The writer Jeanne Carpenter is one of Wisconsin’s foremost cheese geeks, and that’s saying a lot. America’s Dairyland has a 150-year-old-plus tradition of cheesemaking that has crafted more than a few world championship cheeses. Recent years have seen the state branch out more aggressively into small batch, artisanal cheeses that are giving Europe (and Vermont) a run for their money, and Carpenter’s blog (Cheese Underground) has been one of the best places to get the scoop.
Carpenter’s also the creator of a cheese-tasting extravaganza called Cheesetopia, which will be making its debut in Minnesota on April 9 at Aria, the former Jeune Lune theater in the North Loop.
HEAVY TABLE: What’s the history of Cheesetopia?
JEANNE CARPENTER: Cheesetopia is an event I conjured up a couple of years ago. This will be its third year. I’ve always been seeking the perfect event that connects the average consumer to artisan cheesemakers. Cheesemakers tend not to get out and about very much because they’re so busy making cheese, and everybody seems to want to know who makes their food these days.
So I thought if I could make an event where the people who buy the cheese could meet the people who make the cheese, it might be successful.
It keeps selling out! So, apparently it has found a niche.
Last year was in Chicago. 2015 was in Milwaukee. I launched Cheesetopia as a three-year project to hit the three major cities in the Midwest, so Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis. I was committed to do it for three years, but it has been so wildly successful that obviously I’m going to have to find another home for 2018 and beyond.
HEAVY TABLE: What will the Minneapolis event feel like for guests?
CARPENTER: It’s in the historic warehouse called Aria. Whenever Cheesetopia visits a city, I’m on the lookout for really cool spaces. It’s always been in historic, restored warehouses because I think the ambiance of the building should match the artistry of the cheese that’s inside. So if you haven’t been inside Aria yet, you’ll just be amazed. It has a huge, almost cavernous feeling — all brick walls, beautiful lighting — just a beautiful space. The first thing you’ll do when you walk in is you’re going to smell cheese. There’ll be about 40 people there sampling and selling cheese, and that is probably going to overwhelm you because there’ll be about 150 different cheese aromas.
It’s a fun, festive atmosphere because I require the cheesemaker to be there. It’s not a marketing person — the cheesemaker has to be there. You get to sample 150 different cheeses, and you can also buy them. It’s kind of like a farmers market, but it’s all cheese.
HEAVY TABLE: Tickets to Cheesetopia are available earlier for Wisconsin Cheese Originals members. What’s that group all about?
CARPENTER: I launched Wisconsin Cheese Originals in 2009, and that was my first attempt to connect consumers with cheesemakers. So for the last seven years I have been dreaming of putting on events and leading classes and doing tours, all with the goal of connecting consumers to cheesemakers. So I have been blessed to have a steady core of 200 members, and I want to reward those folks by giving them first chance at tickets [to Cheesetopia]. Membership in Wisconsin Cheese Originals is just $35 a year. And all of that membership fee goes for beginning cheesemaker scholarships (we donate about $3,000 a year in scholarships). And also U.W.-Madison is building a brand new Center for Dairy Research, and we’ve been donating money to that. That is how future cheesemakers are going to learn and current cheesemakers are going to keep being innovative.
My husband keeps yelling at me because I never seem to make any money at this, but I sure have fun! Wisconsin Cheese Originals is important to me because these cheesemakers are making such amazing products, and they work so hard, and they never have time to go out and meet the people who enjoy [the cheese]. I really think the cheesemakers enjoy this event as much as the people who go out to meet them. They’re literally treated like rock stars. People will get their autographs; they’ll get their selfies taken with these guys and women. The four hours go really fast.
Cheesetopia Minneapolis runs from noon-4 p.m. at Aria (105 N 1st St, Minneapolis) on April 9, 2017. Tickets are $75 and go on sale to the general public on Mar. 1.