If Wisconsin were a country, it would be a superpower. At least in cheese. America's Dairyland outproduces all but three nations, racking up international awards along the way. Join us for a trip to the heart of the cheese universe, where cheesemakers talk like artists and chefs share their favorite recipes for showcasing ricotta, Parmesan and more.
Uplands Cheese Company's Andy Hatch and his business partners near Dodgeville, Wisconsin.

My grocery budget-probably like yours-has no spot for "Pound of cheese: $40." But you can't really think of a cheese like Pleasant Ridge Reserve as groceries. In my way of thinking, the 10 bucks I spend on a reasonable wedge of this all-star from Wisconsin's Uplands Cheese Company is the price of a bargain vacation.

At home, I unwrap the triangle carefully, like a letter from a traveling friend. From there, it's a short trip into the world of Andy Hatch. Because I once visited his creamery, I can taste the rich backstory in a slice of Andy's handiwork. Hidden somewhere in the cheese's flavor, I know, is a hint of early-summer grass, the only kind Andy trusts to produce the right milk. More specifically, what I'm tasting is early-summer evening milk that arrives in the workroom warm from the milking parlor next door, rich with more fat than milk given any other time of day. I eat the cheese slowly, remembering a place where limestone flavors the soil, the grass, the milk, the cheese.

That's a lot of experience from 10 bucks. And every good cheese shop (or even a well-curated suburban grocery store) is full of such escapes. The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese each year, and making a small portion of it a specialty cheese is a chance to turn ordinary meals into events.

The unquestioned mecca of cheese journeys is America's Dairyland-Wisconsin-which produces 25 percent of America's cheese and more than every nation except Germany, France and the rest of the United States. Want proof that there's quality with all that quantity? At last year's American Cheese Society competition, Wisconsin claimed 93 awards, marking the eighth straight year it won more than any other state.

If you can make an actual road trip, you'll see such artwork in progress at cheese factories large and small across the state. The buildings are extravagantly clean, full of white uniforms, gleaming metal vats, and the mixed scents of cream and bleach. All this perfectionism makes the entire cheese community an inspiration to hang around, an island of craft in a mass-produced world.

And if you stop to chat with a cheesemaker like those featured in this story, you'll learn that even they still find the process enchanting. "The older cheesemakers get, the less they say they know how cheese making works," says Ed Janus, who writes frequently about Wisconsin cheese. "Many master cheesemakers are still fascinated every time the cheese turns out. It's like that magical process every single time."

Take our recipes, tasting guide and profiles as your invitation to venture out, beyond pepper Jack and mozzarella. We asked several chefs to share new ways to cook with cheese-and melting it over things is nowhere in the mix. Good cheese, after all, asserts itself even in supporting roles. That's a new way of thinking for a lot of cheese fans, but it's all part of the journey.

Young gun

One of the newer stars in Wisconsin cheese making keeps things decidedly old-school. Andy Hatch apprenticed in the Swiss Alps, wears the cap of traditional cheesemakers, lives with his family in a farmhouse next to the Uplands Cheese Company creamery near Dodgeville and laments the subtleties sacrificed to "progress."

"You can't do much with milk that's inherently uninteresting," he says. "The more diverse set of fats and proteins you start with, the more flavor tools you have to work with. That's one thing modernity has left behind."

There's no room for error in the raw materials with cheeses this high-end. Uplands' Pleasant Ridge Reserve is buttery with hints of fruit flavor and is one of the most-awarded cheeses in American history. Rush Creek Reserve is a silky soft cheese aged in spruce bark and features notes of beef broth. Uplands has blended nine breeds of cattle to perfect its milk. Production happens only a few months each year, when the milk peaks, and the aging process requires a strict regimen of turning and washing the wheels.

"When you live here, your lifestyle is dictated by the type of cheese you make," Andy says. "It's like having a new baby. You stare at it all the time, saying, ‘What's wrong? What's wrong?'" Judging by the reputation of Uplands' cheeses, nothing at all. (888) 935-5558; uplandscheese.com

The master

In general, Bruce Workman doesn't look much like Michael Phelps. But when Bruce drapes his collection of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker awards around his neck, he takes on a chest-full-of-medals air that's almost Olympian. No one has matched Bruce's record of these prestigious certifications, which recognize his mastery of nine different types of cheese.

In his massive playlist, the clear crowd favorite is Emmentaler Swiss, which he produces in traditional wheels weighing 180 pounds and standing almost waist high when set on edge. One key trait of old-world-style Swiss (made in the United States only by Bruce) is the size of its "eyes," those bubbles that produce the holes every school kid recognizes. Most Swiss has eyes about the size of nickels; in Bruce's Emmentaler, they're the size of quarters.

Edelweiss Creamery's entire setup near Monticello draws on European traditions. Bruce imported a 10,500-gallon copper-lined kettle specifically for the rich, nutty flavor it gives Swiss cheese, which Bruce considers the most difficult to make. Adding to the pressure is the quality of the neighborhood.

"We have 14 Master Cheesemakers in Green County," Bruce says. "We're kind of the Napa Valley of cheese making." That makes Green County a road trip any curious cheesehead could embrace. (608) 938-4094; edelweisscreamery.com

Underground artisan

Willi Lehner is a nomad as cheesemakers go, renting space at other creameries to make his cheeses. Yet he may be the state's most rooted cheesemaker thanks to a unique advantage: He owns a cave.

In fact, he built the cheese-aging cave himself in the ground near Blue Mounds, fronting it with a wooden door and enormous blocks of local limestone to create a mythical-looking place that fits perfectly with the local obsession with trolls. Inside Bleu Mont Dairy's two cave rooms (each with different moisture), cheeses age between 58 and 48 degrees year-round. Newer cheeses are turned daily by employees Willi dubs his "cave slaves"; older cheeses get weekly turnings.

Willi's products include Gouda, Havarti and Swiss. But his best-known line is bandaged cheddar, which is wrapped in muslin to prevent cracks that would admit mold. On the outside of the wheel, however, cave-loving molds flourish, giving Willi's cheese a far earthier flavor than the cheddars most Americans know. "Cheeses aged in plastic are pretty one-dimensional," he says.

Raised in Wisconsin by Swiss immigrants, Willi perfected the cheese-making skills he'd first learned from his father "on an Alp, where I made the connection between what cows eat and the final product." It seems he's also landed on an underground connection between a cheese's quality and where it grows up.

Cheese tasting

Jeanne Carpenter, the Madison-based author of the blog Cheese Underground, divides a cheese board into seven broad categories and suggests tasting them in this order for the best experience. If you can't find the specific varieties, no worries. Substitute similar ones. It's for fun!

1. Bloomy Rind Cheese Start with a mild Brie. Jeanne's pick: Caprine Supreme's La-Von Farmhouse Goat Brie, with a barely there tang.

2. Goat's Milk Not all goat cheese is creamy. Jeanne's pick: LaClare Family Farms' snow-white, semihard Evalon.

3. Semisoft This broad category spans mozzarella to Limburger. Jeanne's pick: Holland's Family Cheese's Marieke Black Pepper Gouda. It was our staff's favorite and pairs well with apple.

4. Sheep's Milk Many classic European cheeses, such as Greek feta, use sheep's milk. Jeanne's pick: Hidden Springs Creamery's Timber Coulee, a subtly buttery cave-aged variety.

5. Cheddar You don't really know this common cheese until you've tried an aged, artisanal version. Jeanne's pick: Roelli Cheese's crumbly Kingsley Bandaged Cheddar.

6. Parmesan Fancy Parms are for nibbling blissfully, not sprinkling mindlessly. Jeanne's pick: Sartori's SarVecchio for its hints of pineapple and caramel.

7. Blue Save this, the strongest, for the end, and pair it with a sweet wine or honey. Jeanne's pick: Carr Valley Cheese's creamy Glacier Gorgonzola.