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Nation’s best cheesemakers out to prove it in Wisconsin

GREEN BAY — The national cheese spotlight this week turns to Wisconsin — where else? — as judges get ready to sniff, taste and touch thousands of samples in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.

The national contest alternates each year with the world cheese-off. Judging is Tuesday and Wednesday at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, with winners announced Thursday, March 9th.

Here are the Top 20 cheeses after two days of voting on a record-setting 2,303 cheeses, butters, and yogurts from 33 states entered for technical evaluation:

Class: Cheddar, Medium (3 to 6 months)

Team Meister 3, Meister Cheese, Muscoda, WI, Medium Cheddar

Class: Cheddar, Aged One to Two Years

Terry Lensmire, Agropur, Weyauwega, WI, Cheddar Cheese, Cut from 640

Class: Cheddar, Aged Two Years or Longer

Daniel Stearns, Agropur, Weyauwega, WI, Cheddar Cheese, Cut from 640

Class: Bandaged Cheddar, Mild to Medium

Saxon Cheese LLC, Saxon Cheese LLC, Cleveland, WI, Old English Style Cheddar, Aged 5 Months

Class: Bandaged Cheddar, Sharp to Aged

Wayne Hintz, Red Barn Family Farms, Appleton, WI, Bandaged Cheddar, Sharp to Aged

Class: Baby Swiss Style

Casey Petak, Rothenbuhler Cheesemakers, Middlefield, OH, Baby Swiss cheese

Class: Blue Veined Cheeses

Imperia Foods Montfort WI Team, Schuman Cheese, Fairfield, NJ, Montforte Bleu Wheel

Class: Brie & Camembert

Jasper Hill, Cellars at Jasper Hill, Greensboro Bend, VT, Moses Sleeper

Class: Edam & Gouda

Marieke Gouda Team, Marieke Gouda, Thorp, WI, Marieke Gouda Belegen

Class: Gouda, Aged

Marieke Gouda Team, Marieke Gouda, Thorp, WI, Marieke Gouda Aged

Class: Gouda, Flavored

Gonzales Christopher, Glanbia Nutritionals, Twin Falls, ID, Gouda/Green Olives & Pimento

Class: Smoked Gouda

Saxon Creamery Team, Saxon Cheese LLC, Cleveland, WI, Smoked Gouda Aged 7 Months

Class: Open Class:  Flavored Semi-soft (semi-hard) Cheeses

Lake Country Dairy Team, Schuman Cheese, Fairfield, NJ, Yellow Door Creamery Harissa Rubbed Fontal Cheese

Class: Open Class:  Flavored Hard Cheeses

Mike Matucheski, Sartori Company, Antigo, WI, Sartori Reserve Black Pepper BellaVitano

Class: Open Class:  Smoked Soft and Semi-soft Cheeses

Zimmerman Cheese Team 2, Zimmerman Cheese, South Wayne, WI, Smoked Brick

Class: Reduced Fat Soft & Semi-soft Cheeses

John (Randy) Pitman, Mill Creek Cheese, Arena, WI, Reduced Fat Muenster

Class: Cold Pack Cheese, Cheese Food

Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, Theresa, WI, Traditional Washed Rind Aged Brick Spread

Class: Surface (Mold) Ripened Goat’s Milk Cheeses

Cypress Grove, Cypress Grove, Arcata, CA, Fresh Goat Cheese

Class: Hard Goat’s Milk Cheeses

Team Montchevre, Montchevre-Betin, Inc., Belmont, WI, Trivium

Class: Hard Mixed Milk Cheeses

Mike Matucheski, Sartori Company, Antigo, WI, Sartori Tre Donnes

Some things to know about the contest:

THIS SNACKDOWN IS BRUTAL

Entries for the national competition are up 22 percent, to a record 2,303, as cheesemakers recognize the marketing value of winning big competitions. Case in point: Emmi Roth USA says sales have increased 20 percent for their Grand Cru Surchoix, made in Monroe, Wisconsin, since they won the World Championship Cheese Contest in 2016. It was the first time an American cheese won the title since 1988. The exposure is why FireFly Farms in Accident, Maryland, decided to enter two cheeses this year into the contest for the first time. The farm, which distributes its goat cheeses mostly in the Mid-Atlantic area, has won more than 100 awards in other contests since 2002, according to the company’s director of sales and marketing, Andrea Cedro. Entering competitions introduces their cheeses to new retailers, buyers and customers, gets them valuable feedback from judges and often an increase in sales, she said. This year’s competition includes 25 first-time companies.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

The competition has 48 judges nibbling their way through 101 categories. They include ones you’d expect — mild cheddar, colby, mozzarella — and a few you might not, like smear-ripened soft cheese (cheese smeared with bacterial cultures during ripening), flavored cheese and Hispanic melting cheeses. New classes this year include flavored butter and snack cheese. According to the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, categories that saw the greatest increase in entries include string cheese, which had 113 percent growth; soft ripened cheeses, with a 66 percent spike; and Edam and Gouda, up 52 percent.

DAIRY STATE DOMINATION

Wisconsin had the most entries of any state, but New York, Vermont, California and Idaho also were in the top 5. Thirty-three states are represented altogether.

OTHER COMPETITIONS

The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association event this week is the largest technical evaluation of cheese, butter and yogurt in the U.S. It started in 1981. The American Cheese Society also holds a national competition, but theirs is every year and moves to different regions of the country. Last year, they had 1,843 entries.

WHO LOVES CHEESE? WE DO

People bought nearly $18 million in cheese from U.S. retailers in 2015, up nearly 3 percent from 2014 and 27 percent from 2012, according to the International Dairy Foods Association. The average amount of cheese made from cow milk consumed per person in the U.S. increased nearly 3 percent in 2015 over 2014, to 35.33 pounds per capita — a new high.