MADISON, WIS. – The 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest kicked off on Tuesday, in search of the best in cheese, butter, yogurt and dry dairy ingredients.
Hosted biennially by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA) since 1957, it is the largest competition of its kind in the world.
The 2022 competition is being held March 1-3 at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis. Championship Round judging will begin on Thursday morning and the 2022 World Champion will be announced on Thursday, March 3 at 2:00 p.m. CT and will be livestreamed online at the competition’s website. Winners will be honored April 14 at a gala Awards Banquet during CheeseExpo in Milwaukee.
A total of 2,978 entries were submitted across 141 classes by cheesemakers from 29 countries worldwide this year. The United States is the most strongly represented in the international competition, with entries coming from 33 states. Contest entry submission were open from Nov. 2, 2021 to Jan. 26. Any cheesemaker, buttermaker or manufacturer of real cheese, butter, yogurt or dried dairy ingredients may enter the Contest. Each entry must be entered in the name of a person, team or group directly involved in making the product.
This year’s group of 53 international expert judges will evaluate the dairy product entries, selecting the best in each class and the 2022 World Champion. The judging team includes cheese graders, cheese buyers, dairy science professors and researchers with more than 700 combined years of experience in the dairy processing industry. Despite COVID-19-related travel restrictions, the judges arrived in Madison this week from 16 countries and 13 US states.
“We actually saw about the same level of international participation in this year's contest that we've seen in previous years,” said Grace Atherton, communications director at WCMA. “We did hear from a few judges who said, ‘My company’s not allowing me to travel internationally yet because of COVID protocols,’ things like that. But by and large, we were really proud of the group that’s shown up this year.”
This year’s event is only open to judges, volunteers, staff and members of the media who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In accordance with state and local requirements, mask-wearing was optional on-site beginning March 1. No outside spectators were allowed at this year’s event.
Special visitors to this year's contest included Wisconsin’s Secretary of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Randy Romanski.
“We’re really fortunate and happy to host the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest,” Romanski said, as he spoke to the group of judges and volunteers on Tuesday. “We are proud of being America’s Dairy Land. So no matter where you come from, no matter what kind of cheese you might have here, what kind of cheese you’re judging, we really appreciate your participation in the industry.”
The judging of the entries is no easy task and depending on the class judges are assigned, they can be spending an entire day examining just one type of product.
“(For example) Mild Cheddar, 0-3 months, might have 50 or 60 entries in it,” Atherton said. “Some of those bigger classes might take all day, so they might only be doing that one class that day for that set of judges. Whereas others might be judging classes that are 15-20 entries, and in that case, maybe they can do two to three classes in a day.”
Starting from a maximum possible 100 points, deductions are made for various defects found by each judge. Defects are noted in the areas of flavor, body and texture, salt, color, finish, packaging and other appropriate attributes. A Gold medal, Silver medal and Bronze medal are awarded to the three highest-scoring entries in each class.
The panel of judges evaluates the gold medal cheeses a second time to determine the 20 finalist cheeses that will move onto the final round of judging. During the final round, scores from all judges are averaged and the cheese which earns the highest average score is named the World Champion. The next two highest scores are awarded First and Second Runner-Up.
The judging is overseen by a contingency of chief judges, experts who are not only familiar with the cheese and dairy industry but also judging in high-stakes competitions such as this.
“Obviously these folks have decades of, not only cheese industry experience, but often judging specifically,” Atherton said. “A lot of them have judged at this contest for many, many years, so it's a lot of experience. I think it takes a level head and professionalism to be able to lead this big of a group through this kind of event.”
These overseers are there to clear up any questions or discrepancies that arise throughout the duration of the competition.
“If there’s confusion from a judge about what they should be looking for, or if there's a discrepancy in their scores and they need to settle it, that's kind of what they’re here for – to address those questions and talk through regulations and rules with the judges,” according to Atherton.
The 2022 competition added seven new classes to the judging roster, including Wine/Spirits, Washed Rind Cheese and Cheese Curds. The addition or changing of classes is a direct result of trends experts are seeing in dairy industry.
“The classes get adjusted based on feedback from the industry,” Atherton said. “Cheese curds this year is a great example. In 2020, we saw a lot of cheese curds entries being submitted in the natural snacks class and sort of thought, ‘Maybe that needs to be its own thing to really do justice to both the natural snack cheese products, the other entries in that class and to the cheese curd entries.’ We have a content committee that decides how to adjust those categories, then they consult with our board and they ultimately decide, yes or no, to add or change those classes.”
In addition to the judges, the contest relies heavily on its volunteers, all of whom are knowledgeable about the dairy processing industry.
“Our volunteers are all cheese industry professionals, they work in the cheese industry in some capacity,” Atherton said. “Some from cheese makers, some are from supplier companies to the industry, but they're all steeped in the world of dairy processing. They're a really great group. They really get it when it comes to how all of this works and what judges need to make sure that they can do the job well. We really rely heavily on the volunteers on how to do that.”
The volunteers also are key players in the weeks leading up to the content, when entrants ship their products to Wisconsin for judging. The process of getting all the entries to the competition is anything but simple. When the entrants submit their entry forms, they are given numbered labels from the entry website. They print those off, package up their products and have to ensure all entries are labeled the right way to avoid disqualification before shipping their products off. The entries vary in size, with the largest wheels weighing upwards of 200 lbs.
“We partner with WOW Logistics to use their warehouse in Little Chute, Wis., to store all of it,” Atherton explained. “Our volunteers really step up during that time, as well, a few weeks before the contest, to help receive all those shipments, sort them into the right places, get them all stored, so once it’s time to get everything from Little Chute to Madison, it's an easy, quick process.”