Gary Grossen and Bruce Workman have made cheese in Wisconsin for decades, but Monday was almost too much for the master cheesemakers.
As they used a wire to halve monstrous wheels of Swiss Emmentaler at the World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace, the smell, look and taste of entries created sensory overload in the event’s opening minutes.
Some of the eyes of the cheese even wept, leaving tiny puddles of salty water in their crevices. Grossen, a cheesemaker at UW-Madison’s Babcock Hall, and Workman, of Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, were in awe.
“It’s just a sign that it’s nice and aged and getting very flavorful,” said Grossen. “Any eyed-cheese is dear to my heart because it’s the most challenging cheese to make.”
“Smell that, it’s like heaven,” said Workman.
Grossen and Workman are not judging this year’s event — hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association — but instead are assisting 48 judges from around the world, who paid their own travel costs for the chance to select the world’s best cheese, yogurt and butter products in 110 categories. The top 16 of the record 2,955 entries will compete Wednesday night in another round of judging, after which a world champion will be crowned.
Judging was held Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will continue Tuesday. Tables in the middle of the ballroom held wheels and blocks of cheese, while down the sides of the room, two-person teams of judges worked at small tables where they cored out samples, smelled and tasted entries before recording their thoughts on electronic tablets.
The entries included chocolate, habanero and brie cheese spreads as well as unsalted butter, yogurt and more conventional cheeses like Monterey Jack, mozzarella and cheddar.
“It’s a beautiful plug. It looks like a candlestick,” said Charles Lindberg, New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets dairy program manager, as he judged a mild cheddar. “It’s not an easy class to judge.”
The contest was once held in obscurity on loading docks and in coolers in Green Bay, but it moved to Madison in 2000, where it has moved further into the public eye. Wednesday night’s gala, which is sold out, will be attended by about 500 people.
But Monday’s viewing was free and open to the cheese-loving public. Spectators wandered throughout the room where they snapped photos, asked questions of the judges and used toothpicks to stab samples of feta, brick and Gouda.
“I really think we need to become cheese snobs in Wisconsin,” said Pat Kluetz, who car-pooled from UW-Stevens Point with a group of 20 retirees in a continuing education class. “People are wine snobs, why can’t we be cheese snobs? We make some of the best cheeses in the world.”
In 2014, when there were 2,619 entries from 22 countries, state cheesemakers took first-place honors in 34 of the 90 categories, swept the top three spots in 10 categories and had four cheesemakers among the final 16.
An Emmentaler from Switzerland took the 2014 top prize in the contest, held every even year opposite the U.S. Cheese Championships. A U.S. cheese hasn’t won best of show since 1988, but Wisconsin cheeses have dominated the competition.
By Monday afternoon, Wisconsin’s strength was evident. In the bandaged cheddar category, state cheesemakers took the top five spots, with Henning’s Cheese in Kiel taking best of class. BelGioioso Cheese of Green Bay took best of class in ricotta, while the top seven spots in shredded cheese blends were from Wisconsin, with Masters Gallery Foods of Plymouth taking best of class.
For the first time, the contest includes yogurt, something that has been an added value to the products put out by cheesemakers.
Dave Buholzer’s grandfather started making cheese in 1925, and now the family’s Klondike Cheese in Monroe produces 150,000 pounds of feta a day. The company, with five master cheesemakers, also makes Muenster and havarti, and three years ago began making Greek-style yogurt, the majority of it for other companies and food service operations.
“It just seemed to be a fit for what we were already doing,” Buholzer said. “We knew the retail markets were already saturated, but we saw a real good opening in industrial and food service because everybody was focused on retail.”
This week’s contest features 110 yogurt entries in seven categories. A yogurt from Klondike took fourth place Monday in the lowfat cow’s milk category, while a whole milk plain yogurt made by Ron Paris from Sugar River Dairy in Albany was named best of class in the basic yogurt category.
“We’re really just looking for defects,” said K.J. Burrington, a judge and a dairy ingredient applications program coordinator at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison. “You look for things that may be a little bit wrong with the flavor, might be a little wrong with the texture.”