Cheese on the global scale

Wisconsin won 136 awards in world competition

You’d expect the World Championship Cheese Contest, hosted earlier this year in Madison, to draw crowds of cheesemakers from around the world. And it did. This year’s tilt was even, um, cheddar than expected, drawing 3,402 entries from nearly 500 cheesemakers, the largest number in the event’s history.

It’s understandable. According to John Umhoefer – the man who holds the enviable position of executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, or WCMA, which organizes and hosts the event — the impact of a world championship best-of-show win on a cheesemaker’s business is dramatic. When the Roth Grand Cru Surchoix from Wisconsin’s own Emmi Roth USA claimed top honors at the World Championship two years ago, the company’s sales jumped a whopping 200 percent. That’s a lot of cheese wheels.

This year an Esquirrou, which is a sheep’s milk cheese from a French cheesemaker, snagged top honors. But Wisconsin won 136 awards total, which is five times more than its closest competitor, New York, which garnered 26 awards.

With more than 100 categories of cheeses, there’s obviously a lot to sample and sift through. Umhoefer estimates the event judges have to review four full truckloads of cheese. (Anything that is ready to eat is donated to Second Harvest.)Cheese on the global scale

“Judging cheese is like judging figure skating,” Umhoefer explains. “Everyone starts at 100 and our judges look for defects.” At this level, those defects can be almost nonexistent. Many of the winners in key categories, like sharp cheddar, colby and Parmesan, were docked less than a point.

And some of those cheeses were, to say the least, eyebrow raising. This year, for the first time, a cheese made from donkey’s milk was part of the competition. (It was created by a Brazil-based cheesemaker.) And while it didn’t exactly charm the judges (“it had a very grassy, sour flavor,” notes Kirsten Strohmenger, WCMA’s events manager) it is indicative of the creativity and boundary-pushing the cheesemaking world continues to experience. Elsewhere in this year’s competition, a buffalo-milk cheese produced in Italy took a gold medal. Also on the “say what?” front: Cheeses washed in a variety of beers and wines to give their exteriors a distinctive taste were also judged. A pinot noir-washed cheese came in third this year.

“People are trying to be unique,” explains Umhoefer. “It all starts with milk, but whatever they can do to differentiate themselves, they’re very much doing.”Cheese on the global scale

All that differentiating leads to a tense and fascinating competitive environment. “They don’t break out into fistfights, but it’s really, really tense,” says Umhoefer of the competitors. “There was a palpable roar from the crowd and we had about 700 spectators watching when this year’s winner was announced.”

Strohmenger seconds the take. “They’re all making phenomenal cheeses, and they want to beat each other. But at the same time, they also celebrate each other’s wins.”

The event’s structure helps to emphasize the collegiality and the drama. While medal winners in the individual categories are revealed after computers crunch the judges’ scores, the announcement of the top three best-of-show winners is saved for the event’s final night, giving Midwestern competitors a chance to come zipping to Madison for the big reveal.

“The winners are so wildly happy,” says Umhoefer. “There’s just pure excitement for a cheese.”
Excited about cheese? Yeah, that sounds about right.