Wisconsin Women Cheesemakers Rule US Champion Cheese Contest

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!

Behind the Curtain at the World Championship Cheese Contest

The World Championship Cheese Contest came and went in Madison this week. With it, hundreds of industry volunteers, cheesemakers and international judges unloaded, unboxed, unwrapped, inspected, labeled, opened, sniffed, tasted, spat out, rewrapped, reboxed, and reloaded 2,504 cheeses one by one, wheel by wheel, wedge by wedge, all in a quest to find the best.

Mission accomplished. While the Dutch and Swiss again took top honors (the World Champion was Vermeer, a lowfat Dutch Gouda made by FrieslandCampina – yes, that’s right, the frickin’ Dutch beat us with a lowfat Gouda), Wisconsin cheesemakers did well overall, earning gold medals in 30 of the 82 classes.

Held over the course of three days at the Monona Terrace, the World Championship Cheese Contest is one of the best cheese events held in Wisconsin. That’s because it’s expertly executed by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which has been running the contest since 1957.

Once held in obscurity in a butter cooler in Green Bay, the contest now takes center stage at a sprawling convention center in the state capital. Today, the WCMA, led by executive director John Umhoefer, calls on more than 200 volunteers to help run the three-day contest. Many – perhaps even most of the volunteers – are Wisconsin cheesemakers who happily carve three days out of their own cheesemaking schedule to schlep around cheese made by others from around the world.

From Monday morning through Wednesday mid-day, two distinct bodies of cheese people fill the voluminous Exhibition Hall at Monona Terrace. One group wears white caps and white jackets, and stands in front of the red velvet curtains. These are the judges. From Argentina to Australia, 20 international cheese experts wind their way to Madison to spend three days inspecting, sniffing, tasting and spitting out everything from Gruyere to Gorgonzola (they spit out each cheese so as to not have hundreds of samples mulling around in their tummies – I’m not sure all the Pepto Bismol in the world could cure that kind of stomach ache).

The second group wears blue hats and white coats, and mostly works behind the red velvet curtains. This is the “B Team”, as they are affectionately called, and these are the folks – all Wisconsin cheesemakers and industry volunteers – who unbox and unpack each and every piece of cheese for the judges to inspect, and then repack and rebox to put back on pallets to be zipped back to the cooler by another set of volunteers who have moving pallets down to a science.

While both of these teams are busy working, a separate team in a separate room, mostly filled with computers, printers and cans of caffeine, tally the judges’ scores. This team – led by the amazing Jane Cisler at WCMA – is the invisible hub of the contest, always working, often running, to get scores entered as soon as possible and up and live on the contest website. Without Jane and her team of volunteers, the contest simply would not happen. They are truly the wizards behind the curtain.

By Wednesday afternoon, judges have whittled down the 2,504 cheeses to just 82. These are the Gold Medal cheeses – the top cheeses in each of the classes. This year, the contest mixed things up a bit, and had the judges pare the top 82 down to a “Sweet 16”, which were then judged in front of a sold-out live audience at an evening gala in the Monona Terrace ballroom. More than 400 super foodies showed up to mingle with cheese industry folk and taste 50 cheeses from around the world, all the while watching the final round of gold-medal judging.

At about 8:20 p.m., the crowd was rewarded for its patience with the naming of the Second Runner-Up (an Appenzeller from Switzerland), the First Runner-Up (a washed-rind Winzer Kase from Switzerland) and finally, the World Champion – the aforementioned lowfat Gouda.

As hundreds cheered for the Dutch judge as he hefted his native country’s wheel of cheese above his shoulders (the actual cheesemaker won’t accept his medal until an April banquet in Milwaukee), the wizards both in front of and behind the curtains – the volunteers, the B Teamers, and the rest of the judging crew – all took a moment to stand and smile, satisfied with another year of finding the big cheese. Well done, crew. See you in 2014.

2012 World Championship Cheese Contest

Brace yourselves, Wisconsin. More than 2,500 cheeses are coming to Madison for the World Championship Cheese Contest in March. Are you ready?

In good news, the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association is ready to roll. They’ve been hosting the World Contest for decades, and have a streamlined process of receiving, sorting, spitting, evaluating and awarding cheeses down to a science. That’s a good thing, because this year, a record-breaking 2,503 entries from 24 nations around the world were entered.

All cheeses will be judged between March 5-7, with viewing open to the public during daytime hours at the Monona Terrace. The real shindig, however, will happen the evening of Wednesday, March 7, when the public is invited to attend an exclusive tasting of more than 20 international and Wisconsin cheeses, and witness the final round of judging, live and in person. Tickets for “An Evening at the World Championship Cheese Contest” are $25 and are going fast. Buy yours now at www.cheesecontest.com because this event WILL sell out.

This year, several new nations have entered cheese into the contest, including India, Romania, Estonia and Croatia. They’ll join the returning nations of Argentina, Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany,  Greece, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Romania, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States.

Forty international judges will work from Monday, March 5 through noon on Wednesday, March 7 to sniff, taste and examine each entry, working in teams of two.  The top three scoring cheeses and butters in each class will earn gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.

Each two-person judging team pairs a U.S. judge with an international expert.  This year, judges hail from Argentina, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom, joining 20 judges from 13 states in the U.S.

More than 250 dairy industry volunteers — including yours truly — will provide support as judges work through more than 50,000 pounds of cheese and butter entries. I know I’m looking forward to my official “B-Team” ball cap again this year. Hey – there has to be a perk to hauling heavy boxes of cheese to judging tables all day, right?

It’s important to note that the World Championship Cheese Contest is a technical evaluation of cheese entries, using an objective measure of cheese defects to select the products in each class that best exemplify perfection for a cheese variety. The highest scoring cheeses and butters earn a gold medal, with silver and bronze medals awarded to second and third place finishers in each class.

The Contest is open between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Monday, March 5 and Tuesday, March 6 in the Exhibit Hall of the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis.  First round judging will be completed Wednesday, March 7 from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

This Championship Round, set for 7 p.m. during the Wednesday, March 7 public event, will be broadcast as a live, video-streamed program on the WCMA website.  In addition, contest results and digital images will be posted on the website throughout the competition.  Visit www.worldchampioncheese.org for complete contest coverage.

In 2010, cheesemaker Cedric Vuille from Formagerie de La Brevine in the tiny village of La Brevine, Switzerland, was named World Champion in the Championship Round for his Le Gruyere Switzerland. The Swiss cheeses have been popular, often winning the World title. A U.S. World Champion is long overdue. Fingers crossed 2012 is our year!