More than a dozen 180-pound big wheels of emmentaler greeted visitors to the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest today. It was the first time I’ve ever witnessed so many giant wheels of cheese being cut at the same time.

Of course, cutting the cheese was a feat all in itself, as a group of judges worked for a total of more than two hours meticulously slicing through each wheel. As Bruce Workman, of Wisconsin’s Edelweiss Creamery (the only U.S. cheesemaker to craft big wheel Swiss) put it afterward: “Put the ol’ muscles to work today.”

The highlight of today’s judging and events was a special seminar organized for chefs, specialty cheese retailers and media, some of whom came from as far away as New York and Maine. After Chef Regi Hise led an exquisite tasting of a cheddar flight, a plate of blues and washed rind cheeses, a panel of seven Wisconsin cheesemakers shared their personal stories and cheesemaking journeys with the crowd.

All of the cheesemakers — three brand new folks and four veterans — all brought their latest and greatest cheeses – some of which had never been tasted before. So what’s new in the world of Wisconsin artisan cheese? Let me count the ways:

Roelli Cheese — Newly minted cheesemaker Chris Roelli shared his new Lowlander Goudsekaas, an aged gouda. Chris shared the oldest members of his first batch — two wheels of 4-month old aged gouda, which judging by the taste, is only going to get better with age. This is one cheese worth watching.

Hidden Springs Creamery— Brenda Jensen sampled her new Ocooch Mountain, an aged sheep’s milk cheese which I wrote about a few weeks ago after getting a sneak peak at Fromagination. Aged sheep milk cheeses are my favorite category of cheese, and this is one I’ll be adding to my weekly purchase list.

Saxon Creamery — Gerald Heimerl brought along some of the most beautiful wheels of cheese I’ve ever seen — Big Ed’s, Green Fields and Saxony. These cheeses are almost too pretty too eat. Shaped in 3-D molds with leaf patterns on the edge and “Saxon” embossed on the top, I’d buy this cheese just to look at. Guess what? It also tastes really good. It’s a win-win.

Lovetree Farmstead — Mary Falk was the hit of the session, as she treated the crowd with several very entertaining stories, including how her very first batch of aged sheep’s milk cheese was purchased by an executive at Aveda – sight unseen and not yet sampled — and served as the main course at his daughter’s wedding. Because it’s out of season for Mary to make sheep’s milk cheese, she brought along a new Jersey cow’s milk aged cheese she’s been working on. Afterward, people were fighting over who was going to buy the rest of the wheel.

Bleu Mont Dairy — Willi Lehner is one of Wisconsin’s most innovative cheesemakers and he managed to top himself again today with his new Irish Gem. I don’t even know how to describe this cheese, other than to say if you see him at the winter farmer’s market in Madison, buy some. It’s truly a Willi original.

Can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring at the contest — stay tuned for live results and more news from Wisconsin cheesemakers.