“Cold pack cheese” isn’t a particularly appealing term. In fact, it might not mean anything to some of you, but it means a lot to Midwesterners, especially Wisconsinites. This cold cheese spread, also known as “club cheese” or “crock cheese,” was invented in Wisconsin, where dairy reigns supreme. You’ve likely seen it in a refrigerated aisle at your local major grocery store under brand names such as Merkts and Kaukauna. And once you taste it, you’ll realize why we never stop talking about it.
The term “cold pack” refers to the fact that this cheese spread is manufactured without the use of heat. So there’s no melting in the process of making it, just a bunch of grinding and mixing. It starts with a base like cheddar or Swiss, which is ground into a paste and mixed with other ingredients such as whey solids and cream, which give it a smooth texture and allow the final product to be spreadable even while cold.
According to this piece from Michigan State University’s Campus Archaeology Program, Hubert Fassbender invented cold pack cheese after he founded the South Kaukauna Dairy Company in 1918. After Prohibition ended, he also jumped into the beer distribution business and would offer packages of the cheese spread with large orders of beer. The spread was given away at pubs as a snack, hence its “club cheese” moniker. As it became more popular in the early 1930s, Fassbender began packaging it in distinctive ceramic crocks, earning the product its other common name of “crock cheese.”
The main word I’d use to describe this product is “tangy,” because it really can make your tongue tingle. Cold pack cheese showcases the sharpness of the cheeses that form its base, and its unapologetically concentrated flavor packs a lot into just a little swipe.
There are many varieties of of club cheese, depending on the manufacturer. One of my favorite flavors is port wine, which is visually distinct with its ribbons of purple swirled in. Swiss and almond is also a popular variety. You’ll find tubs of this stuff flavored with beer, fruit, peppers, bacon, horseradish—pretty much anything you’d want to pair with cheese. Of course, there’s regular sharp cheddar, extra sharp cheddar, and smoked cheddar for the purists out there.
First and foremost, cold pack cheese doesn’t have to serve as an ingredient; you can just eat it right out of the container. All you need are some crackers or pretzels to spread or dip, or even use it in place of cheese slices on a sandwich.
It’s also common as the main component of homemade cheese balls, a kitschy crowd-pleasing appetizer at virtually any gathering. The spread is shaped into a sphere or a log and then rolled in textural components such as nuts and served with crackers and crudites. They can be a pretty fun centerpiece, and summer sausage makes a great companion.
Here’s a tip for a better burger: In Chicago, the Merkts brand is pretty popular, and many hot dog stands that offer cheese sauce incorporate Merkts into the sauce. If that’s the case, the stand will also usually offer Merkts on a burger as a replacement for American cheese; it might cost you an extra $0.50, but it’s well worth the upcharge for all that added flavor.
As you have probably guessed by this point, cold pack cheese spread also makes an unforgettable base for mac and cheese.
In addition to leading brands Kaukauna and Merkts, I’ve found that ALDI carries a respectable and very affordable club cheese as well. Pine River is also a great go-to, and if you ever find yourself traveling to Wisconsin, do yourself a favor and check out the cheese section at virtually any grocery store in the state. They often carry cold pack cheese from local creameries that you can’t get elsewhere, all of which are well worth seeking out.
Since football season is upon us, try making this homemade beer cheese dip using cold pack cheese spread. (I wrote the recipe, so I’m biased, but it’s fantastic.) Don’t forget the crackers.