While folks tasted cheese for a good cause on the third floor of the Lambeau Field Atrium, inside a main room were some serious decisions being made in naming a "Best in Show."
The U.S. Championship Cheese Contest crowned a 2013 winner Wednesday night. Among the 16 gold medal winners from several categories, Marieke Penterman from Holland's Family Cheese in Thorp, Wisconsin took home top honors with her 6-9 month Aged Gouda.
First runner-up was Spring Brook Farm/Farm for City Kids Foundation in Reading, Vermont, with their Tarentaise.
Second runner-up was Team Cracker Barrel Natural Cheese, Agropur Weyauwega for Kraft Foods in Glenview, Illinois, with their Medium Cheddar.
Before the heavy hardware was handed out, I spoke with Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association Executive Director John Umhoefer about several aspects of this year's competition.
Buzz about cheeses this year?
“Smoked cheeses are really coming on. Bleu cheeses with flavor added, like whiskey, soaked in wine, whiskey. Surge in Juustoleipa, the cheese that you warm up and it’s gooey and delicious. There are some interesting specialties.”
Judges deciding between winning cheeses
“When you get to the final round, all these have scored something like a 99. We talked to the judges and we’re not looking for flaws anymore, now we’re really picking a ‘Best in Show’, what do you think is the most delicious cheese out here. It’s a different mindset, they’re not looking for what’s wrong anymore, they’re looking for what’s right.”
How does a judge in a final round decide between different classes of cheese?
“The only way a judge can manage a variety of cheeses is we ask them to think ‘is this the best Brie I’ve ever had’. Not to ask, is it better than that cheese I just ate two minutes ago, but to say ‘wow, this is the best Cheddar I’ve ever eaten.’ So they compare it to a Cheddar when they’re judging Cheddar, not to everything else.”
Do you notice people’s palates changing?
“Absolutely America’s palate is getting more adventurous, looking for more robust flavor. We’re seeing the Pepper Jack’s get hotter every year, every cheese is experimenting with pineapple flavor, mango or maple. There’s just a myriad of flavors going into cheese. The blue’s are getting more adventurous and robust.”
In the Final 16, there’s a raw milk cheese. Thoughts?
“We look at raw milk in all its phases, including the aging process, where the good culture bacteria that you put in out-compete any potential bad culture bacteria, because you’re holding it for weeks and weeks. In addition to that, you’ve got the various salt level, low moisture level, so there’s a lot of variables in cheese that keep it safe, as opposed to we feel differently about beverage raw milk coming right out of the cow. We’re not terribly in favor of people drinking raw milk off the farm.”
Do you have a favorite cheese?
“I do have a lot of favorite cheeses. I’m partial to blue’s, gruyere’s, I find in my own palate, I’m looking for more robust cheeses.”
When the competition ends, what’s the economic reaction?
“There’s definitely a reaction, if you were to speak to Katie Hendricks two years ago, or Mike Gingrich who was our champion from 2003, they both said it changed their business. They were small farmstead operations where the phone never stopped ringing after they won. They couldn’t keep up with orders. It really changes their business, especially on the small side where they’re just getting started and they’re making just a small amount of cheese. It can change their whole career.”