Three Wisconsin cheese makers placed among the Top 20 of the world’s best cheeses Thursday, but it was a gruyere from Switzerland that took top honors.
The highly competitive World Championship Cheese Contest held in Madison saw a record-setting 3,667 entries from 26 countries.
The award-winning gruyere from Bern, Switzerland, also won the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest. The cheese, called Gourmino Le Gruyere AOP, is made by Michael Spycher of Mountain Dairy Fritzenhouse.
Prior to the winner being named, the three Wisconsin cheese makers earning a spot in the Top 20 expressed pride and elation for having made it that far.
The three Wisconsin top finishers include: an English hollow cheddar from Maple Leaf Cheese in Monroe; a gorgonzola from Emmi Roth in Seymour, and a smoked cumin gouda from Marieke Gouda of Thorp.
Marieke Penterman, the owner of Marieke Gouda, who refers to her gouda as “little bundles of joy,” has become a figure in the state’s cheese maker world since moving to Wisconsin from The Netherlands in 2003. Since first competing in 2007, she has won over 150 national and international awards. Her gouda was named grand champion of the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in 2013.
“It’s phenomenal (to place in the Top 20),” she said. “Out of more than 3,660 entries – to be in the top 20 is like half a percent chance. So we are very honored to have gotten to this point. Everybody puts their heart and soul into their products.”
Shortly after learning his English hollow cheddar had placed, William Knox, a cheese maker with Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, said the first time the company’s cheese won top honors in their competition category “was a blur.”
“This time, I’m trying to take it in a bit more,” he said.
To make it to the Top 20, cheeses must first win their top place in their cheese category. This year, there were 132 cheese categories. The category winners are then whittled down to the best 20 cheeses.
Tim Omer, managing director of Emmi Roth Cheese, took top honors for its gorgonzola cheese and was then named to the Top 20.
“To see it up there, is such a vindication of who Emmi Roth is as a company, how much we care about making cheese,” Omer said. “It’s already a win.”
Among American cheese makers, Wisconsin dominated the competition winning 45 of the 132, or 34 percent, of the categories. Vermont cheese makers earned nine medals, followed by California and New York, earning five gold medals each.
The World Championship Cheese Contest is not only a draw for the world’s top cheese makers but the public.
Judy Allen of Madison has been to the World Championship Cheese Contest before. It attracts’s a sold-out crowd of 800 people and she knows to arrive early to beat the crowd. She was the first in line waiting for the doors to open 80 minutes before the event began at the Monona Terrace.
“You’ll eat so much cheese here tonight you won’t want to look at a piece of cheese tomorrow,” said Allen, who works weekends at Hy-Vee grocery store selling cheese. “But it is so much fun. I just love cheese.”
She said she has had each of the three Wisconsin cheeses in the finals.
“We sell all of these at Hy-Vee,” she said.
Bev and Jeff Enelstein from Bloomington, MN, are next to her in line. They caught the travel-to-cheese-competition bug in 2012 after watching an episode about the World Championship Cheese Contest on “Wisconsin Foodie.” A snowstorm held them back for one competition, sold-out tickets from another. But in 2018 they finally made it.
Thursday’s competition was their third.
“It’s a thing for us to do. It’s something we look forward to every year,” said Jeff.
For those who have never attended, the couple said to be prepared to be “shocked” by the high-end quality of the world’s best cheeses.
“The taste, the aroma, the texture, the way it cuts … it’s like everyday cheese versus Kraft luxury,” said Jeff. “We were shocked after the first year we came. We thought it would be cheese like you buy in a grocery store. The cheese was beyond our expectations.”
When the event’s top cheese was announced, Allen had a spot right in front of the stage. She was a little bummed that Wisconsin cheese had not won.
“Switzerland?” she said. “We’ll try again in two years.”
The World Championship Cheese Contest is held every two years in Madison. The U.S. Championship Cheese Contest is held in the alternating year.
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