One thing that has never changed about me is my love for cheese. The only thing that is better about living in Wisconsin when you love cheese is you have an excuse to eat more of it.
In order to get the full Wisconsin-resident experience, after living in Milwaukee for almost four years, I felt it was necessary to go to the Original Cheesehead Factory, 1120 S. Barclay St., for a tour. As the name suggests, you can buy those cheesehead hats you see at Packers games and see how they are made. That’s also the place, completely open to the public, where the silliest cheese hats and lots of other cheese gear and Wisconsin knickknacks are sold. After a trip here, you can call yourself an official cheesehead.
Even though cheeseheads are sold at most major Wisconsin souvenir locations, plus some Wisconsin sporting events, buying a cheesehead hat at this store has something special about it. Tours are available most days from around 11 a.m. until 5 p.m., but be sure to check the schedule and book in advance on its website. You can simply just tour the factory, or tour the factory and join the production team in making your own foam creation to bring home.
I recommend choosing the package that lets you create your own cheese creation. You get to choose one mold from lots of options, including baseball hats, fedoras, fireman hats, sombreros, top hats, wedge coasters and more. Or, you can go the classic route and make a basic cheesehead hat. Whatever shape you choose, you get to do something hands-on in the factory, experience the production side to things yourself and take something home with you as an included souvenir.
The tour was of course very educational. I learned that Foamation, Inc. makes more than 50 cheese products and ships more than 50,000 of them to all 50 states and to 34 countries in a year.
Our tour guide, Carol, showed us the original cheesehead that was made in 1987. The founder, Ralph Bruno, made the first one out of his mom’s couch cushion while reupholstering her couch. The original one still stands today, in a protected glass case and a separate room in the factory.
We toured the rest of the factory, which included seeing hundreds of molds for an unimaginable amount of cheesy products. Carol kept giving us some history on the company while also showing us neat little nooks and crannies of the factory. She even modeled some of the already-made products, including a Pizza Hut hat, a cornhead hat and the hat that got the most laughs out of the tour group: a flower pot hat. Put that on top of your noggin and people automatically have a reason to call you a pot head.
For the make-your-own cheesehead part of the tour – because we chose a tour package that includes that – Carol introduced us to Michael, our cheesehead technician, who told us the process of making our own foam creation.
We scanned a barcode with a scanner gun that let the computer and machines know how much and what colors of the foam mixture to put in a disposable cup. After the cup was full, we watched Michael bring the cup full of goop to a special mixer, very similar to Culver’s concrete mixer for combining frozen custard and add-ins. He turned on the machine, we heard the gears grinding, the foam mixture began expanding – and then it was time for the exciting part: pouring the orange foam into the mold and sealing it off with a lid.
Don’t let your eyes fool you, however; even though this mixture looks like it would be great with a couple of tortilla chips, it is definitely not edible and will stick to your clothes. That’s why you are given an apron and cheese visor when you walk into the factory.
After the foam is expanded to its fullest shape and "cooked" to a hot temperature, you are able to remove it from the mold and squeeze out any remaining air bubbles. Bring your new foam creation to the tables outside the production room and you can cut off any excess foam around the edges of the cheese creation.
The best part about the tour was all the cheese puns. Carol made sure to throw in lot of "grate" ones herself during the tour, but if you attend the tour with the right people, you can come up with some gouda ones yourself.