How to make your own Cheesehead in Milwaukee
If you’ve ever seen a Green Bay Packers game you probably know the headwear of choice for many fans. It should be immediately recognizable. It's a huge foam wedge of cheese. The hats aren’t made in Green Bay. The company that makes them is called Foamation. It isn’t affiliated with the Packers at all. But they are made in Wisconsin. Now you can visit cheese headquarters in Milwaukee and make your own. That's thanks to a set of recently launched factory tours.
You can book The Swiss tour for five dollars. On that tour, you can sit in a back room and listen as a tour guide explains the history of the Cheesehead hat. The Cheddar tour costs $12. It is the next level up. You’ll get the history as well as a behind-the-scenes tour through the production area.
But the big cheese of the tours is The Holey Cow. It costs $25. You get all the perks of the other tours, plus a make-and-take service. It lets you create your own Cheesehead hat in the production room. You get to take it home to keep.
The Cheesehead factory building is more than 100 years old. It started out as a foundry. The original safe from the first company to own the building is a point of pride for Foamation. But it doesn’t hold any money today. Rather, it contains the original Cheesehead hat.
Ralph Bruno is the CEO and still works at the company every day. He invented the first Cheesehead in 1987. That's according to tour guide Casey Gott. He dons the “commander in cheese” hat for the duration of each tour.
Chicago White Sox fans had taken to calling Milwaukee Brewers fans “Cheeseheads” as an insult. Bruno wasn’t quite sure what anyone had against cheese. So he decided to make the hat as a way to show that Wisconsinites embrace their cheesiness. At the time, he was reupholstering his mother’s couch. He took one of the cushions and cut a wedge out of it. He used a blowtorch to put holes in it like Swiss cheese. And he spray-painted the entire thing yellow. He wore it tailgating to a game. By 1989, the hats had reached the mass market. Now, the company produces an array of foam hat creations. They range from corncobs and ice cream cones to hot wings. They also include the Chicago Bears’ response to the Cheesehead. It is the graterhead. It looks like a giant cheese grater.
Each tour begins by taking the Wedge of Allegiance. It is a cheesy pledge to confirm you’ll stay safe in the factory. Then visitors get a brief overview of the company’s history and a chance to see the original Cheesehead. Depending on the tour, you continue into the mold room.
Foamation keeps every mold it’s ever used to make a hat. The walls are lined with shelves of them. The flagship wedge is designed after three types of cheese. The first is cheddar because it’s yellow. The second is Swiss because it has holes. And the third is Gouda because it’s wheel-shaped. “No cheesemaker can make this type of cheese,” Gott said.
The Cheddar and The Holey Cow tours proceed into the small production room. There, five partitioned stations make all the Cheeseheads seen across the world. The process to create the hats is deceptively simple. You take what looks like a large soda to-go cup and place it beneath an assembly of small tubes. A pre-measured amount of colored polymeric isocyanate pumps into the cup from one tube. It is followed by another pre-measured amount of toluene diisocyanate from another tube. The two are then mixed together with a tool similar to a diner’s milkshake blender. This creates the polyurethane foam that forms the hats. The non-toxic liquid foam is then poured into a mold. It is clamped closed immediately after. Four minutes later, the foam has expanded and is set. Then the mold is opened and you pull out your very own Cheesehead hat. Scrunch it all up once or twice to get any leftover air bubbles out. Then don your new hat with pride. Sometimes there are dangling edges. You can cut them off in the trimming room next to the production room. All the scraps are melted down and turned into carpet padding. This includes the trimmings and botched products.
“My first day, when I walked in I was blown away by the building and that the cheesehats are made right here in Milwaukee,” Sean Patterson told Smithsonian.com. He is a production employee at Foamation. “It brought a name to Wisconsin and it’s recognizable worldwide. The fact that it’s still handmade and family owned is great. To have tours on top of that is awesome. We don’t have anything to hide. We can open it up to anyone to have a fun experience in Milwaukee.”
Paul Schultz was a recent guest who went on the Holey Cow tour. He agreed. He won tickets in an auction and brought his son. It was a gift for his high school graduation. He was drawn by the fact that the company is still a family business and that the product is emblematic of Wisconsin, he told Smithsonian.com.
With the Holey Cow tour, you have the option to make more than just the standard cheese wedge hat. You can make a baseball cap or a cowboy hat. You can make a fedora or a fireman hat. You can make a sombrero or a top hat. You can make a cheese dagger or a football. You can also make cheese wedge coasters or Wisconsin-shaped coasters.