A bill to make Colby the official Wisconsin state cheese gets new life

A proposal that would make Colby the official state cheese — something residents and lawmakers from the cheese’s birthplace have long advocated for — is getting another chance at becoming law.

The bill received a hearing in the Assembly Committee on Local Government Wednesday. Introduced by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers, the measure would require the Wisconsin Blue Book to include the new designation.

The bill was also proposed in 2019, when it received public hearings but failed to make its way to the full Assembly and Senate. Lawmakers introduced a similar measure to make Colby the state cheese in 1997. It passed the Assembly in February 1998 with an 81-15 vote, but the Senate did not vote on it.

The cheese was first developed in 1885 in the city of Colby, Wisconsin. Joseph Steinwand named the cheese after the township where his father had built northern Clark County’s first cheese factory three years before, according to a state historical marker. The city also hosts an annual Colby Cheese Days celebration.

The city has long pushed for the designation. Colby residents, including the great-granddaughter of Joseph Steinwand, spoke in support of the bill on Wednesday. More than 25 local residents submitted written testimony to make the case for the legislation in 1997, and the city passed a resolution in support of the measure.

The bill’s lead authors, Rep. Donna Rozar and Sen. Kathy Bernier, who represent Colby, said the bill is a celebration of rural history and Wisconsin’s dairy heritage.

It was important to recognize a local municipality, where something very small kind of launched Wisconsin on the dairy state path, Rozar said. I believe that Colby cheese, because of its history, has a very deserving place in our Blue Book.

Some lawmakers worried that the proposal could undercut other cheese varieties made in the state and wanted to know what dairy industry groups thought of the measure. The Dairy Business Association registered in favor of the bill. The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association said they have not done any lobbying on the proposal.

I just have an issue making one cheese the state cheese, said Rep. Rick Gundrum. We have a wide variety of stores and shops in my district that have a wide selection of Wisconsin cheese varieties that they sell. Cheese is very popular in Wisconsin, along with beer and sausage. I can’t get behind it one hundred percent.

Bernier said the proposal is not meant to declare which Wisconsin cheese is the best but instead recognize that Colby is the cheese that put Wisconsin on the map as the world’s greatest cheesemakers.

Wisconsin cheesemakers make more than 45 million pounds of Colby cheese each year. The cheese is similar to cheddar but has a more open texture and a sweeter flavor.

The cheese would join a wide list of official Wisconsin symbols. The state’s official dairy product is cheese and the state beverage is milk. Other state symbols include the state dance, the polka, and the state domestic animal, the dairy cow.

The Assembly committee still has to vote on the bill, which may not come until fall. The bill needs to go through a committee in the Senate before the full Assembly and Senate vote on the measure. From there, the bill would go to Gov. Tony Evers, who could sign the measure into law.

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