Does it get any cheesier than Wisconsin? Yep—when you fill one room with 3,400 cheeses and curd experts from across the globe. I spent a day at the 2018 World Championship Cheese Contest, held in Madison, Wisconsin this week from March 6-8. The event was held in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building, overlooking the lake where Otis Redding’s plane crashed. Where better to hold a contest of cultures?
Watching judges choose a cheese a little like watching Sophie’s Choice, if Sophie had about 3,400 children. How do you begin to choose? They’re all so special! I’m sure that one is best—but only by extremely close margins.
Here are 9 things I learned at the World Championship Cheese Contest.
Cheese judges are basically curd vampires
To grade a cheese, judges pull a sample from the block or wheel, boring a hole using a tool called a cheese trier. The judges then pull out a sample of that cheese, which is smelled and checked for texture, firmness, and color, and then tasted.
Walking through the massive blocks and wheels of sampled cheese, post-trier, it looked as though a giant cheese vampire had just torn through the room.
Cheese will bring us together
The contest includes judges from 26 nations. Spaniards and Pennsylvanians came together over blocks of butter and smoked goudas. A French judge and American visitor chatted over the latter’s study abroad destinations. I can now confidently say I’ve watched a very tall Dutchman pinch off a bite of Farmstead Fiesta Whips, which are basically cheese silly strings.
Cheese contests are part lab testing and part state fair
All judges and assistants dress in white lab coats, while the highest-level judges wear red hats. These guys oversee the contest, which includes 121 classes of dairy products. One such judge I spoke with has been working the contest for decades and said he even grew up in a cheese factory. I guess dreams do come true.
The audience was a real who’s who of Wisconsinites
The contest is free to the public for two days. I was curious to see who would pop in to watch the judging and taste the free samples. The answer is: everyone. I saw any number of people, from a man who closely resembled a spiffy Stanley Tucci to a woman with the most bedazzled pair of jeans I’ve ever seen. Some attendees of a conference being held upstairs popped in. I was surprised there weren’t more college students from the nearby University of Wisconsin. As someone who spent most of her undergrad searching for free food, this seemed like an ideal opportunity. Kids these days…
Silvain Diedrichs of Savencia Cheese USA in New Holland, Pennsylvania holds a wheel of Esquirrou, the 2018 World Champion Cheese. Photo Credit: Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association
The judges never actually swallow the cheese.
Just like at a wine tasting, judges spit out the samples to avoid getting drunk on cheese. They were served simple bites in between taste testings, like apple slices and crackers. Classics never go out of style.
If there is a strongest man competition in Wisconsin, I’m pretty sure it involves lifting wheels of cheese
Let me detail my favorite moment of the competition: A man and woman were exploring the wheels, and one of the largest—a parmesan from BelGioioso—caught their eye. The man made an effort to lift it, only getting it about an inch or so off the table, and exclaimed that it had to be at least 70 pounds. A judge walked by saying, “Nope, it’s 50 pounds.” For the sake of the man’s pride, I pretended I heard nothing.
Winners “say cheese” when getting photographed after the big announcement!
You better believe it. The winning cheese was a hard sheep’s milk cheese called Esquirrou made by Michel Touyarou at Mauleon Fromagerie in France, and imported by Savencia Cheese USA of New Holland, Pennsylvania. The cheese is aged no less than 90 days and has sweet, nutty notes and a toasted wheat aroma—or at least so I’ve read. This cheese was unfortunately not up for free samples.
A cheese judge in their element is one of the loveliest and most zen moments you’ll ever witness
I was watching a Wisconsin judge admire a wheel of cheese with a washed rind. Turning it and inspecting it in his hands, he commented quietly to his Croatian counterpart, “Beautiful presentation.”
Check out this video by Wisconsin State Journal to go behind the scenes!
Featured Photo Credit Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association
Other photos courtesy of Sarah Steimer