3,000 Cheeses. 25 Countries. 1 Winner. Tickets to Cheese Champion on Sale

World Champion Cheese 3

Big news, people! The world’s largest technical cheese competition is coming to Madison, giving the public a rare opportunity to taste more than 50 cheeses from across the globe and witness the reveal of the 2018 World Champion Cheesemaker.

Tickets to Cheese Champion, an evening of global cheese tasting presented by Wisconsin Cheese Originals and the World Championship Cheese Contest, are $25 and went on sale today. Held on Thursday evening, March 8, in the Monona Terrace Exhibition Hall, this signature event of the biannual contest is open to only 500 attendees, with all tickets sold in advance. Click here to get yours!

In addition to tasting more than 50 cheeses from 20 countries, you’ll learn cheese evaluation from international cheese experts while enjoying local specialty foods and craft beer samples, all the while tasting samples of some of the rarest cheeses from every corner of the globe. Plus, you’ll be on hand for the reveal of the 2018 World Champion Cheese, as 53 expert judges from 20 countries stand in salute of the winner. Doors open at 6:30 pm. See you there!

Wisconsin Cheeses that Wow Right Now

Original artwork by Debra Ziss for the 2016 Roth Cheese Calendar hanging
in my kitchen.

Wisconsin cheese mania reached an all-time high this week, as Emmi Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix captured the top spot at the World Championship Cheese Contest Wednesday night in front of a sold out, wall-to-wall packed home crowd at the Monona Terrace in Madison.

The winning cheese is a washed rind, extra aged Gruyere-style, with bold nutty notes. It’s made in Monroe, the county seat of Green County, commonly known as the defacto cheese capital of America’s Dairyland. With 13 cheese factories, 200 cheesemakers, 31,000 cows and 37,000 people, the area is a dairy paradise of cows, green grass, milk and cheese. So it is only fitting the region now produces the best cheese in the world: Grand Cru Surchoix.

Most every retailer in Madison is now sold out of Surchoix, but fear not, more is promised to arrive next week. Until then, let’s take a look at a few cheeses that are REALLY good right now. The quality of local artisan and farmstead cheeses ebbs and flows with the seasons, but here are a handful that are wowing me today:

1. Tallgrass Reserve, Landmark Creamery, Albany. Cheesemaker Anna Landmark has hit her stride with this cow’s milk original recipe. With its natural white moldy rind, the cheese sports a bandaged cheddar texture, yet creamy with a heckuva tang and cavey finish. The current wheels coming from Landmark Creamery are the best wheels I’ve ever tasted. Buy this cheese right now.

2. Cesar’s Queso Oaxaca, Cesar’s Cheese, Random Lake. Cesar, his wife Heydi, and son, Cesar, Jr. swept the top three slots in the string cheese category at this week’s World Championship Cheese Contest. That means the top three string cheesemakers in the world come from ONE family in Wisconsin. This cheese has always been on my go-to list, but the winning batch – available now in stores – is extra stringy and extra salty, kind of like a big fat and delicious potato chip washed down with a glass of whole milk. Hang on, I’ve got to go eat another stick before I continue …

3. Roelli Haus Select, Roelli Cheese, Shullsburg. A newcomer to the retail arena, this bandaged cheddar captured first in its category at this week’s World Championship Cheese Contest, which means Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli can add another award to his shelf: Global Gold Medalist Cheddar Maker. Roelli tastes each batch and releases it based on flavor, not age. That means some wheels might be eight months, and some wheels might be over a year old, but all hit an earthy, crumbly, cheddary note of a good bandaged cheddar. Right now, released batches of this cheese stack up (and I daresay win) against the great bandaged cheddars of the world. Because, yeah, it’s that good.

4. Hook’s Triple Play, Hook’s Cheese, Mineral Point. Made in 40-pound blocks, this tri-milk cheese boasts sheep, goat and cow flavor notes at different points on the tongue. Some batches I’ve tasted have been too young and not very complex, but the blocks out right now are perfect. Firm and tangy, the Hooks say the cheese is a flavor combination of a baby swiss, gouda and havarti. I say it’s a trifecta of amazingness. This is one American Original you don’t want to miss.

5. Farmstead Feta, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby. In Greece, all feta is made with either sheep or goat’s milk, or a combination of the two. It is only in America, with our plethora of black and white dairy cows, that cow’s milk feta is commonplace. That’s why I cue my happy dance when I find Brenda Jensen’s sheep milk feta on store shelves. Extra aged with a pleasant bite, never bitter and perfect salt ratio, this is the feta our Greek friends are worried about in trade talks. Buy it now.

6. Carr Valley Cave Aged Marisa, Carr Valley Cheese, LaValle. With more than 60 different cheeses to choose from, Carr Valley can meet just about anyone’s cheese category needs. Spend your calories on this cheese – an extra aged sheep’s milk cheese with beautiful natural rind, aged on wooden boards in a cave environment. Think sweet, earthy and buttery all in one bite: Cave-Aged Marisa.

7. Donatello, Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain. This small-batch cheese just won second in its class at the World Contest, and for good reason. While most people will grab a Manchego for their token sheep milk cheese on an appetizer cheese board, at about nine months old, Donatello blows the average Manchego exported to the U.S. out of the water. Rich, complex and just starting to form tyrosine crystals, Donatello right now is very, very good. If you can find it, buy it.

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.