How the iconic Wisconsin Cheesehead is made

We visited the Foamation factory in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to see how the foam hats are produced.

Karisa Langlo
Karisa Langlo has been writing and editing professionally for over 12 years, joining CNET with two writing degrees and bylines in Milwaukee Magazine, Louisville Magazine and The Masters Review. She started on CNET's mobile team before expanding to all tech and now works across categories to optimize the performance of all CNET advice and storytelling, from Wellness to Money, News and Culture. Karisa also manages strategy for CNET's Tips franchise.
Karisa Langlo
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You've likely seen one of Wisconsin's iconic Cheesehead hats. Made famous by Green Bay Packers fans, the hats are now a Dairy State staple and they're all made domestically.

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Foamation, located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, makes more than just the iconic wedge-shaped Cheesehead hat. You can buy any number of cheese-inspired foam items, including footballs and cowboy hats.

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The factory, in Milwaukee's Walker's Point neighborhood, includes a retail store and a surprisingly chic event venue called The Factory on Barclay.

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The legacy of the Wisconsin Cheesehead is all thanks to Ralph Bruno, Foamation's founder and the inventor of the original foam Cheesehead hat.

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All of Foamation's products are made in its Milwaukee factory and its operations are more analogue than you might assume. Every hat is made by hand.

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The first step is dispensing the liquid poly into a paper cup.

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Then a Foamation employee uses what they compare to a McFlurry machine to mix the poly.

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All of the foam hats are made in metal molds, some of which have been in use for years.

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To make a hat, you start by warming the mold with a hair dryer, then spraying it with a "release agent."

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Then the mixed liquid poly is poured from the paper cup into the prepped mold. It begins to expand right away.

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Besides hats, the Cheesehead factory also manufactures cheese-inspired foam coasters in the shape of the state of Wisconsin. These are made the same way as the hats.

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The factory also manufactures foam Cheesehead footballs, a nod to the company's strong ties with the Green Bay Packers and football fandom.

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Once the poly is poured, the lid is replaced atop the mold. On a Foamation factory tour, tour participants can make their own hats and get a hands-on experience that Ralph Bruno calls "display manufacturing."

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The molds and lids are held in place by trailer jacks for several minutes, measured by the ding of a kitchen timer. Each product requires a different amount of time for the poly to cure.

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As the poly expands, some of it escapes the mold and will need to be cut away at the end of the process.

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When the mold lids are removed, the final product is revealed for the first time.

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Here's a foam hat, cured and ready to be removed from its mold.

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Employees must remove each item from its mold carefully, so as not to damage the newly cured foam. The release agent sprayed on each mold ahead of time makes removal much easier.

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Here's what the top hat looks like when its taken out of the mold.

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The next step is to squeeze the foam by hand to release any air bubbles that may have formed during the curing process.

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And voila, a foam cheesehead top hat.

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The final step, before putting the hat up for sale, is to trim the excess foam from its edges.

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Extra scraps make for colorful garbage cans around the Foamation headquarters.

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Tour attendees are able to choose which of Foamation's products they'd like to make on the tour. Bruno says the traditional wedge Cheesehead hat is actually not the most popular choice, because those are much easier to find at stores across the state.

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The tour also includes a brief history of Foamation and the Cheesehead hat, with lots of interesting details about Bruno's original hat (and a special surprise hidden away in what used to be a bank vault in the building's previous life).

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A tour guide leads the group through The Wedge of Allegiance. 

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The factory also has a display of non-Cheesehead hats the company has made in the past, some for other sports teams and fandoms, like the Nebraska cornhead hat.

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Exit through the gift shop, which is awash in that iconic orange-yellow foam.

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Foamation sells Cheesehead t-shirts, figurines and a bunch of other non-foam items at its retail store. You can even get a COVID-19 mask that advertises your love of the Dairy State.

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After you buy a Cheesehead hat, there's a photo op waiting for you outside the factory. I couldn't resist.

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