It's not just a stereotype that Wisconsinites love their cheese.
In "America's Dairyland" -- a slogan still on the license plates -- cheese curds, a by-product of the cheesemaking process, are eaten fresh and deep fried, dipped in ranch dressing, beer-battered, served atop French fries and pizzas. You can find them on restaurant menus across the state, from the Milwaukee Brewers bars lit by neon Miller signs to the cozy Naugahyde booths of "up north" supper clubs. Every Wisconsinite knows: If a curd squeaks between your teeth, it's fresh.
But depending on who you ask, the term cheesehead is either an insult or a point of regional pride. It also refers to an iconic hat, a big, yellow-orange wedge of foam with Swiss cheese-like holes that Green Bay Packers fans wear in the stands at Lambeau Field. For over 30 years -- including the Brett Favre era and the team's 1996 Super Bowl win -- the Cheesehead hat has been a recognizable symbol around the world of Wisconsin's unpretentious, folksy ethos. And each and every hat is proudly handmade right in Milwaukee.
If you ask Ralph Bruno, the Cheesehead hat's inventor, the insult has been officially reclaimed. He believes the stereotype of the cheesehead is more familiar and recognizable outside Wisconsin than many other state's symbols and in-jokes, in part because it's a big, conspicuous, Wisconsin-proud hat.
"[Cheeseheads] can go anywhere in the world, and people will know and recognize us," Bruno says. "That transcends over sport, over politics. You know even in other countries that, somebody wearing the Cheesehead, they know what that's about."
Though the Cheesehead has made its way to all 50 states and at least 30 countries, each of the hats, which range in price from $15 to $25, have been made in Milwaukee since 1987. Outsourcing the production overseas, as competitors have done, isn't even a consideration for Bruno. His privately held company Foamation crafts the hats and a variety of other foam kitsch by hand in a Cream City brick factory staffed in part by students from Marquette University and the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, making the Cheesehead one of the few things still made in the erstwhile manufacturing hub.
Even the way the company conceives of success is grounded in American soil: While Bruno, 60, was unwilling to share any production stats, he did say the number of Cheesehead hats sold over the company's 34 years in business would span the US, laid end to end, from east to west.
"I [always] thought the hat was a perfect Wisconsin expression/statement of identity, although not very comfortable to wear," says James Leary, a professor of folklore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in Wisconsin culture. "Wisconsin has a well-earned reputation as a rustic and blue collar state where people work hard, play hard, love their sports teams and don't mind being a little goofy." Leary's bona fides are clear: He used "cheesehead" as his default password for all of his online accounts back in the '90s (before security concerns were really on his radar).
Bruno -- the official Chairman of the Cheese and self-described Father of Fromage -- still helms Foamation. He's an unassuming and humble man, not the Mad Hatter I expected, with a reverence for his own product that somehow doesn't come close to egotism. In 2020, he appeared on an episode of the game show To Tell the Truth (masquerading as a cheese carver), and he was suspected as an imposter because his Wisconsin accent was so thick it seemed fake.
"I'd like to say it was fun, but it was terror for me because I don't do television well," Bruno says. "I was good enough to get two votes."
I had a Cheesehead hat as a kid growing up in the Chicago suburbs, and I spent my 20s in Milwaukee before moving to Louisville, Kentucky, only two years ago. So I can attest both to the extreme monophthongization of Bruno's vowels and to his accent sounding as authentically Wisconsin as the squeaking curds I enjoyed this summer when I returned to meet the cheese CEO himself.
Upon greeting Bruno at Foamation's headquarters and hearing that familiar M'waukee talk, I sighed the relief of a person returning home.
To curdle means to spoil or sour, to turn something good into something bad. But curdling is also the process of coagulating milk into cheese. A happy accident, cheese is the culmination of a natural process that might sound kind of disgusting the first time you hear about it.
The Cheesehead hat is another happy accident, or "dumb luck," as Bruno describes it, an example of the very Wisconsin notion of flipping "spoiled" into a point of cultural (pun intended) pride.
"It's kind of the story of the little guy to some degree," Bruno says of the collective Wisconsin mentality. "It's just the pride that you have in being who you are and recognizing that."
The hat's origin story has an apocryphal air to it these days. Dozens of media outlets have interviewed Bruno and recounted the tale. Foamation sells an illustrated children's book version of the story (Where There's a Wedge, There's a Whey), and the Cheesehead factory tour at Foamation's Milwaukee headquarters begins with a mini-documentary (followed by the Wedge of Allegiance, which is as cheesy -- sorry -- as you'd expect).
As Bruno's story goes, he first spotted a fan at a Milwaukee Brewers/Chicago White Sox game in 1987 wearing a cardboard cheese wedge on his head. Bruno was 26 at the time, working as a pattern-maker, and the Brewers fan inspired him to make his own cheese hat out of extra cushion foam when later reupholstering his mom's couch. When he wore the original Cheesehead hat to another Brewers game, the natural synergy between a novelty hat and an insult with a -head suffix made it a hit. The hat's popularity spread quickly by word of mouth. It would eventually become a staple of Lambeau Field, Favre's old stomping grounds, also known as The Frozen Tundra.
"My hunch is that the ownership of the Packers by thousands of ordinary citizen shareholders, rather than by a handful of the super-rich, figures in Wisconsinites' intense loyalties," Leary says of the hat's unique infamy. He adds that, while a lot of other sports fans wear "fierce beasts" on their heads at games -- there's an Arkansas Razorback hat and a Florida Gators hat, for instance -- a wedge of cheese isn't fierce unless you've been raised on Velveeta and haven't developed a palate for the real thing.
"For them, the cheddar-colored, Swiss-holed, wedge-shaped hat may be a scary thing, albeit in a funny kind of way," Leary says.
As much as Packers fans have adopted the Cheesehead, the lack of official endorsement from the Green Bay team has been key to its success. It gives Foamation more freedom and creative leeway. Still, sales from the team's Pro Shop make up about one-fifth of the company's market.
When I meet Bruno at his riverside factory in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood, a historic district once haunted by Jeffrey Dahmer and now home to the city's thriving foodie scene, the Brewers are preparing to play the White Sox once again (they would win the series, 2-1). The Milwaukee Bucks have also just won the NBA championship, and the roads are shutting down to prepare for a celebratory parade. Bars are handing out free beer (another famous Wisconsin product), and Twitter is abuzz tracking Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo's whereabouts as a pleasant breeze draws across Lake Michigan's sun-dappled shores. It's a good day to visit.
Built in 1915, Foamation's two-story factory still has ghost signs memorializing its original occupants embedded in its brick facade and a garage door now painted with an Instagram-bait Cheesehead logo. We start the tour inside the Foamation retail store, awash in yellow-orange: There are stacks of foam hats, but also coasters, Christmas ornaments, erasers, fridge magnets, footballs and other dairy-inspired souvenirs. There are Cheesehead T-shirts and figurines wearing their own miniature Cheesehead hats. There are even COVID-19 masks printed to look like Wisconsin's curdled lifeblood.
Next, I'm shown a mini-museum of non-Cheesehead foam products the factory has produced over the years, including a Nebraska Cornhead hat, a Buffalo hot wing hat and an impressively intricate foam cheese grater hat, a punny show of bravado for Chicago Bears fans (a rival team of the Packers). These don't sell nearly as well as the iconic wedge, but Foamation still fulfills custom orders like these for other brands and sports teams because of the company's expertise in mold-making, honed over the years thanks to the advent of the 3D printer.
Bruno is humble about his company's success, viewing his role more as a steward for an organic cultural sensation than its inventor. Foamation, as Bruno tells it, is a sieve that turns the collective concept of the Wisconsin cheesehead into a marketable product. A cheesecloth, if you will. There's a sense that the creation of the Cheesehead hat was a cosmic inevitability and Bruno just fortuitously got to it first.
"The phenomenon is really what other people make it," Bruno says of the hat. "And we're lucky enough as a company to be the facilitator of the product and keep this thing going."
He is hesitant to take credit for much beyond the particulars of the design, which by another happy accident doesn't resemble any real cheese variety and can thus be trademarked. The color resembles cheddar, the shape is more akin to gouda, and the holes (called Schmivitz™, for reasons that have been lost) are inspired by Swiss.
Weirdly, the cheese wedge emoji, introduced in 2015 to meet the internet's concerted demand, looks just like Bruno's foam replica. Culture magazine called the emoji a "cheddarish monstrosity" and "a hateful yellow pyramid that looks like something out of a cheesemonger's nightmare" when it was unveiled with Unicode 8.
Maybe it's because I'm not a cheesemonger, but to me the cheese emoji, and thus Bruno's foam hat design, represent the platonic ideal of cheese. Is it because I've lived most of my life in Chicago and Milwaukee, coming of age in the petri dish of Midwestern sports rivalry? Maybe.
Soon, it's time to see how the cheese is made. The factory itself is only a small part of Foamation's headquarters, which doubles as a wedding venue called The Factory on Barclay that's surprisingly chic. The company has been in its current building only since 2016, when it greatly expanded its tour operation. Bruno says he was able to get the bank on board with a loan by aligning his business with the brewery tour boom. He's reluctant to let journalists like me spill the secrets of the hat-making process, not for competitive reasons but because he wants people to experience the tour for themselves.
But here's what I can tell you: The first step in manufacturing a Cheesehead hat is preparing the metal mold, coating it with a "release agent" and warming the metal with a hair dryer. Then the factory worker dispenses bright orange, syrupy liquid into a paper Coke cup. This is the polyurethane that cures into the hats' familiar spongy material. Foamation's secret sauce, akin to that of a memory foam pillow, has changed over the years with EPA regulations. But the mold -- the specific placement of each Schmivitz -- and the color has all remained the same.
The liquid is then mixed by a machine they compare to a McFlurry maker. And when it's ready to go, the poly is poured into the mold, looking like the radioactive nacho cheese from a movie theater concession stand. Cure time varies depending on the mold, but the traditional wedge-shaped hat takes about eight to nine minutes, with trailer jacks holding the top of the mold in place and a kitchen timer announcing its completion. When it's done, the two halves of the mold are pried apart with a screwdriver, air bubbles are squeezed out by hand and the excess foam is trimmed with scissors.
It's a surprisingly analog process ("It blows people's minds," Bruno says), which lends itself well to the hands-on tour but perhaps not to the capitalist dream of scale. Bruno says he considered automating the operation in the past -- it would make the accountants happier and lessen the imperfections in the foam. But he realizes now that robots are not the future of the Cheesehead factory.
"Everybody else is always trying to make a better part for less money," he says. "But if our process isn't intuitive for our guests, then [tours] drop off."
Another area where Foamation shines is the intricacy of its designs, especially evident in the graveyard of out-of-print commissioned items, like the foam Insinkerator and the Philly cheesesteak hat. Though Bruno lacks any traditional engineering credentials, he's a natural problem solver with something of a beginner's mind, and he sleeps with a pad of paper next to his pillow to jot down middle-of-the-night ideas: "I can't shut that part of it off," he says.
He's developed design rules of thumb over the years that allow him to manufacture more complicated foam items while maintaining structural integrity -- creative usage of magnets and drywall mesh, for instance, and the "20-25-foot rule," which states that the details on a Foamation hat must be visible on a person's head to an observer 20 to 25 feet away.
Competitors and former customers who once subcontracted Foamation's manufacturing arm have struggled when they moved their operations to China, either fizzling out altogether or producing bland designs that lack detail. Bruno thinks the reason is a combination of corporate greed and lack of expertise.
Instead of driving the bottom line with efficiencies in machinery or supply chain, Foamation has leaned into the experiential side of things -- Bruno calls his business "display manufacturing." By this, he means the process of manufacturing a Cheesehead hat is almost as important as the finished product. The low-tech manufacturing process produces more imperfections in the foam, but then again, those hand-squeezed air bubbles mean each hat is completely unique.
"Everything that has that handmade sticker on it, so to speak, always has that perceived value," Bruno says, speaking more generally about the appetite for artisanal products. "Whether the quality is there in real life or not compared to automated pieces -- I know that's arguable. But nonetheless, the perception is there."
By maintaining its mom-and-pop sensibilities, Foamation is able to thread the needle with high quality and financial success. Bruno says the company makes about $1 million in annual sales. Employees are paid $12 an hour (but "no bennies" -- benefits), which is well above Wisconsin's $7.25 minimum wage.
What Foamation is really selling is Wisconsin pride. Of all the groups to reclaim and reappropriate a derogatory demonym, Wisconsin is particularly well suited. And Bruno knows he's peddling lore, disseminating the region's culture among tourists and locals, one hat at a time. He's singularly dedicated to preventing brand dilution -- he once turned down a huge payday when he refused to produce a purple Cheesehead hat for Minnesota fans after Favre signed with the Minnesota Vikings ("[Favre] sold out, but we're not going to," Bruno says).
The Cheesehead's story is Wisconsin in a nutshell: Embracing happy accidents, turning lemons to lemonade, refusing to sell out.
You could say Foamation's commitment to domestic production is artificial, a way of commodifying Wisconsin culture by quenching our thirst for "authenticity." The thought crosses my mind after the tour, as I run my fingers over the squishy foam displays in the gift shop. But maybe it's just that the concept of selling out, and our collective feelings about it, has changed over time, and Bruno's Wisconsin pride and enthusiasm for cheese raises my Baudrillardian suspicions of simulacra. I swipe my credit card, giving in to the familiar urge to bottle something intangible by purchasing a replica of it, and with it the familiar twinge of the knowledge that it doesn't ever work that way. Sure enough, when I return to Louisville with my new Cheesehead under my arm, I still feel as homesick for Wisconsin as ever.
My Kentucky-born son, who's only ever been a tourist in the Dairy State, has since claimed the hat as his own. He can't really talk yet, but when he sees it his eyes light up and he says "Tsss," which means cheese. Maybe the Cheesehead spirit has no time for cynicism. Sure, "Made in America" is more than just a country-of-origin label, but for Foamation it's not just nationalist lip service either. Bruno's love of Wisconsin, like his accent, is the real deal. I appreciate that someday, my son can visit Formation and pour the poly to make his own foam "cheddarish monstrosity" if he wants to, right in America's heartland.
And I appreciate that the reclamation of the cheesehead slur isn't being packaged and resold -- literally -- by those who don't understand its significance.