One could argue they don’t call the place “Titletown” just because of its successful football team. Super Bowl trophies named after a legendary coach are not the only coveted awards hoisted high in a certain city in America’s Dairyland.
Cheesemaking awards are also flaunted unabashedly in Green Bay, Wis.
The community that hosts Packers fans sporting foam cheese headgear at iconic Lambeau Field also hosts the U. S. Championship Cheese Contest (held in odd numbered years), sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA). At the 2017 event last March, Wisconsin cheesemakers swept the top awards and 29 cheese competition classes (winning all three prizes in these classes) as stelthfully as quarterback Aaron Rodgers launches laserlike passes.
With the title of Grand Champion Cheese going to Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano, produced by Sartori, based in Plymouth, Wis., the Badger State has won top honors at the country’s three most recent major cheese competitions over the past year.
Since Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Chris Roelli’s Little Mountain from Roelli Cheese, Schullsburg, Wis., earned Best of Show at the American Cheese Society Competition in July 2016 and Grand Cru Surchoix from Emmi Roth USA, Monroe, Wis., won the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest (held in even numbered years by WCMA), Wisconsin achieved an unprecedented grand slam at the nation’s most recent top three cheese championships, marking the first sweep of this kind.
Created by Master Cheesemaker Mike Matucheski, Sartori’s Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano is an original Italian-style cheese hand-rubbed with cracked black peppercorns.
Wisconsin also claimed the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest’s First Runner Up prize for aged cheddar from Master Cheesemaker Terry Lensmire of Agropur, Weyauwega, Wis., and Second Runner Up for Belegen from Marieke Gouda, Thorp, Wis.
With a record-breaking 2,303 entries from 33 states in 2017, the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest is the largest technical cheese, butter, and yogurt competition in the country. Wisconsin captured 60 percent of all awards, winning 184 total. In addition to the top three cheese titles, Wisconsin snagged 55 Best of Class (of 90 cheese classes), 59 second place awards, and 52 third place awards—169 total, all for cheese.
Sixteen of the 20 Best of Class cheeses that made the cut for Grand Champion consideration were produced by Wisconsin cheesemakers, and 53 Wisconsin cheese and dairy companies won one or more awards.
Some 38 awards at this contest were won by 12 Master Cheesemakers.
“When it comes to Wisconsin cheese, it’s all about quality,” boasts Suzanne Fanning, vice president, national product communications, of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB). “This recent winning streak is a testament to the innovation and commitment to excellence of the Wisconsin dairy industry. And, it’s not just the cheesemakers. It starts with the Wisconsin dairy farmers that maintain high standards for the milk that those goes into making the best cheese in the country.”
If Wisconsin was a country, it would rank fourth in the world in cheese production, after the U.S., Germany, and France. Ranking first in the U.S. for more than a century, Wisconsin produced 26.6 percent of the nation’s cheese in 2016, a whopping new record high 3,239,035,000 pounds at its 144 plants, according to WMMB.
The trademarked Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program was established in 1994 as an advanced education program for experienced cheesemakers through joint sponsorship by the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), University of Wisconsin-Extension, and the WMMB.
Not a Program for Slackers
In order to be accepted into this rigorous program, one must currently be making cheese in a Wisconsin plant and hold a Wisconsin cheesemaker’s license for a minimum of 10 years, according to Marianne Smukowski, CDR’s dairy safety and quality coordinator, who oversees the Master Cheesemaker Program.
“Each Master candidate must participate in the program’s quality assurance component of plant and product inspection,” Smukowski says. “This program, the only one in the U.S., enhances the quality image of what is already the nation’s premier cheesemaking state and the unparalleled standards of Wisconsin cheesemaking.”
The purpose of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Program is three-fold: provide a formal sequence of courses that leads to the title of Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker; add value to cheese because it was made by a “Master Cheesemaker,” like those of European tradition; and equip Wisconsin cheesemakers with the knowledge and skills to be competitive in the marketplace both nationally and internationally.
“It takes two years and eight months from the time cheesemakers are accepted into the program until they graduate,” Smukowski points out. “One can complete the program for two different cheeses at a time. If a person wants Master Cheesemaker status for additional types of cheeses, they must pursue that individually, according to the same basic requirements of the program.”
The first class of Master Cheesemakers graduated in 1997, and about 70 graduates are active Master Cheesemakers today, Smukowski says. “More than half of those hold Master Cheesemaker status for more than one type of cheese,” she notes.