They’ll be the judge of that!
Behind the scenes at the 2015 Championship Cheese Contest
Judging cheese is described as a sensual experience involving taste, touch and smell. But the stone-faced judges at the 2015 United States Championship Cheese Contest in Milwaukee gave no indication of their ultimate decision. There are no yummy noises from the arbitrators, no indication of which of the 1,888 entries from 28 states will capture a medal in a record 90 classes.
Held in mid-March, the biannual event was hosted this year by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) in downtown Milwaukee’s Wisconsin Center. Thirty-two expressionless judges using IPads to score worked in teams of two at 18 tables. Each tasted one cheese, butter or yogurt at a time. The top three entries in each class eventually earned gold, silver and bronze medals. Judges worked with IPads to quickly grade the cheese and post the results.
Leading the judging team were Chief Judge Robert Aschebrock from Stratford, emeritus chief judge Bill Schlinsog of Middleton and assistant chief judges Stan Dietsche with Oshkosh Cheese Sales & Storage, Agropur’s Tim Czmowski in Appleton, Sandy Toney from Masters Gallery Foods in Plymouth and consultant Jim Mueller, a dairy consultant from Green Bay.
More than 150 dairy industry volunteers led by Brian Eggebrecht of Welcome Dairy in Colby provided support as judges evaluated more than 30,000 pounds of cheese, butter and yogurt entries.
“These experts have rare credentials and the extraordinary ability to discern the subtle flavor, body and texture differences in a variety of cheeses, butter and yogurt,” says Jim Umhoefer, WCMA executive director.
It takes more than an expert palate, however, Umhoefer points out. “Judges must be fully familiar with dozens of cheese varieties and conversant in the special language of product quality judging. They must understand what perfect aged Gouda cheese should taste like,” he adds. The judges hunt for any flaws in a contest entry, deducting tenths of a point from a perfect starting score of 100 points. Winning cheese with few defects often score in the 98 to 99 point range in competitions, according to Umhoefer.
At the Milwaukee cheese competition, Bill Schlinsog, jaunty in his red cap, is still going strong on the competition circuit at age 87. He’s been judging for about four decades. As such, Schlinsog is no stranger to cheese. His dad Harry had a cheese factory in Loyal, where his lifetime love affair with fromage was launched.
As longtime head cheese judge at the Wisconsin State Fair, Schlinsog travels the state and has judged in Germany, Italy and Switzerland.
For judge Sandy Toney, vice president of corporate quality and product development at Masters Gallery Foods, a great judge is an individual who has a passion for cheese and the desire to give each product equal opportunity to be the champion. “The best part is having the pleasure of tasting some of the best cheese in the world, and meeting some of the most knowledgeable individuals in the industry. The friendships that develop between the judges are incredible” she says.
Growing up on a dairy farm and graduating from the food science program at Fond du Lac’s Moraine Park Technical College, Toney knows her cheese. Quality milk is the key, she says, lending to a robust smell, clean flavor, characteristics notes, a firm body, creamy texture and no residual after-flavors.
“And there’s the need to have more,” she laughs. “I will never stop eating cheese. It is in my daily diet and tasting is in a normal day’s work.
Steve Ehlers, of Larry’s Market, an iconic cheese shop in the Milwaukee suburb of Brown Deer, has been involved with cheese since the 1970s. He’s been judging cheese for the past decade, and volunteered at this year’s U.S. competition. “Having experience and a good palette” are the keys to being a successful judge, he says.
“You observe the aroma, texture, appearance and smell, using all the senses in judging a cheese,” he indicates. Ehlers notes that these factors are common to all cheese varieties. “If you’ve been around long enough, you know how each conforms to the base qualities of a great cheese.”
It should be no surprise that Wisconsin cheesemakers dominated this year’s competition, winning two of the top three overall U.S. Championship awards.
Who’s Got the Cheese?
Notable Wisconsinites share their favorite fromage
Madison, Secretary, Wisconsin Dept. Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection
“My favorite Wisconsin cheese depends on the occasion; Brie as an appetizer, Provolone on a sub, American on a cheeseburger, Blue on a salad or Swiss on a grilled cheese at the World Dairy Expo.”
Elk Mound, president, Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation
“I enjoy many kinds of cheese but my favorite would be mozzarella. I like it on salads, on pizza and just for snacking.”
Plymouth, Vice President-Corporate Quality & Product Development, Masters Gallery Food
“I will never stop eating cheese. It is in my daily diet and tasting is in a normal days work. My favorite cheese would be a 2-4 year old cheddar accompanied by an awesome bottle of red wine.”
Daniel J. Freas
Eagle, Director, Old World Wisconsin
“My favorite is a Wisconsin cheddar aged seven years or longer served with crackers and a New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, the origin of which was inspired by a visit to Old World Wisconsin!”
publisher/editor, Edible Milwaukee magazine
“It’s nearly impossible to choose one cheese I like best, so let me just mention one I’m looking forward to. This summer, I can’t wait to get my hands on Hook’s 20-year cheddar.”
Madison, president, Heirloom Marketing + Media publisher/editor, Edible Madison magazine
“One of my favorite cheeses is Marieke Gouda from Thorp because it is made with milk produced right on their farm, handcrafted and delicious.”
Fort Atkinson, managing editor, Hoard’s Dairyman
“Sharp Aged Cheddar followed closely by Blue Cheese. For those who really like cheese, both Sharp Aged Cheddar and Blue Cheese offer some zip for one’s pallet on the cheese tray and pair nicely with a number of wines and beers. Both are conversation starters whenever we host a party.”
Madison, food expert/cookbook author
“I can only tell you my current favorite Wisconsin cheese because there are so many superb ones that my ‘favorite’ changes. Tony and Julie Hook, of Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point, make an aged sheep’s milk gouda, called Duda Gouda, that is downright righteous. It has sweetness and tang, a slight crumbliness, and just the right touch of edgy funk. Very imaginative, yet well-balanced. When I serve it ‘anonymously’ on a cheese platter, people also say, ‘What IS this? It’s fantastic!’”
Rep. Lee Nerison
Westby, chair, Wisconsin Legislature’s agriculture committee
“The former dairy farmer in me would say that every type of cheese is the best! But if I have to make a pick, it’s fresh mozzarella. There is nothing better than fresh mozzarella on a cheeseburger – that’s pretty much the only thing I order when I get lunch on session days at the Capitol.”
2015 U.S. Champion
Guggisberg Swiss Cheese
Millersburg, OH • Champion Round Score: 98.496
2015 First Runner Up
John (Randy) Pitman
Mill Creek Cheese • Arena, WI
Brick Cheese • Champion Round Score: 98.389
2015 Second Runner Up
Kiel Production Team
Land 0’ Lakes, Inc. • Kiel, WI
Medium Cheddar • Champion Round Score: 98.337
Wisconsin Cheese Facts!
- Wisconsin is the nation’s top producer of cheddar, provolone, parmesan, Romano,
- Muenster, feta, cold pack and limburger cheeses
- Over the last 20 years, per capita cheese consumption has increased by 30 percent – from 26.0 pounds in 1993 to 33.7 pounds in 2013
- Wisconsin cheese is the shining star in the state’s dairy industry’s economic engine which, in total, serves up $43.4 billion a year for our state.
- About 90% of Wisconsin dairy farmers’ milk is transformed into world-class, award-winning Wisconsin cheese
- Cheese dates back to at least 6000 BC, according to archeologists, who have found evidence that early Mesopotamians enjoyed both cow and goat milk cheeses.
- There are more than 2,000 varieties of cheese available worldwide. Mozzarella is the global favorite.
- If Wisconsin’s cheese production was counted alone, it would be the fourth largest cheesemaker in the world following the U.S., Germany and France and just ahead of Italy.
- Wisconsin produces more than 600 varieties, types and styles of cheese.
- Consumed in moderation, cheese is an excellent source of protein, calcium, and phosphorus.
- Approximately 10 pounds of milk is required to make one pound of cheese.
- Some varieties of cheese, like mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss and American, help prevent tooth decay by promoting the flow of saliva, which helps to eliminate sugar and acids from the mouth.
- Cheese also helps protect tooth enamel and has an antibacterial effect.