Competition Is Fierce at the U.S. Cheese Championships
With over 2,000 entries, bries and cheddars must duke it out.
Partners Mike Koch and Pablo Solanet bought a small farm in Maryland nearly 15 years ago, making small batch goat cheese in the first summer of their residency and entering it in a Washington D.C. competition on a whim.
They won a medal at the competition, and soon they were raising their own goats and continuing to win awards for their cheeses around the country and even the world as FireFly Farms.
This year for the first time they took their black and blue goat cheese and their spruce-strapped “merry goat round” to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“Being with the other cheeses that we adore and love, it’s affirmation for our cheese makers, for our team,” Andrea Cedro, FireFly Farms’ director of sales and marketing, told Travel + Leisure.
While Firefly did not medal their first time around at this year’s competition, Cedro says they’re just happy to be participating.
“It’s wonderful to just see us there, to have our cheese in the middle of the geographic United States,” she said.
The U.S. Championship Cheese Contest attracts thousands of cheese makers from across the country, with entries up 22 percent this year and totaling 2,303 entries in all, the Associated Press reported. It is held every other year in turn with the world championships.
String cheese entries in particular were up 113 percent, and pepper cheeses—including those made with the notorious “ghost pepper”—also saw a spike, according to Rebekah Sweeney, communications and policy manager for the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the organization that hosts the competition.
“Participation is through the roof for this contest,” she told T+L.
Around 50 expert judges, including dairy scientists and other cheese professionals, evaluate a cheese based on its smell, look, feel, and of course taste, giving each cheese a rank out of 100. Cheeses are judged against others in their category (mozzarella with mozzarella, cheddar with cheddar, etc.), and then the best of the best go on to a final round.
The exact characteristics of a best-in-show product are somewhat ineffable, having to do both with quality and uniqueness.
“An award-winning cheese is near perfection. It is perfect for its class,” Sweeney said, adding, “Typically the cheeses that make it to that round are what we might consider the fancier cheeses, the foodie cheeses.”
The judges have been sniffing and tasting cheeses Tuesday and Wednesday, with the winners set to be announced Thursday. And the medal-winners of the competition take home more than just bragging rights.
Emmi Roth USA, winner of the World Championship Cheese Contest in 2016, told the AP that sales of their award-winning Grand Cru Surchoix have gone up 20 percent since their win.
Despite the strong sense of competition among artisans to take home the top prize, Sweeney insists that the atmosphere in Green Bay always remains convivial.
“It’s competitive...but at the same time this industry is an extremely supportive one. It’s like a big family. This week is essentially a family reunion,” she said.