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For the first time since 1988 the top prize at the World Cheese Championships went to a U.S.-made cheese — and this one was made in Wisconsin.

Last week in the final round of judging at the prestigious contest sponsored by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, the grand champion was a smear-ripened hard cheese that was made in Monroe by Emmi Roth USA.

A crowd of 500 spectators, fueled by drinks and some of the best cheeses in the world, went wild as the name of the winner — Emmi Roth's Grand Cru Surchoix — was announced at the Monona Terrace Convention Center.

The grand champion cheese was considered the best in a record-breaking contest, which had 2,955 entries and was whittled down to a 'Sweet 16' group of finalists by Wednesday evening (March 9.) It took three days for judges from all over the world to select the top entries. Two of those finalists were cheeses made in Wisconsin — Emmi Roth's entry and one from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville.

Cheese entries came from 23 countries, 31 states and Puerto Rico.

John Umhoefer, executive director of the WCMA, said that since it's been nearly 30 years since the contest was won by an America cheese entry, 'this was considered an upset.'

The cheeses that were selected as finalists were 'perfect in their class,' he said. Of the nearly 3,000 cheeses entered in the contest, about 1,000 came from outside the United States.

The 2,000 or so U.S. entries came from California, New York, Wisconsin and other areas where the dairy industry flourishes. 'The entries follow along from milk production regions around the country,' he said.

Stunned

Tim Omer, president and managing director of the Fitchburg-based Emmi Roth USA was stunned as he was asked to take the podium and say a few words about his company's winning entry. Emmi Roth USA, with cheese plants in Monroe, Platteville and Shullsburg, is set on becoming 'the finest cheese company in the world,' he said.

Asked to describe the winning cheese, Omer called it an Alpine-style, washed-rind cheese similar to many that are popular in Europe. The company's winning Grand Cru Surchoix was aged nine months before being bundled off to the cheese contest.

Omer praised his group of 'amazing, passionate cheesemakers' who picked one wheel of cheese to enter. 'They said 'this is the right time, the right month, the right wheel' and they sent in only one,' he added.

Russell Smith, the chief judge from Australia, was especially smitten with the eventual grand champion. 'It has really big flavors but they're balanced,' he told reporters after the winner was announced. 'The texture is just perfect and it has gorgeous flavors. A lot of judges from Europe put it up there at the top. It couldn't be any better.'

Game changer

Omer noted that this particular kind of cheese fits into a small market segment in the United States but felt that the judges were being really 'open and honest.' Their selection of his company's product means that 'U.S. artisanal cheeses have come so far.'

'This is really a game-changer for us,' added. 'We want to be the best in the world. This will open doors.'

The company, which is Swiss-owned, has been evolving since the 1990s, he said. 'We can't sit down and relax. We're trying to change people's lives with what we do.'

The other Wisconsin entry that made it to the round of 16 was an Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Dodgeville. It is one of only two cheeses made at the farmstead operation, explained Andy Hatch, one of the partners in the business. It had won top honors in the Open Hard Cheese category, which had 65 entries.

Hatch and his partner Scoot Mericka, who takes care of milking the cows, purchased the dairy and cheese business in 2014 from mentor Mike Gingerich, who had converted the dairy to rotational grazing and seasonal cheese production many years before. The farmstead only makes cheese from its own cows' milk and only during the months when they are on pasture.

Upholding tradition

'It's an Alpine style cheese that has been made for 1,000 years. But we only make about 100,000 pounds of cheese a year and we do it the same way they've done it traditionally and only using milk from our own cows,' Hatch said.

The organizers of the contest 'do a wonderful job,' he said, of putting the event on. Besides being a place to test his cheesemaking abilities against the best in the world, it's also a place to gather with other 'cheese nerds' and 'supportive peers,' Hatch said.

Though his Pleasant Ridge Reserve didn't place in the top three, he was thrilled to be part of the final round and said he felt his cheese was 'an expression of the farm and of the people who work there.'

He studied dairy science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and eventually apprenticed with Gingerich in 2007, which led eventually to his purchasing the dairy business.

Second place in the contest was won by Johannes Schefer with a smear-ripened semi-soft cheese from Switzerland and third place was an aged Gouda from Friesland Campina Export in the Netherlands.

Sweet 16 contenders

Besides the Emmi Roth and Uplands entries, others from the United States that made the Sweet 16 round included Cellars at Jasper Hill from Vermont with its Winnimere, a smear-ripened soft cheese and California's Central Coast Creamery's Ewenique, a semi-soft sheep milk cheese.

The WCMA held its first cheese contest in 1891 and by the 1980s, it was attracting several hundred cheese entries. But Umhoefer said there has been an explosion in cheese varieties and artisan cheese in recent years and the contest has grown accordingly. Each year seems to set a new record for entries.

The last time a Wisconsin (or U.S.) entry topped the contest was in 1988 when that honor was nabbed by a string cheese made by Dale Olson at the Burnett Dairy Cooperative in Grantsburg.

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