Of Course the Dairy State Has an Incredible Cheese Castle
All the curds and beer you always knew you needed.
I wish I could tell you the Mars Cheese Castle is a castle made of actual cheese. Unfortunately, it is not. But that doesn’t stop hungry road trippers such as myself from visiting this Wisconsin landmark to experience a royal, cheesy welcome.
It’s not just locals who pull off I-41 to see the cheese castle—which comes complete with turrets, parapets, little triangle flags, and hundreds of cheeses, from the stinky to the velvety. According to the General Manager, Michael Ventura, they get visitors from all over the world. “When they’re driving on the highway,” he says, “people see our sign and wonder, ‘Mars. Cheese. Castle. Why are those three words together? We have to stop and see what it is.’”
After traversing across a drawbridge, past the grand entrance secured by suits of armor, and through the hall decked with stately thrones, one finds oneself in a world of rinds and whey and squeaky fresh curds. And lots of Wisco beer. Here in the dairy state, the cheese experts will tell you how to build the perfect charcuterie board, and show you what’s what when it comes to all the cheesy varieties you could ever desire.
The man behind the cheese castle
In 1947, after a stint as a cook in the navy, Michael Ventura’s grandfather opened a humble cheese shop in downtown Kenosha. From there, he expanded his shop to an abandoned school house, and then upgraded to a gas station, moving closer and closer to the highway, where he assumed travelers would pass by. And by golly was he right.
Inspired by his Italian heritage and castles he’d seen around Italy, Ventura’s grandfather started adding towers, defense battlements, and parapets to the building, hoping customers would feel transported when they walked in.
It’s an illusion that’s even more prevalent today, thanks to actors from the local renaissance fair that Ventura hired during the pandemic. Kings, jesters, and sorcerers are on site to add some medieval flare to the experience.
Pair your cheese with beer, like a good Wisconsinite
While there are countless souvenirs, both Cheese-Castle-themed and Wisconsin-related, the real reason to visit this palace is, of course, for the food. Before you even get to the cheese hall, you’ll encounter candies, jams, hot sauces, mustards, and apple butters.
There’s also a bakery that slings freshly made cookies, croissants, and Danish Kringles—a local delicacy brought over by Danish settlers. And if all of this makes you extra hungry, there’s a tavern on premises to pick up hulking sandwiches and drinks.
The impressive local beer selection includes quite a few brews from New Glarus Brewing Company. “They could probably go national, but they don’t on purpose,” says Ventura. “They’ve dedicated themselves to becoming a Wisconsin-local brand only sold in Wisconsin.” His favorite New Glarus variety is, naturally, the Spotted Cow.
Try the chicken-flavored cheddar, chocolate cheese, or BBQ curds
In the cheese hall, which is much grander than the average dairy nook at your local grocery store, you’ll find several hundred types of cheeses, all produced locally. I even found a chicken-soup-flavored cheddar in one of the fridges. Another item that has guests a little bewildered is the cheese fudge, which tastes more chocolate than cheese, but with a creamier texture.
The most popular item is the fresh cheese curds, which are delivered each morning. “There’s nothing like fresh curds. They squeak in your teeth,” Ventura says. If they’re out of stock by the time you arrive, you can still pick up already refrigerated curds in a variety of flavors, like spicy barbecue and tomato-basil.
You can also find plenty of mild, younger cheddars, but what stands apart here are the really aged ones. Ventura singles out a 15-year-old cheddar that’s firm, dry, and crumbly, with a more concentrated flavor.
If you’re not sure where to begin, there’s an entire Cheese Castle staff at the ready. “We help them engage their senses,” Ventura explains. “We have them try the cheeses and ask about flavors, textures, pairings; how they’d serve it; what they’d cook with it.” That’s why guests are encouraged to ask questions when they get to the cheese counter—I mean, hall.
Curate the ultimate cheese plate
Ventura admits that, despite having a cheese store in the family, he grew up on Kraft singles. But now that he’s a pro, I asked him for a few pointers on making the perfect cheese plate.
For a wide range of different flavor profiles, Ventura suggests starting with an aged cheddar—four-years-old should just about do it—which is stronger than a basic cheddar but isn’t too niche. He’d then pick a butterkase cheese, a type of brick cheese that’s mild, buttery, nutty, and friendly to a wide variety of palates. Then he’d add a brie or camembert—and a blue cheese, if he’s feeling daring. Cheese curds, of course, would make the board.
Granted, the cheese board isn’t just about the cheese. Ventura recommends a Carrs assortment pack, as different crackers bring out different textures. “Water crackers that are very plain will complement some of the stronger cheeses, while a sweet digestive can be used to cleanse the palate or eaten with a camembert.”
He’d also offer spice-dusted pecans, sold at the castle, to offset the cheddar and curds. Finally, he’d put a little jar of creme fraiche on the board to offer a different texture. “We really like to experiment. You never know when you’re going to find a delicious combination. Get a little risky.”
Armed with the Cheese Castle’s finest (and a little more confidence), a cheese plate fit for royalty is just a stop off I-41.