In an industry dominated by multi-generational male cheesemakers, a Wisconsin woman has been named the best cheesemaker in the nation for the second time in a row.

All I can say is: whoo hoo!

Last night at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Marieke Mature Gouda, aged 6-9 months, was named the 2013 U.S. Championship Cheese. The farmstead beauty is crafted by Marieke Penterman, of Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp, Wis.

The cheese took top honors out of 1,702 entries from 30 states. Out of a possible 100 points, Marieke Gouda scored 98.31in the final round of judging, during which a panel of 38 expert judges from across the nation re-evaluated the top 16 cheeses at an evening gala to determine the overall champion.

Marieke was on hand to accept the award, and for the first time in her life, said on stage she was “speechless.” She did recover afterward, doing her signature “happy dance,” walking through the crowd and accepting hundreds of well wishes from a crowd that had gathered to taste some of the best cheese in the country and watch the final round of judging.

“Can you believe it?” Marieke told me after the festivities had died down, the media had left, and just a handful of industry oldies were nursing their drinks. “The best in the nation. Wow. I can’t wait to tell my dad.”

Marieke, the mother of five and wife of Rolf – “the sexiest man” she knows, has only been making cheese on their central Wisconsin dairy farm for six years. Her story, while vastly different (she emingrated from the Netherlands 10 years ago to start a new dairy farm with her family) – somewhat echoes the story of the last contest’s winner, then 26-year-old Katie Hedrich, who won U.S. Champion for her goat’s milk LaClare Farms Evalon, another farmstead cheese made by a Wisconsin woman. Katie had only been making cheese for a year when she won the award, yet both women were recognized by some of the top experts in the nation for being the best in their craft.

Wisconsin women make up only a tiny percentage of cheesemakers in the state – of about 1,200 licensed makers, less than 60 are women. Yet, they seem to be excelling at their craft, with more entering the industry every year. For example, of the so-far three annual beginning cheesemaker scholarships awarded by Wisconsin Cheese Originals, all have gone to women. The 2013 recipient will be named in April, and based on the applications so far, I’m placing bets it will go to another woman.

It should be noted that two additional top-notch cheeses were also honored at the U.S. Championship Cheese contest, and both are made by men. First runner-up, with a score of 97.89, was Tarentaise, a semi-hard alpine cheese made by Spring Brook Farm/Farms For City Kids Foundation in Reading, Vermont. Second runner-up was Medium Cheddar, made by Team Cracker Barrel Natural Cheese, Agropur Weyauwega for Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois, which scored 97.88.

Wisconsin cheesemakers, as usual, dominated the competition, capturing gold medals in 47 of the total 81 categories judged. Vermont and New York came in second among the states, with six golds apiece. A common complaint I hear about this contest is it favors Wisconsin cheeses because it’s sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. Nothing could be further from the truth, as the 38 expert judges come from around the nation, with the likes of Cathy Strange, Global Cheese Buyer for Whole Foods in Austin, Texas; Max McCalman, Dean of Curriculum at the Artisinal Premium Cheese Center in New York; and Craig Gile, Master Cheese Grader, Cabot Creamery Cooperative in Montpelier, Vermont serving on the judging panel.

After all, the United States Championship Cheese Contest is the largest technical evaluation of cheese and butter in the country and is rooted in more than 120 years of history, beginning when the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association held its first cheese contest in 1891. In recent years, the event has flourished, more than doubling in size since 2001. More Wisconsin cheeses are likely entered into the contest, as it’s held in our state. This year, it was nice to see one of our own take home the top prize. Congratulations, Marieke, and to all the medalists!

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