A cheese sample rests on a cheese trier as it is being judged at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest. The contest occurs every two years. (Photo provided by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association)
A cheese sample rests on a cheese trier as it is being judged at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest. The contest occurs every two years. (Photo provided by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association)

World Championship event in Madison this week judges 3,667 entries from 26 countries

People in Wisconsin like to think of our state as the center of the cheese world. For three days this week that will indeed be the case. 

The World Championship Cheese Contest comes to Madison’s Monona Terrace on March 3-5, with a record 3,667 entries from 26 countries going up against each other in 132 categories. And even though Wisconsin is where people call themselves “cheeseheads,” 35 other states are represented in the contest, too.

All that makes for an event that has gained in numbers over the years not just with entries but with cheese fans. A gala on the contest’s final day quickly sold all 800 tickets because people want to be there when the winner is announced and to sample a gorgeous selection of the entries. 

There’s a simple reason for all the attention, said Rebekah Sweeney, communications, education and policy director for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the contest’s sponsor.

“It’s the world’s best cheese,” she said. “Cheese makers from faraway countries aren’t going to put their cheese on a palette and send it halfway across the world if they don’t have some confidence in what they are doing.”

The contest has humble roots, beginning in a cooler in Green Bay in 1957. 

By 1980, it still had only 212 entries. In 2010, the contest had 2,318 entries in 79 categories. Categories go beyond cheese and include butter, yogurt, whey powder and dried milk. 

A desire to boost sales explains part of the increase in the contest’s reach and growth.

“The label that comes with the contest win really drives consumer purchases,” Sweeney said. “There are a lot of cheeses on the grocery store shelves and people want to buy one they know they are going to enjoy.”

Wheels of gruyere cheese await judging at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest. (Provided by Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association)

Beyond sales potential, the contest can be like a Cheese College, with judges who provide thorough technical evaluations. 

Judges are not all that swayed by the home crowd. 

European cheeses have dominated the contest in recent decades but in 2016,  Monroe-based Emmi Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix was crowned world champion. The Alpine-style cheese was the first champion from the U.S. since 1988, and the crowd at the Monona Terrace gala that night erupted in cheers as if a Packers score had just won the Super Bowl. 

“It was a monumental day for Emmi Roth, but also for U.S. cheese makers and Wisconsin in particular,” said Abby Despins, Emmi Roth’s director of communications. “We are always compared to imported cheeses. This showed we’re just as good in the U.S. and Wisconsin.” 

Roth saw a huge bump after the contest. The year after the contest, the company increased production by 540 pounds and its sales increased by 417 percent. Roth’s growth continues. On Friday, it acquired Great Lakes Cheese’s blue cheese plant in Seymour.

“A contest win will sell a cheese once,” said Gordon Edgar, a San Francisco-based cheesemonger, cheese judge and author of two cheese books. “People will have to really like it to want to spend the money on it again and the cheeses at these contests are that good.”

The winner of the last World Championship Cheese Contest in 2018 was Esquirro, a French sheep’s milk cheese. Wisconsin products took top honors in 49 categories and won 147 awards overall. 

It’s not just the world contest at Monona Terrace that can bring attention to a cheese. The WCMA also sponsors the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, which last spring was in Green Bay. 

A Baby Swiss from Guggisberg Cheese of Ohio was named U.S. champion of that contest. The American Cheese Society gives annual awards and its most decorated cheese is Pleasant Ridge Reserve, a three-time champion made by Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville.  

In addition, the Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin, the marketing arm of the state’s dairy industry, is riding the cheese wave with the first Art of Cheese Festival Aug. 14-16, with classes, tasting events and a “cheese fair.” 

Big news in the cheese world happened last October, when Oregon’s Rogue River Blue took top prize at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo, Italy. It was the first U.S. winner in the contest’s history. 

Cheeses from Oregon, New York, Vermont and Ohio aren’t strangers to awards but the other states will never top Wisconsin in sheer cheese fandom, as evidenced by the sold-out Cheese Champion gala. 

It’s a way of life Edgar explores in his book, “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese,” and a phenomenon he notices as he travels the country.

“There is no cheese culture like Wisconsin culture,” he said. “You can be in another state and meet someone from Wisconsin, and they want to talk about cheese. You just don’t get that from any other state.”