There are cheeseheads, and then there are people like Gary Grossen.
Born above a Green County family cheese factory in 1949, he has curds in his genes, one could almost say. He became a master cheesemaker in 1968 and a genuine sense of joy and a deep affection for the process permeate the conversation when he talks about cheesemaking.
Most recently, UW-Madison's Babcock Hall Dairy Plant has been reaping the benefit of his years of experience, and their list of recent awards stands as proof of his skills.
There are few people who can claim to know cheese like he does. But at the 27th biennial World Championship Cheese Contest, which began Tuesday and ends Thursday, most of those people were in the room with him.
Grossen is one of about 150 volunteers from the cheesemaking industry who have descended upon Madison's Monona Terrace for the event, varyingly dubbed the Olympics or the Super Bowl of cheese competitions by participants. With a record 1,941 dairy products from around the world entered this year - that's 20 tons of cheese and butter - it's the largest competition of its kind in the world, and also the most prestigious, according to organizers and volunteers.
"When you place well here, business booms," said Bruce Workman of Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, who has volunteered at the competition for the past 10 years. Cheeses that place well at this competition will stick a label on their cheese for their award, which carries a lot of weight in the industry, so there's more at stake than simple bragging rights, said Grossen.
But placing well is no small feat.
Master cheesemakers from dairy farms around the world carefully select the cheeses they submit for the competition, making sure each one is as close to perfect as possible, which means the competing cheeses represent the absolute cream of the crop, according to Grossen.
Such a painstaking selection process is necessary because they're being judged by a panel of 22 industry leaders, dairy experts and academics, each of whom has decades of experience in cheesemaking and tasting, and who will readily deduct points if they detect even a hint of a defect.
\ Tasting and spitting
The process of unlocking and evaluating a cheese's hidden flavors is a ritual that bears resemblance to wine tasting.
Judges begin by examining the outside of the cheese wheel or block, then use a tool called a cheese trier to remove a sample from the core. They take a whiff, bend and break the piece to check for pliability and moisture content, then taste, checking the texture of the piece and mulling the bits around on the tongue to fully gauge the flavors. Then they spit the piece into a nearby can, a necessary - albeit disgusting - practice if the judges are to get through 150 pieces of cheese over two days.
The whole time, each judge is marking a score sheet. All the entrants start with 100 points, and judges deduct points based on any defects they find in the flavor, body, appearance and color. The judges deduct points if their exacting palates note a cheese is too acidic, too salty, not salty enough; if they detect that the cow, sheep or goat ate bad grains; if the cheese is gummy, crumbly, sour, unclean; if the whey is tainted; if the cheese is "barny," and so forth.
But because the entrants are such high quality, the lowest score a cheese or butter will get will probably be around 96 points, said judge John Jaeggi of the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. The upper end of the scores will all score mere decimals away from perfect.
"You're talking about differences of fractions of a point," said Grossen.
\ 79 classes
The judges are grouped into pairs and sit at tables supplied with bottles of water and apples - for palate cleansing - to evaluate the dairy products first within 79 classes by the end of today. The judges will then convene Thursday and re-evaluate the winners from each class to determine the best cheese in the world.
The winner in 2006 was an Emmentaler (a kind of Swiss cheese) made by Christian Wuthrich of Switzerland, who was greeted with great fanfare upon returning to Switzerland, according to event organizers.
The Swiss "go crazy over it," said John Umhoefer, director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which hosts the competition. "In Madison, it's just another event, but in the community of cheesemakers, it's a big deal," he said.
A Wisconsin-made cheese hasn't won the top prize since 1988, but Tuesday afternoon things were looking pretty good for America's Dairyland as Wisconsin cheeses swept up top prizes in two out of three early finishing classes.
"It gets kind of tense when you get towards the end, when you know you have a good cheese in there," said Grossen, who has three entrants from Babcock Dairy in the competition. "But if you get in the top 10 ... you can hold your head high."\ \ IF YOU GO
Class judging in the World Championship Cheese Contest will continue today from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Monona Terrace in Madison.
Class winners will be judged again from 8 a.m. and noon Thursday to determine the world's best cheese.
Free samples are available for any hungry cheeseheads who want to show up.
See photos and videos from the event and check out live contest results at the event's web site: www.wischeesemakersassn.org/wccc/2008/contest-live.php.\ \ WEB EXTRA| Video: Watch the judges as they try to determine the world's best cheese. Go to: madison.com/wsj