Only one grand champion cheese

John Oncken
Carl Huber of Lake to Lake Dairy at Kiel was the 1960 champion cheesemaker.

It’s not quite the Super Bowl, World Series or March Madness but the every other year the World Champion Cheese Contest does command a lot of time and space in Wisconsin media during the contest judging week that just ended.

The 3,402 entries from 26 countries and 32 states have been in the cooler at WOW Logistics at Little Chute since the cheeses started arriving in February.

The contest goes back to 1957 when John Rediske of Plymouth was acclaimed the  world champion cheddar cheese maker by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers' Association (WCMA) at their annual convention. 

The next year 1958 the contest was again held with Ronald E. Johnson, of Mt. Sterling Cheese crowned World Cheddar Cheese Champion. 

And so it has gone on ever since: Every two years a new world cheese champion is crowned. (Note: The first few years it was called the “Cheddar  Cheese Championship,” but was opened to all cheeses early on).

The biggest

The World Championship Cheese Contest is now the largest technical cheese, butter, and yogurt competition in the world. A team of 56 internationally-renowned judges technically evaluate all entries over the three-day competition held in Madison, Wisconsin.

The 2018 winner from France.

This year the purple grand champion ribbon went to Esquirrou, a hard sheep’s milk, cheese made in France at Mauleon Fromagerie and imported by Savencia Cheese USA of New Holland, Pennsylvania. First runner-up in the contest was Arzberger Ursteirer, a hard cow’s milk cheese aged in a silver mine.

Wisconsin in the finals

Where were the U.S. made cheeses one might ask? Well, they were certainly there in big numbers and five Badger state cheeses were in the final judging. They were:  English Hollow Cheddar aged  1 -2 year. made by Maple Leaf Cheese Makers, Inc., Monroe; Mild Gouda, Saxon Cheese, LLC, Cleveland; Sartori Reserve Espresso BellaVitano, Sartori Company, Antigo; Cave Aged Chandoka (cow and goat milk cheddar) LaClare Family Creamery, Malone; and Sartori Limited Edition Pastorale Blend (cow and sheep milk) Sartori Company, Antigo.

In addition, U.S. cheesemakers dominated the competition, earning gold medals in 87 of the 121 contest classes. Wisconsin topped the competition with 47 gold medals. Idaho, New York, and Vermont tied in the state rankings with six gold medals. 

Sampling and tasting the class.

How do they do it?

Next question? How do the 56 judges narrow the 3,402 entries down to 20 finalists and finally to a single champion? John Umhoefer, executive director of the host explains:

Step 1: Each class is assigned judges, small classes have perhaps two judges, big classes, many judges. Judges score each entry beginning with 100 points and deducting for defects in taste, appearance etc. and record the score on an iPad. 

Step 2: 104 class winners are placed on separate tables and resampled. Judges mark their favorite cheese with a poker chip and the top 20 are selected for the final competition

Step 3: The top 20 cheeses are resampled and rescored on Thursday and the winner selected. Umhoefer says “the final cheeses are full of holes from all the samples taken, that’s why we want a minimum of 2 - 5 pound wheels per entry.”

John Umhoefer, executive director of the WCMA since 1992 oversees the event.

The fact that there has not been a grand champion cheese from a Wisconsin-owned cheese factory for many years has been the subject of much talk.

True, last year’s grand champion cheese was made by Emmi Roth U.S. at Monroe but the company is a subsidiary of a company in Switzerland.

Wisconsin has 10

There have been ten Grand Champion Cheese Contest winners from Wisconsin since the contest began in 1957. The last Wisconsin owned and made Grand Champion cheese was 1988, a string cheese made by Dale Olson of Burnett Dairy Co-op in Grantsburg who retired as general manager of the cooperative some years ago.

First and only

In 1982 a “first” was recorded when Julie Hook, of Hooks Cheese in Mineral Point won the World Cheese Championship with a Colby cheese. There were 482 entries from 14 states and 16 countries. Julie Hook was and still is the only woman to win the World Cheese Championship.

I talked briefly with Tony Hook who said that the award was indeed a major event for the newly licensed cheesemaker who had gotten her license two years prior and the factory. He also said that they still make cheese five days a week and market weekly at the Dane County Farmers Market. Hook’s cheese is also widely known for its aged cheese.

In 1962

Vincent Thompson, a longtime Wisconsin cheesemaker who was named the World Champion Cheddar Cheese Maker in 1962 had more than a taste of fame. Vincent, the owner of the Linden Cheese factory was invited to participate in the 1964 World's Fair in New York, where he was a part of the making of the world's largest block of cheese. He also appeared on the TV program, "To Tell The Truth”.  After selling his Linden Cheese plant, Vincent accepted a position with an Ohio dairy and in 1975 become plant manager for Morning Glory Dairy in Marshfield where he worked until retiring.

In recent years it seems that the popular cheeses like cheddar, colby and mozzarella have not made their way to the world championship throne -  the round wheels (from 5 to 100 pounds) of the specialty types have gotten the top award.

Oh well, maybe a Wisconsin cheddar will reign in 2020. Without doubt there will be even more entries and more types of cheese than in 2018. Thus, more competition!

Wisconsin tops

Wisconsin is with out question the #1 cheese producing state with over 3.1 billion pounds (25% of U.S. total) produced last year, California with about 2.5 billion pounds remains a distant second. Mozzarella, cheddar and Italian rank first, second and third in state production and there are 144 cheese plants in the state. These range from new, single family startups to huge cooperative and corporate processors. Internationally, the European Union ranks as the biggest cheese producer followed by the U.S.

To make cheese you need milk and historically that means dairy cows (1.3 million in Wisconsin) on 8,800 (and decreasing) dairy farms but increasingly more milking goats and now the beginnings of dairy sheep milking in the state.

The WCMA, host of the World cheese championship has strived toward the goal of producing the finest dairy products in the world since 1891.  Membership includes more than 500 companies around the world in 19 states and 12 countries. Thanks to the hundreds of WCMA members and volunteers for the show!

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications.  He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or e-mail him at