It’s not often that a city of 11,000 boasts a thriving tourism industry, but that is the case for Monroe in south-central Wisconsin. Sitting a mere 8 miles north of the Illinois border, Monroe is mainly known for its cheese and beer. Of course, Wisconsin as a whole is known for its cheese and beer, so what makes Monroe so special?
Limburger and Swiss
A century ago, 222 small cheese factories dotted the rolling farmland in Green County. Mainly operated by Swiss immigrants, the factories churned out Swiss, Brick and Limburger cheeses, with Monroe as the epicenter. Today there are only 16 cheese factories in the Green County area, yet they annually produce 200 million pounds of cheese. While many fine artisanal cheeses are being crafted there today, Swiss, Brick and Limburger are still staples. In fact, Monroe is the only place in the entire United States where Limburger is produced.
With such a pedigree, any self-respecting cheese lover has to pass through Monroe. Start your visit with a stop at the National Historic Cheesemaking Center, where you’ll learn about area cheese-making history through well-created exhibits. You can also explore a restored 19th-century cheese factory. Every year on the second Saturday in June, retired and master cheesemakers create a 90-pound wheel of Swiss just as their predecessors did more than 100 years ago ($5 admission; 1-608-325-4636 or nationalhistoriccheesemakingcenter.org).
From there, explore some local cheese factories such as Emmi Roth U.S.A. (1-608-845-5796; rothcheese.com) and Chalet Cheese Co-op (1-608-325-4343). Emmi Roth produced the 2016 World Champion cheese, a Gran Cru, a mellow, nutty-flavored Alpine-styled cheese. Watch employees making cheese from the observation hall; the best time to catch them in action is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Afterward, check out the affiliated Alp and Dell shop, which sells cheese, wine and other products (1-608-328-3355; alpanddellcheese.com).
Chalet is the factory that makes Limburger, known for its pungent smell. Tours are only for four or more by appointment, so if you have the group — and nose — for it, head over. If not, stop by Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern. In business since 1931, this is the place to nosh on a Limburger and onion sandwich (1-608-325-6157; baumgartnercheese.com).
If your summer is too full to visit, no worries. Every even-numbered year Green County hosts Cheese Days; the next one is Sept. 16-18. During the three-day celebration you can take in a parade and live entertainment, try your hand at the cow-milking contest, meet Wedgie the mascot and, of course, indulge in all forms of cheese: gourmet grilled sandwiches, deep-fried curds, cheesecake on a stick and more (cheesedays.com).
Old brewery, new distillery
It might seem impossible for any other product to beat Monroe cheese, but not so. Minhas Craft Brewery, opened in 1845 as the Blumer Brewery (and long known as the Joseph Huber Brewing Co.) is the Midwest’s oldest brewery and second-oldest in the nation. Hourlong tours are offered daily ($12), and include a beer at the start, plus 30 minutes of sampling post-tour. Popcorn is part of the deal, and everyone leaves with a four-pack of suds, a bottle of soda and a beer glass. Don’t worry about killing time before your tour starts. The facility includes a well-stocked gift shop and the nation’s largest brewery memorabilia museum, filled with beer signs, bottle openers, tap markers, trays, posters and more (1-608-325-3191; minhasbrewery.com).
Across the street, the affiliated Minhas Distillery, established in 2012, is busy creating vodka, rum, gin and other craft spirits and liquors. No tours are given here; the place is so small a tour would take 60 seconds, the staff says. Instead, for another $12 you can enjoy four drinks crafted with some of the distillery’s products. The Jack Sparrow, for example, combines Wisconsin Club White Rum with triple sec and pineapple juice, while the Ginger Mist cocktail is Red Shank Irish whiskey and ginger ale with a splash of lime juice. Your “gift” at the end of the tasting is a bottle of spirits (1-608-328-5550; minhasdistillery.com).
To work off all that beer, cheese and booze, pick up a Historic Monroe Walking Tour guidebook at the Monroe Area Chamber of Commerce, which showcases the city’s impressive Courthouse Square and numerous 19th-century homes, churches and commercial buildings, many of which are on the National Register of Historic Places.
If that’s not enough of a calorie burn, hop on the Badger State Trail, less than a mile north of Courthouse Square, and hike or bike on this 40-mile recreational trail, which stretches from the Illinois-Wisconsin border to Madison. At one point, it passes through the 1,200-foot-long Stewart Tunnel (dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/badger).
Before you head home, pop into the Swiss Colony, America’s first mail-order cheese company. Founded in 1926 by cheesemaker Ray Kubly, the Swiss Colony is the largest employer in Monroe (and Green County). The business has a gift shop and retail outlet where you can score some tasty petit fours and other goodies (1-800-913-0743; swiss colony.com).
Monroe is about 300 miles or five hours southeast of the Twin Cities. From Minnesota, take Interstate 94 to Exit 92 (Lake Delton, Wis.) and proceed another 80 miles south to Monroe via Hwys. 12, 78 and 81.
Green County Tourism: 1-888-222-9111; greencounty.org.
Melanie Radzicki McManus is a freelance writer in Sun Prairie, Wis.