U.S. Made Cheeses Shine in International Competitions
MADISON, Wis. — While U.S. cheeses have been rising stars in national and international competitions in recent years, a big win this spring really put U.S. cheesemaking on the map.
For the first time since 1998, a U.S.-made cheese took the crown at the World Championship Cheese Contest, held last month in Madison, Wisconsin. The contest, which is held on even-numbered years, this year had a record 2,959 cheese entries from 23 countries and 31 states.
Emmi Roth USA was named Grand Champion of the competition for its Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, a washed-rind Alpine-style cheese made at the company’s plant in Monroe, Wisconsin.
Roth Grand Cru Surchoix is aged a minimum of nine months to create a firm texture and complex flavors of caramel, fruit and mushroom.
Tim Omer, president and managing director, Emmi Roth USA, says the company’s win is a shared honor.
“Internally, it’s been a great morale booster for our staff,” Omer says. “We especially thank our dairy farmers — without great milk, you can’t have great cheese. We share this honor with them. It’s not only good for our business, it’s good for Green County and Wisconsin, and it’s something we want to share with the whole U.S. industry.”
Patrick Geoghegan, senior vice president of corporate communications for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), says the award reinforces what people around the world already know — Wisconsin’s reputation for making some of the world’s greatest cheeses is well deserved.
“We consider the Emmi Roth win a win for the entire state of Wisconsin,” he says.
Rising Stars (and Stripes)
The rise of U.S. cheeses in competitions has been happening for some time, fueled in part by consumer excitement and demand for specialty and artisan cheeses, Geoghegan says. He notes this demand has helped drive new product growth from cheesemakers as well as the launch of several new companies.
“Cheese affinage has become a big focus with many companies expanding their programs or developing new ones, sometimes with an independent affineur or retail partner,” he says.
In the recent World Championship contest, the United States had an impressive showing. Wisconsin produced not only the world champion but also the most gold medal-winning cheeses of all the U.S. states, while several other states including New York, California, Vermont, Ohio and others won gold medals as well.
John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association (WCMA), which hosts the U.S. and World Championship Cheese Contests (the U.S. contest is held in odd-numbered years), notes that a decade or so ago, many U.S. cheesemakers were more focused on commodity-type cheese and making their cheeses consistent to keep up with supply. Now, more established cheesemakers are taking time to improve their cheeses and experiment with new flavors.
Sartori Co., Plymouth, Wisconsin, produces a plethora of flavored and specialty cheeses, many of which have won national and international awards.
Maria Sartori, brand ambassador, Sartori Co., says globalization has increased the demand for artisan cheese in the United States.
She notes that new automated technology allows companies to create a consistent product without hindering cheesemakers’ creativity and development of a variety of unique products and flavors. Programs in Wisconsin like the Master Cheesemaker program further allow cheesemakers to hone their skills and think outside the box of commodity cheese, she adds.
Omer says Roth Grand Cru Surchoix is basically hand made and with a washed rind, which sets it apart from other cheeses and makes it special.
“It’s a relatively complicated cheese to make. It ages for a long time, about 10 months minimum. The cheese we entered into the World Championship was about 14 months old,” he says.
Omer notes that Europe had somewhat of a head start on the U.S. cheese industry, as generations upon generations of people there have been eating and making carefully-crafted artisan cheese.
However, as U.S. consumers’ palates and curiosity about different flavor profiles have evolved, artisan cheese varieties are exploding in the United States, he adds.
“Consumers’ — particularly, millennials’ — curiosity and interest in the story behind these products has given the artisanal cheesemaker a platform,” Omer says.
He adds that he believes Europe is “watching closely” because while Europeans have long been making exceptional cheeses, a lot of the new innovation and technology in the cheese industry is happening in the United States.
Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy Research (CDR), says while there certainly have been improvements in the equipment used in making specialty cheese varieties in the United States, some U.S. cheesemakers also have adopted European equipment.
“I also believe there have been improvements and advances in the cultures available for use in cheesemaking,” Sommer says. “However, I think the dominant advancement in cheesemaking has been the further development of the craftsmanship of the cheesemakers in making some of these outstanding artisan cheeses. What I see in our industry today is a blossoming of great passion in making specialty cheeses and in making cheeses that are very distinctive to each particular cheesemaker.”
Meanwhile, as specialty cheese varieties are gaining traction in competition and on retail shelves, U.S. cheesemakers also are crafting award-winning European-style mainstays like Swiss and Gouda.
The reigning 2015 U.S. Grand Champion, Guggisberg Cheese Inc., Millersburg, Ohio, topped the Rindless Swiss Styles Cheese class at this year’s World Championship and also earned second-, fourth- and fifth-place awards in the class. The company’s Swiss wheel also took first place in its class and received the overall Grand Champion title in last year’s competition.
Richard Guggisberg, president of Guggisberg Cheese, notes it takes a long chain of many people doing their best — from the farmers that produce the milk to everyone in the plant — to make an award-winning cheese.
“It takes a culture of quality, which can take years to develop and constant dedication to maintain,” Guggisberg says. “We strive hard to maintain and constantly improve our products along with the lives of the people that produce them.”
Guggisberg says he believes cheesemakers in the United States always have crafted high-quality cheeses as good as or better than anyone in the world.
“There is a misconception that because the quantities are larger that somehow the quality is not as good as smaller operations,” he says. “The fact is that the opposite is true. Whether making cheese in a small kettle or large vats, the way cheese is made is the same.”
He adds that larger quantities can require more skill and experience to maintain consistency.
“It is a commitment to quality and consistency, along with experience, skill and knowledge, that has allowed the cheese business in this country to grow,” Guggisberg says.
A Collaborative Environment
While the cheese industry is competitive, it also is a very collaborative environment, Geoghegan says.
“One of the greatest advantages in Wisconsin is the spirit of community and support among cheesemakers,” he says. “Our cheesemakers share knowledge and cheesemaking facilities and collaborate with each other instead of viewing each other simply as competitors.”
Sommer notes many U.S. cheesemakers have furthered their education in the art of cheesemaking, whether through participation in the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker program, taking new cheesmaking short courses or, in many cases, traveling to other parts of the world to observe and learn firsthand about cheesemaking traditions and art in other well-known cheesemaking regions.
“I also see an increase in exploration and testing of new cheesemaking techniques in the quest for developing new distinctive cheeses for the marketplace,” he says.
Umhoefer notes more Europeans also have come to the United States over the years to work in the U.S. cheese industry.
Guggisberg says most of the cheesemakers in the United States can trace their origins back to immigrants who brought these skills with them to the country.
“The quality has always been there, but perhaps it wasn’t recognized early on because people weren’t entering the contests,” Guggisberg says. “Every year participation in the contest continues to grow.”
Challenges and Opportunities
Sartori notes that requirements for cheesemaking in the United States are different from Europe and other countries. She notes that raw milk cheese must be aged at least 60 days before it can be sold in the United States, unlike in European countries.
Sommer says he thinks U.S. cheesemakers have some regulatory disadvantages compared to their European counterparts.
“I have traveled to and visited quite a few European cheese plants in the last decade, and it is quite evident that in some areas, their rules are less restrictive than ours,” he says.
He notes, as an example, the recent issue of aging cheese on wood boards in the United States — which has been going on in Europe for centuries — indicates a very different philosophy.
“It seems to me that European cheesemakers and regulators are much more comfortable with raw milk cheeses than are some of the U.S. regulatory agencies,” Sommer says. “Also, in Europe they are also more broad in their acceptance of different cheesemaking equipment specifications and materials.”
On the other hand, the United States has some advantages of its own, Sommer says.
“For example, for some of the European DOP-type cheeses there are very tight restrictions in some cases, from what the cows are fed to how the cheese is made,” he says. “This likely can have both positive and negative elements in that it maintains tradition and traditional flavors and characteristics of the cheese variety, but on the other hand, I would imagine it could prove somewhat restrictive for innovations and changes.”
Umhoefer says U.S. and European cheesemakers alike face some regulatory uncertainty.
“Everyone’s being challenged to move from raw milk to pasteurized, and that changes things,” he says. “We don’t want to lose those flavors and textures.
“I think both in Europe and the U.S., it’s not that we’re different — we are all changing, at least commercially, and the use of raw milk is being challenged,” he adds. “It’s not really us versus them. Old ways versus new ways are an issue all over the world.”
Sartori notes today’s consumers are more educated about what they eat and look for high-quality products. Competitions receive a tremendous amount of entries, and the criteria to receive high marks are tough.
“Experts travel from all parts of the world to judge and critique these cheeses; therefore, consumers are reassured that the product will meet their high expectations for quality when a company receives an award,” she says. “This translates into excited customers that are anxious to try the product and continue to buy it for years to come.”
In addition to loyalty to one award-winning product, Umhoefer says when a company like Emmi Roth USA gets a win like this, it can boost sales for an entire line of cheeses.
“I think (this win) is the beginning of being seen on equal footing with Europe,” he says.
Omer says while he doesn’t foresee Roth Grand Cru Surchoix becoming an everyday cheese — the company currently makes just a couple thousand pounds of the variety each month and is not looking to expand production at this time — he is impressed with the commitment from customers to buy the cheese, even 10 months out as the cheese has to age.
“In today’s world, people really care about quality, and a win like this just gives you a boost right as you walk in the (customer’s) door,” he says. “The reason I joined this company is I think we make the finest cheese in the country, and we just need to work on telling our story.”
Guggisberg notes that any public recognition is good to have and helps to sell the product, but most importantly, it serves to reward and recognize everyone involved in making the products.
“It gives our employees a sense of pride and satisfaction for their efforts,” he says. “I think it makes everyone try a little harder.”
Sommer notes while the world champion win for the United States occurred for the first time in nearly 30 years, the quality of U.S.-made cheeses has been growing for some time.
“Wisconsin cheesemakers have been making championship varieties such as Gouda, Swiss, Alpine hard-smeared, Havarti, hard Italian cheese and other varieties that have ranked right up with the best European cheeses for some time,” he says. “I see this trend continuing to grow in the future.”
This post written by Alyssa Mitchell for CheeseMarketNews.com