (If you're worried that's an insult to milk, don't fret -- milk is the state's official beverage).

      But even that took until 2017 to become a law -- and we can thank a fourth-grade class at Mineral Point Elementary School for making it happen. Two Republican lawmakers introduced the bill after the students proposed it, and then-Gov. Scott Walker (R) signed it into law after it passed the legislature with unanimous support. As Walker said at the time, the state finally gave cheese "the recognition it deserves."

      Fun fact about the Cheeseheads, by the way -- the first one actually made its debut at a Milwaukee Brewers game, but somewhere along the way, it became more of a Packers thing.

      Speaking of fun facts, here are a few about Wisconsin's cheese production: We produce 3.39 billion pounds of it each year, which is one out of every four pounds produced in the US. Not only is that more than any other state; if Wisconsin were a country, it would rank fourth in the entire world in cheese production.

      This isn't the first time legislators have tried to make Colby the official cheese. A similar bill had hearings in 2019, but never got a vote. And while the proposal passed the state assembly on an 80-15 vote in 1998, the Senate didn't take it up that year.

      Cillizza: Why did the state legislature choose this moment to address the vacuum in official cheese?

      Opoien: Why now? The bill was actually introduced in May, but it didn't get a public hearing until this week. The people of Colby, Wisconsin, feel very strongly about this, of course, and have kept up their lobbying efforts -- so after the bill failed to get traction during the last legislative session, they didn't let up, and here we are again.

      Cillizza: Why Colby? (I am a blue cheese guy).

      Opoien: First of all, blue cheese is great, but I'm just going to say it -- that's a weird choice for a favorite cheese.

      Why Colby? To answer that question, we have to go all the way back to 1885, when 16-year-old Joseph Steinwand of -- you guessed it, Colby -- developed a new process while making English cheddar at his father's cheese factory. Steinwand rinsed the curds in cold water, allowing the cheese to retain more moisture.

      "Traditionally, cheddar is made by warming and acidifying the milk with starter cultures, adding a substance called rennet to separate curds from the whey, and then draining the whey. From there, the curds are heated and molded into slabs where they are systematically turned to remove any excess whey. Joseph did things a little differently. After following the same process of acidifying the milk, adding rennet, and separating the curds from the whey, Joseph washed his curds in cold water. Washing the curd halted the acidification process, which led to a sweeter, more mild style of cheese than traditional cheddar. After washing, he pressed his curds and aged them for just one to three months, much shorter than most cheddars."

      Today, Wisconsin produces 45 million pounds of Colby each year. It's not at the top of the list for production, but its supporters argue it's the cheese that "launched Wisconsin on the dairy state path."

      Cillizza: Is there any resistance in the state legislature to the pick? Why?

      Opoien: Not all lawmakers think making Colby the state cheese is such a gouda idea.

      The reason why is simple: Wisconsin makes so many delicious cheeses, how could anyone pick just one to represent the whole state? The cheese Wisconsin produces the most of? Mozzarella. It accounts for 31% of cheese made in Wisconsin, followed by cheddar at 21%. Wisconsin produces 100% of the country's limburger and brick cheese, 79% of its blue and gorgonzola, 67% of its feta and, overall, 48% of specialty cheeses made in the US.

      Uplands Pleasant Ridge Reserve -- an alpine-style cheese -- is the most award-winning cheese in the United States. Another alpine-style, Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, won the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest.

      So, we have a lot of options.

      Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The best cheese is _____________." Now, explain.

      Opoien: "The best cheese is ... any cheese from Wisconsin, of course."

      If you want cheese in its purest form, nothing tops Farmer John's fresh cheese curds, trucked in from Dodgeville to the Dane County Farmers Market hours after they're made on Saturday mornings. When cheese curds are fresh, they squeak on your teeth.

        At the other extreme end of the spectrum is Hook's 20-year aged cheddar. Everything Hook's, from Mineral Point, makes is delicious, but the 20-year is the rarest of cheesy treats, selling at $299 per pound. I managed to get a little block when it was released last year, and it was everything I dreamed it would be. The thing about cheddars is that, when they're aged long enough, they develop crystals that have a subtle crunch.

        If it's got a squeak or a crunch, it's my kind of cheese.

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