The big cheese in the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest, judged this month in Madison, is the Grand Cru Surchoix made in Monroe by Emmi Roth USA, whose parent company is a specialty cheese producer in Switzerland.
The world champion costs about $17 to $22 per pound. It is made in copper vats, almost crumbly in texture and ages at least nine months. Production of the Alpine-style cheese began in 1991, so it’s far from being a newbie on the block.
In the mysterious world of cheese, little seems like a sure thing and the winners circle is an eye-widening mix of newcomers and master cheesemakers who produce cheese in small batches to industrial-sized proportions.
Brenda Jensen of Hidden Springs Creamery, near Westby, began making cheese in 2006 and the next year shocked the industry by winning a best of class at the U.S. Cheese Championship. She was making merely two batches of creamy, sheep’s milk cheese per day, twice a week, when we met several years later.
Extra-aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese, near Dodgeville, is the only cheese to earn overall top honors from both American Cheese Society and U.S. Cheese championships. The first of four such awards came in 2001, just one year after Mike Gingrich began making the seasonal, cow’s milk cheese, whose cost bounces from $25 to $40, when available.
This much-lauded cheese made the cut this month, too, as one of 16 world champ finalists. “The best we’ve ever done,” said Mike, who retired in 2014 and watched judging with his successor, Andy Hatch. Uplands makes only one other cheese, Rush Creek Reserve.
An artisan cheesemaker with the opposite approach is Carr Valley Cheeses, LaValle, whose dozens of cheeses are exercises in calculated creativity. Smoked Billy Blue, Cave Aged Mellage and Gran Canaria are among the many gold winners.
Sid Cook, referred by others as the rock star of cheesemakers, has won more top national and international awards than any other cheesemaker on the continent. He’s the fourth generation of his family to make cheese at Carr Valley.
Count Sid among the 60-plus people in Wisconsin who are master cheesemakers, after completing European-style apprenticeships and learning how to make a specific kind of cheese that is consistent in flavor and quality.
At least one dozen of the master cheesemakers work in Green County, a land with more dairy animals (62,000) than people (37,000), settled in the mid 1800s by Swiss immigrant farmers. The county’s dozen creameries produce about 50 of the state’s 600 kinds of cheese, and that includes Emmi Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix.
A few days before the world championships, Joe Widmer of Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, was staffing a vendor table with son Joey at the Midwest Foodservice Expo in Milwaukee. “I just randomly take cheese from our shelves for the contest,” Joe explained. “I think that’s more authentic,” but he’s fine with colleagues who develop a cheese or baby a wheel just for competition.
At Widmer’s, the newest product – a brick cheese spread – is about 10 years old, and cheesemaking still happens in the place and vats where it began four generations ago. “We like to stick to tradition,” Joe said. “That works for us, and we want to stay the size we are, so it doesn’t ruin the cheese” quality.
He’s a master cheesemaker with a slew of awards from his career, too, but no top honors this time.
In the world of cheese, chance and craftsmanship each have their role, but one thing is certain: Cheese quality in the Badger State is not a matter of luck.
Wisconsin cheesemakers for the fifth consecutive time won more than 30 percent of all World Championship Cheese Contest awards. For 2016, that meant winning 42 of the 110 categories, plus 37 second places, 47 thirds – and sweeping 20 categories by taking all of the awards.
These Wisconsin cheesemakers won more than one first place in the 110 categories of the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest.
Agropur – Terry Lensmire (Weyauwega), feta and flavored feta; Roger Krohn (Luxemburg), part-skim mozzarella; and Dan Stearns (Weyauwega), cheddar (aged two or more years).
Arthur Schuman Inc. – Lake Country Dairy (Turtle Lake), parmesan and aged asiago; and Imperia Foods (Montfort), gorgonzola.
BelGioioso Cheese, Green Bay – Jennifer Garvey, fresh mozzarella; Tomas Robles, ricotta; and Paul Gretzinger, prepared cheese foods.
Carr Valley Cheese Co., LaValle – flavored semi-soft goat’s milk cheese; soft to semi-hard mixed milk cheese; and cold pack cheese spread.
Masters Gallery Foods, Plymouth – shredded cheese blends and with Land O’Lakes (Kiel), cheddar (aged one to two years).
Montchevre-Betin, Belmont – Alicia Rogers, flavored soft goat’s milk cheese; and Dennis Cardy, flavored soft goat’s milk cheese with sweet condiments.
Other first-place winners include Green County cheesemakers Emmi Roth USA, smear ripened hard cheeses; Mike Nelson, Chalet Cheese Co-op, baby Swiss; Dave Buholzer, Klondike Cheese Co., flavored havarti; WW Dairy, fresh Hispanic cheeses; Tom Dahmen, Chula Vista Cheese, Hispanic melting cheeses; and Decatur Dairy, Brodhead, smoked soft to semi-hard cheeses.
The other category winners in Wisconsin are Chris Roelli, Roelli Cheese Co., Shullsburg, bandaged cheddar (mild to medium); Artisan Cheese Exchange and Henning Cheese, Kiel, bandaged cheddar (sharp to aged); Arena Cheese, Arena, colby; Shawn Sadler, AMPI, Jim Falls, marbled curd cheese; Foremost Farms USA, Chilton, mild provolone; Ed Giamarino, Arla Foods, Kaukauna, havarti; Cesar Luis, Cesar’s Cheese, Random Lake, string cheese; Tim Entringer, Baker Cheese Factory, St. Cloud, flavored string cheese; Chad Duhai, Zimmerman Cheese, South Wayne, brick;
Also: Marieke Gouda, Thorp, flavored gouda; Andy Hatch, Uplands Cheese, Dodgeville, hard cheeses; Pine River Pre-Pack, Newton, cold pack cheese; Associated Milk Producers, Portage, pasteurized process cheese; Tony Gessler, Lactalis American Group, Merrill, pasteurized process cheese spread; Brenda Jensen, Hidden Springs Creamery, Westby, flavored soft to semi-hard sheep’s milk cheese; Pine River Dairy, Manitowoc, flavored butter; Ron Paris, Sugar River Dairy, Albany, cow’s milk yogurt; and Schreiber Foods, Richland Center, flavored cow’s milk.