Matt Lambric, a Baraboo cheesemaker and pepper-flavored high-heat cheese judge for the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, pulls a sample from a block. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Matt Lambric, a Baraboo cheesemaker and pepper-flavored high-heat cheese judge for the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, pulls a sample from a block. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

High-heat cheeses burn bright in their own category at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison.

The smell hits you almost as soon as you step into Madison’s Monona Terrace this week. It’s a scent familiar to every self-respecting Wisconsinite: cheese. 

Delving deeper into the event center reveals a huge variety of the orange (or white or yellow or blue or red) stuff as cheesemakers from around the world compete in the World Championship Cheese Contest, which is hosted in Madison this year. 

Nestled in the cheese buffet is a devilish conclave of some of the hottest cheese the world has to offer. 

Cheesemakers from around the world crammed their creations with chilis like ghost peppers and habaneros in pursuit of the high-heat, pepper-flavored cheese world title. 

Samples of spicy pepper-infused cheeses sit Wednesday at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison after they’ve been judged. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Rebekah Sweeney, communications, education, and policy director for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said some of the 22 cheeses entered in the high-heat category reached up to three million scoville heat units, the standard unit of heat measurement. 

For reference, an average jalapeno ranges from 2,500 to 8,000 scoville units, according to PepperScale.com.

Judges at the contest pass out samples to members of the public who mill about. 

“That last one was kind of hot,” Paul Brazeau, a 64-year-old Sun Prairie resident, said with a red-faced grin after trying a high-heat sample.

High-heat judges Adrian Fowler and Matt Zimbric kept sliced apples, water bottles, and milk cartons nearby in case they needed heat relief in a pinch.

“I haven’t had any that give me the hiccups yet,” Zimbric, a cheesemaker from Baraboo, said as they neared the end of judging.

But in the end, the heat doesn’t matter if the dairy isn’t good, said Fowler, a cheesemaker from the United Kingdom. 

“The cheese is first,” Fowler said while patting a block of habanero-infused cheese. “Without the cheese, it wouldn’t be a cheese contest, would it? You’d be in a pepper contest.”

The key, Fowler said, is balance. 

Most hot cheeses are on the younger side. A long aging period would “really give you a headache,” he said, because the peppers would have more time to imprint their heat on the cheese and the pH lowers as bacteria converts lactose to lactic acid.

As the judges handled a more mature ghost pepper cheese that was sure to give a hearty kick, Fowler exclaimed, “That’s more like it!” 

Fowler said that back home, he makes a chili cheese that he ages at least six months. As a result, “you get all the flavor” of the pepper but “you don’t get any cheese.”

Pepper-flavored, high-heat cheese judge Adrian Fowler, a cheesemaker from the United Kingdom, shows a cheese sample to dairy-tasting student Sanne de Bruijn. Fowler was one of the high-heat judges during the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Glanbia Nutritionals, based in Twin Falls, Idaho, ended up taking first and second place, while Southwest Cheese, of Clovis, New Mexico, took third. 

Glanbia’s winning cheese was red habanero colby jack, which scored 98.8 out of 100 possible points. Its second-place cheese was red and green habanero white cheddar. Southwest Cheese’s winner was a cheddar mozzarella with sweet habaneros.

The competition had a total of 132 categories, with 3,667 total entries. Judging concludes Thursday.