Thursday, March 08, 2012

Behind the Curtain at the World Championship Cheese Contest

The World Championship Cheese Contest came and went in Madison this week. With it, hundreds of industry volunteers, cheesemakers and international judges unloaded, unboxed, unwrapped, inspected, labeled, opened, sniffed, tasted, spat out, rewrapped, reboxed, and reloaded 2,504 cheeses one by one, wheel by wheel, wedge by wedge, all in a quest to find the best.

Mission accomplished. While the Dutch and Swiss again took top honors (the World Champion was Vermeer, a lowfat Dutch Gouda made by FrieslandCampina - yes, that's right, the frickin' Dutch beat us with a lowfat Gouda), Wisconsin cheesemakers did well overall, earning gold medals in 30 of the 82 classes.

Held over the course of three days at the Monona Terrace, the World Championship Cheese Contest is one of the best cheese events held in Wisconsin. That's because it's expertly executed by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which has been running the contest since 1957.

Once held in obscurity in a butter cooler in Green Bay, the contest now takes center stage at a sprawling convention center in the state capital. Today, the WCMA, led by executive director John Umhoefer, calls on more than 200 volunteers to help run the three-day contest. Many - perhaps even most of the volunteers - are Wisconsin cheesemakers who happily carve three days out of their own cheesemaking schedule to schlep around cheese made by others from around the world.

From Monday morning through Wednesday mid-day, two distinct bodies of cheese people fill the voluminous Exhibition Hall at Monona Terrace. One group wears white caps and white jackets, and stands in front of the red velvet curtains. These are the judges. From Argentina to Australia, 20 international cheese experts wind their way to Madison to spend three days inspecting, sniffing, tasting and spitting out everything from Gruyere to Gorgonzola (they spit out each cheese so as to not have hundreds of samples mulling around in their tummies - I'm not sure all the Pepto Bismol in the world could cure that kind of stomach ache).

The second group wears blue hats and white coats, and mostly works behind the red velvet curtains. This is the "B Team", as they are affectionately called, and these are the folks - all Wisconsin cheesemakers and industry volunteers - who unbox and unpack each and every piece of cheese for the judges to inspect, and then repack and rebox to put back on pallets to be zipped back to the cooler by another set of volunteers who have moving pallets down to a science.

While both of these teams are busy working, a separate team in a separate room, mostly filled with computers, printers and cans of caffeine, tally the judges' scores. This team - led by the amazing Jane Cisler at WCMA - is the invisible hub of the contest, always working, often running, to get scores entered as soon as possible and up and live on the contest website. Without Jane and her team of volunteers, the contest simply would not happen. They are truly the wizards behind the curtain.

By Wednesday afternoon, judges have whittled down the 2,504 cheeses to just 82. These are the Gold Medal cheeses - the top cheeses in each of the classes. This year, the contest mixed things up a bit, and had the judges pare the top 82 down to a "Sweet 16", which were then judged in front of a sold-out live audience at an evening gala in the Monona Terrace ballroom. More than 400 super foodies showed up to mingle with cheese industry folk and taste 50 cheeses from around the world, all the while watching the final round of gold-medal judging.

At about 8:20 p.m., the crowd was rewarded for its patience with the naming of the Second Runner-Up (an Appenzeller from Switzerland), the First Runner-Up (a washed-rind Winzer Kase from Switzerland) and finally, the World Champion - the aforementioned lowfat Gouda.

As hundreds cheered for the Dutch judge as he hefted his native country's wheel of cheese above his shoulders (the actual cheesemaker won't accept his medal until an April banquet in Milwaukee), the wizards both in front of and behind the curtains - the volunteers, the B Teamers, and the rest of the judging crew - all took a moment to stand and smile, satisfied with another year of finding the big cheese. Well done, crew. See you in 2014.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

Thank you so much for compliments. We really enjoyed ourselves and the effort is coordinated, as you know, by Jane. Nice to know her efforts are noticed beyond the "curtain."