An Emmentaler from Switzerland was named World Champion, but Wisconsin continued its dominance at the 30th biennial World Championship Cheese Contest.
State cheesemakers took first-place honors in 34 of the 90 categories, swept the top three spots in 10 categories and placed four cheeses in the “sweet 16” finals for Best of Show.
However, European cheesemakers were responsible for the top three overall cheeses selected by a panel of 50 international judges before a record gala crowd of nearly 500 people at Monona Terrace.
Gerard Sinnesberger of Gams, Switzerland, was World Champion for his Emmentaler, a rinded Swiss-style cheese. First runner-up went to Alois Pichler and Team Obersteirische Molkerei of Knittelfeld, Austria, for its hard cheese, while a Gruyere from Fromagerie Molesan SA in Orsonnens, Switzerland, was named second runner-up.
It marks the fourth time out of the last five world competitions sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association that a cheese from Switzerland was named best of show. It also continues a drought by U.S. cheesemakers, who haven’t had a World Champion cheese since 1988.
“It’s a big surprise. It’s a big honor for us,” Ernst Oettli, a cheese judge from Switzerland, said of the World Champion Emmentaler.
“It’s produced from raw milk (and) is natural ripened, so this cheese can develop its own natural taste over months and years.”
Three women were among the four Wisconsin cheesemakers to make the finals. They were Brenda Jensen from Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby in the hard mixed milk cheeses; Marieke Penterman, with an aged Gouda from Holland’s Family Cheese in Thorp; and Katie Hedrich-Fuhrmann at LaClare Farms in Malone, with a hard goat cheese. Steve Bierhals of BelGioioso Cheese in Green Bay also qualified for the finals with a Parmesan.
But while the top three overall awards went to cheesemakers overseas, the contest that featured 2,619 cheese and butter entries from 22 countries was clearly a Wisconsin affair.
State cheesemakers had at least one in the top three positions in 46 categories, including Grassland Dairy of Greenwood, which took first in the salted butter category.
Holland’s Family Cheese continued its impressive run. After winning best of show with its smoked Gouda at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay last year, the company took the first four spots in the aged Gouda category this year and placed second and third with its smoked Gouda.
In the mild cheddar division, Agropur in Weyauwega took first, second and fourth place, while Kerry Henning of Henning Cheese in Kiel had the top bandaged cheddar in the mild to medium class.
Wisconsin cheesemakers also dominated the Parmesan division, taking seven of the top eight spots including a first-place finish by BelGioioso’s Bierhals.
Bob Aschenbrock, chief judge of the competition, said the success by Wisconsin cheesemakers goes back to the quality of the milk produced by the state’s farmers and the work of the state agriculture officials and the Center for Dairy Research at UW-Madison.
“We’ve got the right climate here in Wisconsin, the right feed, and it produces a well-balanced cheese,” said Aschenbrock, a longtime cheesemaker.
“They’ve improved the milk supply immensely in the last 15 to 20 years. When I was making cheese back in the 1960s and 1970s, it was nothing like it is today. Everybody else follows our lead, basically,” he said.
Other top honors went to Wisconsin Muenster makers, who took the top nine spots, including Randy Pitman of Mill Creek Cheese in Arena, who took first place.
State cheesemakers also swept the hard Hispanic cheeses category, while Pine River Pre-Pack in Newton took the top three spots in the cold pack cheese category. In the cold pack cheese spread category, state cheesemakers took 10 of the top 11 places, including a first-place finish by Greg May of Bel Brands USA in Little Chute.
In the 2012 contest, a low-fat Gouda from the Netherlands won best of show, but Wisconsin cheesemakers won 30 of the contest’s 82 categories, had the top three finishers in nine of the categories and had four in the Sweet 16 finals.
Hedrich-Fuhrmann, 28, who along with her family opened a $4 million 35,000-square-foot dairy, cheese plant and restaurant last year and milks 450 goats north of Fond du Lac, said Wisconsin cheesemakers have begun to focus on quality, not necessarily quantity.
“We’ve really gone back to our roots,” said Hedrich-Fuhrmann, who had the best of show at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in 2011. “We’re really paying attention to what makes really good, quality products. We have an incredible infrastructure in Wisconsin.”