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Colby, a cheese created in Wisconsin, could be the state’s first official cheese under a proposal under consideration in the legislature. But some lawmakers have reservations.
Wisconsin produces more than 3 billion pounds of cheese per year, accounting for more than a quarter of the nation’s cheese production—more than any other state. It’s known as America’s Dairyland, and its official state dairy product is cheese, but despite its bonafide cheese chops, Wisconsin does not have an official state cheese.
Some lawmakers are hoping to change that. Their choice? Colby, a dark yellow, mild-flavored cheese that originated in rural Wisconsin in the late 19th century.
It’s not that colby is better than the roughly 600 other types of cheese made throughout the state, said state Rep. Donna Rozar, a Republican and the bill’s lead sponsor. It’s because the cheese was invented in Wisconsin.
“It’s the unique rural Wisconsin history that, to me, makes colby cheese worthy of being named the state cheese,” she said.
Colby—not to be confused with colby jack, a marbled mix that includes Monterey Jack—was the product of experimentation at the Steinwand family’s small cheese factory in central Wisconsin, just outside the small town of (ahem) Colby. Joseph, the family’s eldest son, followed the traditional cheesemaking process for cheddar, the factory’s main product, but added a cold-water wash that halted the acidification process, then shortened the aging time, resulting in the new variety of cheese. He named it after the town. The rest is (Wisconsin) history.
“Today, Wisconsin’s cheesemakers make over 45 million pounds of colby each year to share with eager cheese lovers across the world,” according to the cheese lover’s guide to colby, a feature on the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin’s cheese-specific website.
Rozar’s proposal, backed by more than a dozen lawmakers, seeks to honor that creation by amending the Wisconsin Blue Book to list colby as the official state cheese, alongside things like the official state flower (wood violet), dog (American water spaniel), dance (the polka) and ballad (“Oh Wisconsin, Land of My Dreams”). It’s a seemingly uncontroversial ceremonial proposal, though it’s been introduced twice before (once in 1997 and again in 2019) and failed to gain traction.
This year’s version, introduced in May, received its first hearing last week, before the Assembly Committee on Local Government. Documents submitted to the committee in support of the bill included the lyrics to “Colby Cheese,” an original song performed by the Colby High School Colby Choir Coalition (“Colby was the name of his creation, a process that was different than the rest”), drawings from Wisconsin fourth graders, and a letter from Ann Luckey, Joseph Steinwand’s great granddaughter.
“I can’t tell you the number of people that tell me Colby cheese is their favorite cheese,” she wrote. “Let’s also tell them that it is the State Cheese of Wisconsin because it was invented here, in Wisconsin, in Colby. Let’s all boast about our state!”
But some lawmakers were hesitant to support the measure, noting that selecting one type of cheese to stand as a state symbol could discount the hundreds of other types made by artisans throughout Wisconsin.
“We have a wide variety of stores and shops in my district that have a wide selection of Wisconsin cheese varieties,” Republican Rep. Rick Gundrum, the committee’s vice chair, said at the hearing. “I can’t get behind it 100%.”
Rozar dismissed those concerns, reiterating that the proposal is meant to celebrate “rural entrepreneurship” rather than a specific type of cheese. Passing the measure, she noted, could actually help boost sales of all types of cheese.
“We’re not trying to elevate colby cheese above all the others,” she said. “We’d like to see people say, ‘I’m going to the cheese shop to buy some colby,’ and then when they’re there, they’re introduced to all of the other wonderful cheeses that are made in Wisconsin.”
It’s unclear when—or whether—the committee will vote on the proposal, the next step in the legislative process. The main roadblock to their approval, Rozar said, is lack of support from the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association, which has yet to take a position on the legislation.
“If we could get them to register as ‘neutral’ to this bill, I think we could move it forward,” she said.”They’re not registering in opposition, but they’re not enthusiastically supporting it, either, and that’s a real hurdle because legislators don’t want to make any of the cheesemakers mad.”
In the meantime, Rozar said, she plans to continue lobbying for the measure, both at the capitol and in her free time. This weekend, she said, she’ll attend Colby Cheese Days, an annual celebration that, per its website, includes a cheese curd throwing contest and “plenty of free colby cheese.”
“I’m sure we will get a lot of questions about what’s next on the agenda for the bill,” she said. “One of the legislators in Madison calls me the ‘Colby Queen’ whenever he sees me in the capitol, so it’s safe to say that it’s already garnered a lot of attention.”
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a senior reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.