Photo caption: from left: 70th Alice in Dairyland Crystal Siemers-Peterman, Lake Country Dairy Plant Manager Gary Gosda, winning bidder Jeremy Huston from Chr. Hanson, and 2017 Fairest of the Fair Rebecca Starkenburg.
Listen to an interview with top cheese judges, the grand master cheesemaker, and hear what it takes to get a winning bid for the best cheese in Wisconsin on Cheese Underground Radio:
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A bit of the backstory:
Summer in Wisconsin means only one thing to many folks: fair season. There are county fairs, there are local fairs and then there’s the grand daddy of them all: the Wisconsin State Fair, an 11-day extravaganza that encompasses everything from showing cattle, pigs and chickens to eating a Beer-Battered Bacon-Wrapped Cheddar Sausage On-a-Stick. But for cheesemakers, the best place to be is the Blue Ribbon Cheese and Butter Auction, where 28 blue ribbon cheese and butters are auctioned off to the highest bidder in a mission to raise money for scholarships and dairy promotion.
For a little over an hour at the Wisconsin State Fair each year, a big white tent fills up with everybody who’s anybody in the Wisconsin dairy industry. Bidders come from around the state to bid on 28 blue ribbon cheeses. Folks bid for different reasons. Retailers want the publicity of being able to sell a big winner. Dairy supply companies – such as equipment manufacturers and cheese packaging firms, often bid to either thank cheesemakers for past business, or to woo them for future deals. Each blue-ribbon cheese is sold individually, with the winning cheesemaker brought to the front to be recognized on stage. Cheesemakers and winning bidders are then flanked by a host of local and state dairy queens, all wearing tiaras and smiling broadly for photos.
But perhaps the best part of the evening comes at the very beginning, when the Grand Master Cheesemaker is named. Every year, it’s a surprise. No one, not even the Secretary of Agriculture, who makes the announcement, knows who will be named best in show. Everyone, including the 28 cheesemakers in attendance, fall to a hush and pay attention.
This year’s announcement is a BIG surprise: the winner, a cave-aged, smear-ripened cheese, is one almost no one in the tent has ever heard of and because it’s brand new, the winning company – Lake Country Dairy in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, only sent one company representative because winning the big title was such a long shot. We caught Plant Manager Gary Gosda, representing Team Lake Country Dairy, right after the announcement. He was lugging a giant, Wisconsin-shaped wooden trophy away from the stage.
“We invested in making our own cave about a year and half ago and started making this cheese,” Gosda said. “It’s been a year and half of figuring out what we are doing. This is the first contest in Wisconsin we ever entered it in.”
New cheese, first contest. And it’s a winner: not bad for a first go-round. I wondered how winning cheeses get chosen at the Wisconsin State Fair. So, right before the auction, I talked with Wisconsin State Fair Chief Cheese Judge Mike Pederson, whose day job is the lead cheese grader for the State of Wisconsin, and Bob Aschebrock, veteran USDA dairy grader. The pair explained the judging process, what they look for in a supreme cheese, and what it’s like to grade cheese for a living.
“This year we had a record number of entries, so each team judged between 60 and 70 cheeses in about six hours,” Pederson said. “The defects we saw in these cheeses were so subtle, because many of these cheeses are the best cheeses in the state.”
So what’s it like to bid on a winning cheese at the Wisconsin State Fair cheese auction? Well, it just so happens I found out personally. When 11 pounds of Chris Roelli’s blue ribbon Dunbarton came up on the auction block, I started raising my arm for Metcalfe’s Markets, who had authorized me to bid on their behalf. And when the Secretary of Agriculture starts personally lobbying you to keep bidding, it’s hard to stop.
In the end, I didn’t get the winning bid, but I was still happy to see a great cheese go for a good price. And at the end of the night, a total of $56,760 had been raised, with cheeses such as LaClare Farm’s Evalon fetching $290 a pound, and a Havarti made by Decatur Dairy going for $320 a pound. We talked with Katy Katzman, Coordinator for the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Promotion Board, on what happens with the money raised at auction, and the role dairy plays at the Wisconsin State Fair, including something called “The House of Moo.”
“The money that comes in from the auction helps with our dairy promotions here at the State Fair – we put on milking demonstrations four times a day and we have the House of Moo, which is a hands-on dairy education center in the dairy barn. And, of course, we award scholarships. This year we’ll give out six, $1,000 scholarships to students pursuing careers in the dairy industry,” she said.
“This is such a special event – sometimes we see a lot of these folks just once a year here at the auction,” Katzman continued. “It’s a big reunion every year and it’s great fun to be involved with.”
Love cheese more. This episode of Cheese Underground Radio is sponsored by Fromagination, Madison’s premier cheese shop, located in the heart of America’s Dairyland, right on the capital square. Fromagination’s team of expert cheesemongers help you select the perfect cheeses and companions for every occasion. Shop online at fromagination.com, or better yet, visit and taste the cheeses that make Wisconsin famous. Fromagination. Love cheese more.