When over 50,000 pounds of cheese rolled this week into Wisconsin, a state clearly not suffering from cheese shortages, it could only mean one thing: The World Championship Cheese Contest was in town.
The biennial competition, held in Madison, is like a World Cup for the cheese world, where Dutch Gouda battles Swiss Gruyere for the coveted top title. This year there were a record 2,503 entries from 24 countries. Traditional heavyweights in the U.S. and France were well-represented, making it tough for first-time competitors from India, Estonia, Romania and Croatia to catch the judges' attention.
Like wine and coffee, competitive cheeses are evaluated on a number of factors — judges look at the exterior, smell it, feel a piece by hand and in their mouth, taste it and then spit. Each winner of the 82 categories advance to a semi-final where judges narrow it down further to 16 finalists.
Wisconsin, true to form, outperformed every other state in the semi-finals. It had 30 first place finishers and prompted Twitter user Oryx2046 to poke fun at a classic California dairy campaign with the tweet, "WHOSE COWS ARE HAPPY NOW?!"
Other brands familiar to Americans that made it to the finals were Cabot and President. The winner of the sharp cheddar (aged 6 months to 1 year) category went to none other than Cracker Barrel, made by Kraft.
One would think all those cheeses crowding into one convention center would raise quite a stink. But it's actually not that bad, according to organizer Jeanne Carpenter.
"The smell of the room when you walk in is absolutely amazing," Carpenter says.
The main event of the three-day contest was the final judging on Wednesday night. As attendees looked on (some of us via webcast), the judges, clad in white lab coats and matching white hats, took turns carefully inspecting the wheels before digging out a sample from the center. With clipboards in hand, they took careful notes — occasionally closing their eyes to focus on a particular flavor or texture.
In the end, the northern Europeans proved yet again that hundreds of years of cheese-making experience is nothing to sneeze at: The winner was a Dutch Gouda made by FrieslandCampina. The team wasn't able to attend the competition, but Peter Piersma, a judge from the Netherlands, accepted the award on their behalf.
"I'm very, very proud of my colleagues ... and proud to represent them in this marvelous contest," he said.
Carpenter, the organizer of Wednesday's sold-out public tasting, says the event would never have happened a few years ago.
"I don't think we could even sold a single ticket 10 years ago," she says.
Much like the microbrew market for beer, Carpenter says the artisanal cheese scene has exploded in the last decade: The number of artisan cheese makers in Wisconsin has jumped from six to over 30. And don't forget the cheese sculptor The Salt covered last year.
Even if some health experts would rather that Americans gave up cheese entirely, one thing's for sure: the cheese lovers definitely don't stand alone.
For more on the competition, see the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel video below: