Episode Guide: Beer & Cheese in Wisconsin Img

Join us on this flavorful journey through Wisconsin as we uncover the stories of the people who make this state a paradise for beer and cheese enthusiasts. 

German and Swiss Heritage

First Capri visits an Oktoberfest, and participates in the Masskrugstemmen, a traditional Bavarian activity, which has found a lively place in the cultural fabric of communities with a strong German heritage like Wisconsin. This competitive sport involves lifting a one-liter stein filled with beer and holding it at arm’s length for as long as possible. Originating in Bavarian beer halls and festivals, Masskrugstemmen is a test of strength, endurance, and determination.

At the Oktoberfest, Capri meets Kyle Cherek, a Wisconsin culinary historian and former host of the Emmy Award-winning public television show “Wisconsin Foodie.” Kyle’s decades-long passion for food history and culture gives a unique perspective on the science and emotion behind food memories. He tells Capri how German immigrants brought their brewing techniques to Wisconsin, turning it into the beer haven it is today.

In the 1800s, Milwaukee had the highest concentration of immigrants of any U.S. city, with one-third of its population being native German. The German influence was so strong that some Americans learned German to connect with this community. To share their culture and meet emotional needs, German Americans established beer gardens and organized festivals. This legacy persists, as nearly 45 percent of Wisconsinites identify with German heritage, compared to 17 percent nationwide. German and Swiss heritage in Wisconsin is rooted in a long-standing culture that honors the traditions of their forefathers. By the mid-1800s, Milwaukee had become the brewing capital of the U.S., benefiting from the highest quality wheat and the freshwater of Lake Michigan. Oktoberfest celebrates the season with great food, and in the southwest corner of the state, there are more Swiss master cheese makers than anywhere else in the world outside of Switzerland.   

The Mecca of Cheese 

There are more cheese factories in Green County, Wis., than there in any one county anywhere else in the U.S — sometimes it’s known as the “Napa Valley” or mecca of cheese. Located in Green County is New Glarus, and the Glarner Stube, a quaint restaurant located in the heart of downtown New Glarus. Gary Westby is chef and owner of the Glarner Stube, which has been a part of the community for 30 years and is a must for any visit to the New Glarus area.

Beer battered cheese curds, cooked with New Glarus’ own Spotted Cow farm cask ale (“You know you’re in Wisconsin when you see the Spotted Cow,” says the brewery’s description!), are a staple of the menu. Gary uses only Wisconsin cheese in his dishes and sources the majority of it from Green County.

Capri visits the Glarner Stube and meets with Wisconsin cheese expert enthusiasts Tony Zgraggen and Jeanne Carpenter

Owners of Alp and Dell Cheese Store in Monroe, Wis., Tony and Esther Zgraggen immigrated to the U.S. from Switzerland. Tony is a passionate and outspoken advocate for Wisconsin’s cheese industry, which he believes is integral to the state’s identity and economy. He highlights the deep-rooted traditions of Swiss cheese makers who arrived in the 1800s, bringing their expertise and contributing to the foundation of a thriving cheese industry. This heritage continues today, with Green County producing exceptional artisanal cheeses. Tony’s enthusiasm for cheese, coupled with his talent for yodeling, makes him a unique and cherished figure in the community.

Jeanne Carpenter is an award-winning journalist and an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional. She is the co-producer and writer behind the popular blog and podcast, Cheese Underground. Jeanne shares her deep knowledge and passion for Wisconsin cheese, showcasing the state’s rich dairy heritage.

Tony and Jeanne talk to Capri about how cheese is a central part of Wisconsin culture, with varieties like Baby Swiss and Alpine-style cheeses being particularly popular. Cheese curds are a beloved staple in Wisconsin, with origins deeply rooted in the state’s rich dairy heritage. These bite-sized pieces of fresh cheese, often enjoyed as a snack or appetizer, are made from the curdled milk that forms during the early stages of cheese production. They are celebrated in local festivals and fairs, often enjoyed fresh or deep-fried, and continue to be a source of pride for Wisconsinites, embodying the state’s agricultural legacy and communal spirit. 

The beer cheese soup on Gary’s menu at the Glarner Stube is another staple. 

Wisconsin Cheesemakers 

Capri visits Carr Valley Cheese, owned and operated by the Cook family. Capri meets Sid Cook, who is often hailed as the father of Wisconsin cheese, and has a storied legacy in the cheesemaking industry. Sid guides Capri through a sampling of some of the Cook family’s most delicious cheeses. His family has been making cheese in Wisconsin since 1883, and Sid himself is the most awarded cheesemaker in North America, with nearly 800 national and international accolades. He began his cheesemaking journey at the age of 16, learning the craft from his father and grandfather. Sid’s approach combines traditional methods with innovative techniques, resulting in unique American original cheeses — “we make ‘em up!” he says.

Agriculture plays a critical role in the quality of Wisconsin cheese, and Sid emphasizes the importance of high-quality milk from small-scale, family-run dairy farms. This commitment to flavor and diversity has been crucial to Carr Valley Cheese's success, especially during challenging times when many local cheese factories closed. Sid’s dedication to preserving the artisan style of cheesemaking and fostering a wide range of flavors has helped revive the rich diversity that Wisconsin cheese was known for in the past. The renewed focus on quality and variety in cheese production has significantly contributed to the growing popularity of Wisconsin cheese.

Next, Capri visits with Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese. Andy, alongside his business partner Scott Mericka, is dedicated to creating distinctive and flavorful cheese that reflects the land it comes from. Since taking over Uplands Farm in 2014, where 200 cows graze on 300 hilly acres of century-old dairy farmland, Andy and Scott have emphasized the importance of letting the land’s flavor shine through. The character of their cheese is crafted in the fields, with the cows' grass-fed diet — consisting of a diverse mix of plants like clovers, chicories, and dandelions — playing a crucial role in shaping its unique taste. This diversity not only enhances the cheese’s flavor but also promotes a resilient farming system that benefits the land and cow health.

Andy and Scott’s approach, known as the farmstead model, is rare in Wisconsin but common in central Europe. By exclusively using milk from their own cows, they ensure a distinctive and high-quality product that embodies the essence of their farm. Their commitment to this sustainable and romantic model has allowed them to add significant value to their milk by turning it into exceptional cheese. This entrepreneurial spirit, combined with a social consciousness that reinvests in their community, enables them to sustain their families and their farm. Uplands Cheese stands out for its dedication to producing cheese that truly represents the farm it comes from, making it a unique and cherished product. Pleasant Ridge Reserve,  Uplands Aged Alpine-style cheese is currently the most awarded cheese in American history.

Wisconsinites’ Night Off: The Friday Fish Fry 

The Friday night fish fry is a cherished tradition in Wisconsin, deeply rooted in the state’s German ancestry and Catholic heritage. Capri meets with Wisconsin Food Historian Kyle Cherik, at Kegel’s Inn in West Allis, a century-old institution run by the Kegel family for five generations. Kyle explains that this custom, which has been upheld for generations, began in the 1860s when German immigrants settled in Milwaukee. Prohibition later cemented the fish fry’s place in local culture, as taverns needed a way to attract customers on Fridays. Offering an inexpensive fish meal allowed them to cater to the Catholic population, who abstained from meat on Fridays, while also serving beer to complement the salty fish.

Kegel’s Inn epitomizes this tradition. They hand-batter and fry a variety of fish, using family recipes dating back to the 1920s. The meal typically includes cod, walleye, applesauce, potato pancakes, and coleslaw, creating a delightful dining experience that is both buttery and crunchy. Fish fries have become community events, fostering social gatherings and supporting local causes, like the massive community fish fries at the Knights of Columbus in Waukesha. This enduring tradition embodies the convivial spirit of Wisconsin, bringing people together over good food and shared heritage.

Also featured in this episode is the Männerchor, a singing group that was established in 1912 by 23 native Swiss men to preserve traditional Swiss and German music. To this day the Männerchor still sings in Swiss dialect as well as German, Italian, and English.  

From the bustling breweries of Milwaukee to the serene dairies of the southwest, this episode is a tribute to the rich heritage and vibrant future of Wisconsin’s culinary treasures.

Join Capri’s List

Follow along with the latest news and episode updates from America The Bountiful, sign up now for exclusive updates and be the first to know!