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Three Wisconsin cheesemakers take top 20 honors at World Championship Cheese Contest

Carol Spaeth-Bauer
Wisconsin State Farmer

MADISON - Every cheesemaker dreams of having a world champion cheese. Three Wisconsin cheeses were selected among the top 20 cheeses at the World Championship Cheese Contest on March 5, 2020. While cheeses from Switzerland and the Netherlands were named the champion and runners up, that didn't dim the Wisconsin cheese makers enthusiasm. 

"I already got my award. We are in the top 20," said Marieke Penterman from Marieke Gouda, in Thorp. Penterman's smoked Gouda made it to the elite list selected from a record breaking 3,667 entries. 

Equally excited were Tim Omer, managing director at Emmi Roth in Seymour, and Shirley Knox, from Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Inc. in Monroe. Roth® Gorgonzola Cheese and Maple Leaf's English Hollow Cheddar also sat among the top 20 cheeses at the biennial world cheese event. 

Catherine Lindsay, from Oshkosh, right, pulls a plug from a block of cheese at the March 5 reception at the World Championship Cheese Contest as cheese judge Kirk Baldwin, from South Dakota, left, watches.

U.S. cheesemakers dominated the competition, earning gold medals in 90 of the 132 contest classes, according to the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which hosts the event. Among American states, Wisconsin dominated the competition with 45 gold medals. 

Marieke Gouda, Smoked Gouda

Penterman did not expect to be in the top 20 with a smoked Gouda.

"I was hoping for a plain Gouda, but to come out with our smoked," Penterman said. "Our smoked is naturally smoked so I think that adds on to the flavor."

Cheese at Marieke Gouda is made from raw milk from the farmstead, "so that means the cows are right there where we make the cheese so when the cows get milked that milk goes straight through the pipeline to our cheese vat," Penterman explained. 

Her small business in Thorp carries about 35 different flavors from young to very aged cheeses, including Gouda, "but that's very limited in supply."

Penterman entered 29 wheels of cheese for the 2020 World Championship contest by going into their aging room and selecting wheels from the wooden planks. Appearance is important - the cheese has to be very uniform. But she doesn't know what's on the inside until the judges start pulling plugs from the wheels of cheese. 

Marieke Penterman, from Marieke Gouda in Thorp, one of three Wisconsin companies among the top 20 at the World Championship Cheese Contest, waits for the announcement of the World Champion Cheese on March 5, 2020, in Madison.

She watched as judges pulled plugs from one of her entries.

"You just hope that those eye formations are just where they should be and I saw a couple that weren't and a couple that were just perfect," said Penterman. 

Next judges check flavor, smell, they bend the plug and sample it. "All the conditions have to be just perfect," Penterman said. 

People ask Penterman how many wheels of cheese she enters into the contest biennially – usually between 25-30 – but they don't seem to understand the significance of investing funds in the World Championship Cheese Contest.

"I would rather spend money on this competition because the outcome, the return on my investment is outweighing everything," said Penterman. 

Within four to five months of starting her cheesemaking business in 2006, which originated out of a desire to make Gouda like she had back home in the Netherlands, Penterman had her first golden award. 

"That really made the wheels start rolling in our facility," Penterman said. 

They expanded to a bigger cheese vat within a year and a half and have been winning awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest ever since. 

"We're very fortunate, very grateful for this competition because I don't know where we would be without it," said Penterman. "How would they ever find us?"

After winning in 2013, their online store "went whacko" about 20 minutes after the winner was announced and they were sold out by the next day. Customers pre-ordered, with money down, to get their six- to nine-month old gouda. 

"We had a nine-month waiting list for people to get cheeses," said Penterman. "It was flying off the shelves. It was amazing."

Since then Marieke Gouda has won over 150-160 awards nationally and internationally. Their cheese has been on an episode of CSI and in a movie. 

"We've had a lot of fun things happening through the cheese," Penterman added. "It's a really great industry and the team, the people I have around me are phenomenal, because to have an idea is one thing, but to have people that help you see through it, that's the key."

Emmi Roth, Gorgonzola

Omer knows the impact of placing in the top 20 cheeses at the World Championship Cheese Contest can have on cheesemaking. In 2016, Emmi Roth was the first U.S. cheese to win the contest since 1988.

"It was amazing for our business," said Omer. 

Tim Omer, managing director of Emmi Roth in Seymour, one of three Wisconsin companies with cheese among the top 20 out of more than 3,600 entries at the World Championship Cheese Contest on March 5, 2020, talks to reporters during the March 5, 2020 Cheese Champion event in Madison.

It provided a platform where people who know cheese could follow Emmi Roth closely. 

"It really kind of gave us more of a national presence. We don't even have to introduce ourselves, they're calling us versus us calling them," Omer said. 

It also meant that making cheese got harder because people keep raising the bar in cheesemaking.

"Our cheese is still just as good as it was four years ago, but it's amazing how much more people are really focused on making the best of the best of the best," said Omer. "The good news is that if you love cheese, it's getting better." 

About a year ago Emmi Roth, a Swiss-owned company, bought Seymour Dairy from Great Lakes Cheese. They wanted to bring to Seymour the art of cheese, not just the business. Since then their plant manager has been working her art and "creating amazing cheese."

People don't know how important the world contest is, Omer pointed out. 

"This is important for our business in the U.S, but this is also important for us globally, in regards to our customers in Asia, our customers in South America, our customers all over the world. They care about the quality and this is something that makes a difference and it matters," Omer said. "To be in the top 20 of 3,600 cheeses is incredible, but we work our art every day, and if you work your art, business follows. Business follows quality. Business follows us trying to be the best we possibly can be."

Maple Leaf, English Hollow Cheddar

Maple Leaf cheesemakers have been in the top 20 cheeses two other times – two years ago in the world contest and last year in the U.S. contest, Knox said. She considers their team winners already being in the top 20. 

Shirley Knox, from Maple Leaf Cheesemakers, Inc. in Monroe, one of three Wisconsin companies with cheese placing in the top 20 out of more than 3,600 entries at the World Championship Cheese Contest, waited to hear the announcement of the champion cheese on March 5, 2020.

While being in the top 20 will help their business, what it does even more is help employees at Maple Leaf where they have seven licensed cheesemakers and two master cheesemakers. 

"They are so excited," said Knox. "Being the third year, it's amazing."

Making cheese is hard work. In the summer it's hot. Winter is better. 

"They put in a lot of effort and I am so appreciative of each and every one of my employees,"  Know said. "They work hard."

Milk for cheese at Maple Leaf comes from a co-op of about 25 farm families. The cheddar is a milled curd, "which is more labor, a little bit more expensive, but we feel that it ages much better," Knox explained. A milled curd requires stirring, knifing, and flipping the cheddar by hand. The cheese is put through a mill and comes out about the size of your pinky finger.

The English Hollow Cheddar entered into the world contest was a 28-pound wheel that has shelf cured about one to two years. 

Now she says "I can't even wrap my head around thinking about one, two or three, so I think just being in the top 20 out of 3,600 is amazing." 

"This is a big deal," said Knox.

Carol Spaeth-Bauer at 262-875-9490 or carol.spaeth-bauer@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at cspaethbauer or Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/carol.spaethbauer.