After thousands of entries in more than 132 categories were winnowed down to 20 finalists and then one winner, describing the world’s best cheese came down to something pretty basic.
“This is quite a good cheese,” said Stefan Truttmann, who happily accepted the award when a Gruyere from Switzerland was named the 2020 World Champion Cheese Thursday night at the World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace.
The cheese from Bern, Switzerland, topped the field at the biennial contest and made a two-time winner out of its maker, Michael Spycher of Mountain Dairy Fritzenhaus for Gourmino AG. Spycher’s Gruyere also won in 2008.
Truttmann and Christian Schmutz, who were contest judges, accepted the award on behalf of the Swiss cheese makers’ association and hoisted the 77-pound wheel in victory.
Another product from Switzerland, a hard cheese made from cow’s milk called Gallus Grand CRU and made by Hardegger Kase AG, was runner-up. Second runner-up honors went to a mature Gouda, aged four to 10 months, made by Royal FrieslandCampina-Export of the Netherlands.
While no Wisconsin cheese finished in the top three, state producers dominated the competition. Wisconsin won 45 gold medals out of the 132 categories and swept the top three places in 13 categories.
Three Wisconsin cheeses were finalists. A smoked gouda with cumin from Marieke Gouda of Thorp, a gorgonzola from Emmi Roth of Seymour and a cheddar from Maple Leaf Cheesemakers of Monroe all made the top 20.
It was familiar territory for all of them. In 2016, Emmi Roth took top honors at the event with its Grand Cru Surchoix Alpine-style cheese. This time, it was a gorgonzola — a veined, Italian blue cheese. It was an especially satisfying finish, said Emmi Roth, president, and managing director Tim Omer, because the company just acquired the Seymour plant a year ago.
“We said there was one thing we wanted there, and that was to make the best cheese in the country and the world,” Omer said. “Our plant manager Shelby Sheppard really took that to heart and is leading a revolution there.”
A place in the finals was also familiar for Marieke Penterman, owner and cheese maker at Marieke Gouda. At last year’s U.S. championships in Green Bay, her cheeses came in second and third overall, and one of her cheeses was crowned U.S. champion in 2013. Her top cheese this week was a smoked gouda with cumin. It’s a raw-milk cheese made from cows on her family’s farm in Thorp.
Even before Thursday night’s winners were announced, Penterman’s phone was ringing as people sought out the top-20 cheese. Fromagination on Capitol Square got the last three wheels, she said.
“It’s a raw-milk cheese. Everyone else is going to have to wait,” Penterman says, referring to U.S. regulations that require raw milk cheeses to age 60 days before they can be sold.
It’s been a good stretch for Maple Leaf, too. The company’s English Hollow Cheddar was a finalist two years ago at the World Championship and also at last year’s U.S. Championship. The amber-colored sharp cheddar is made in 28-pound wheels.
But despite Wisconsin’s big haul, it was the Swiss who reigned supreme. Truttmann said Spycher, the cheese maker, was a celebrity in the cheese world back home because of his awards. And while Truttmann knew why Spycher won — it was a technically superior cheese — he wasn’t sure how he does it.
“It could be the grass, it could be the cows,” Truttmann said. “Obviously he’s got a certain trick that makes his the best.”
The business news you need
With a weekly newsletter looking back at local history.