Wisconsin has no shortage of ways to celebrate cheese. The state hosts contests at the world, national and state level. There's a grilled-cheese championship in Dodgeville. And Cheese Days is held every other year in Monroe.
There's the Dairy State Cheese & Beer Festival in April in Kenosha and another in June that celebrates cheese, beer and bacon in New Glarus. And there's the Bluffs, Beer and Cheese Fest in La Crosse.
But a new event scheduled for fall in Madison is expected to draw foodies from around the country. It will feature tours of cheese plants, a cheese ball and a cheese marketplace on East Washington Avenue just off the Capitol Square in conjunction with the Dane County Farmers Market.
The Art of Cheese Festival, which will be held Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, is a production of the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. It's a marketing organization founded in 1983 as the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. The organization receives 10 cents for every 100 pounds of milk produced in the state, 90 percent of which is used to make cheese.
So a cheese festival was a natural fit for the group that helped foster the state's boom in artisan-cheese production. The dairy industry is trying to increase demand nationally and internationally.
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"Our mission is to drive demand for Wisconsin milk," said Suzanne Fanning, chief marketing officer at Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. "We're really trying to promote cheese outside of the state of Wisconsin. We've been doing a lot of research on our core target, which is what we have called the food fanatic. We found that they really love to travel for food experiences. And so we really want to set ourselves up in Wisconsin to be much like going to wine country out in California."
Wisconsin ranks second in milk production, only behind California, and produces more than 31 billion pounds of milk per year. The state is home to 6,090 licensed dairy herds and 1.2 million dairy cows. Those cows produce an average 224 gallons of milk per month, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wisconsin Agricultural Statistics Service.
But when it comes to cheese no other state comes close to Wisconsin. It produces 3.4 billion pounds of cheese annually and accounts for more than 25 percent of all cheese produced in the United States.
The state also accounts for 48 percent of specialty cheese produced in the country, a figure that grew to 877 million pounds in 2021 from 575 million pounds in 2011.
The Art of Cheese weekend will feature exclusive tours of dairy farms, creameries and chef-prepared meals. There will be classes for making and cooking with cheese, pairing cheese with other foods and drinks, and crafting cheese boards. Area restaurants are expected to offer special menus featuring cheese. About a dozen cheesemakers will take part in a cheese fair and marketplace the morning of Sept. 30, adding to those who are normally on the square for the farmers market. The festival also will feature the Wisconsin Cheese Ball at Garver Feed Mill where attendees will experience live music, food, drinks and cheese tastings.
The hope is that 30 percent of those attending the three-day event will come from outside Wisconsin to experience cheese in its native state.
"Education is certainly an important component of this," said Rachel Kerr, director of experiential and brand marketing for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. "People really want to understand more about the products they're tasting."