Hundreds of cultured spectators nibbled on cheese and crackers, waiting patiently for an hour as dozens of judges deliberated last week before naming a Dutch Vermeer the world's best cheese.
What was once a low-key industry affair noticed only by a handful of spectators and reporters is now a must-have ticket for those looking to get their gouda on. The World Champion Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis., sold out of all 400 tickets in the first year they were offered; the artisan cheese competition has become another way for foodies to outdo one another in the pursuit of local, sustainable and handcrafted fare.
The contest, held every two years, typically draws more than 2,000 entries from nearly two dozen nations. Usually only the judges taste the cheese, but this year's ticketholders sampled 15 of the top entries while they mingled with Wisconsin cheesemakers and the international panel of judges.
The spectators witnessed a mild upset in the judging. Swiss cheesemakers had won the past three contests and comprised two of the top three finalists this year. But it was a low-fat Gouda named Vermeer from Friesland Campina, a company based in Wolvega, Netherlands, that took top honors.
The company didn't have any representatives in Wisconsin; it will receive its formal award at a banquet in Madison next month.
Dutch judge Peter Piersma woke up the cheesemaker's plant manager, Piet Nederhoed, with a phone call. It was about 1 a.m. Holland time.
"I got him out of bed so he was a little quiet, but then he got very excited," Piersma said.
Dan Konz, a cheese grader from Kimball, Minn., said the winning Vermeer stood out for its "nice, smooth, clean flavor. It had nice body and mouth-feel. A very clean taste."
Experts compare specialty cheeses to wines: Both have subtle variations based on their region of origin, year of creation and the techniques employed by master craftsmen. The judging protocol is also similar. Judges roll entries in their mouths, search for nuanced characteristics and then discard the samples. Some judges wipe their tongues with napkins between tastings.
While the judges sampled the finalists, spectators did the same with cheeses from countries such as Germany, South Africa and Australia.
"In the past, unless you were a super cheese geek, this is not something you went to," said Jeanne Carpenter, executive director of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization of artisan cheese fans. "But getting to try 15 different cheeses from 15 different countries, plus meeting the best of Wisconsin's cheesemakers -- people love that."
Steve Ceder, a painting contractor from Madison, paused from nibbling on cheese Wednesday night to survey the hundreds of fellow connoisseurs who seemed equally delighted to taste new samples.
"Ah, this is Wisconsin," he said, calling the night "a wonderful experience."
The three-day contest began with judges grading 2,500 entries in 82 cheese and butter classes on flavor, texture, body and color. The winner in each class advanced to the semifinals, where the top 16 were chosen for the finals.
As expected, cheesemakers from the U.S. and Switzerland were extra sharp. Seven finalists were from the U.S. -- five from Wisconsin and one each from Utah and Vermont.
Five other finalists were from Switzerland, including the two runners-up: second-place Kaserei Grundbach, a company in Wattenwill that entered a smear-ripened semi-soft winzer kase; and SO Appenzeller Kase of Appenzell, which took third place with its Appenzeller cheese.
While the judges deliberated, Estela Roustan, a Spanish teacher from the Wisconsin Dells, said she was eager to try the samples from Croatia and Spain.
"There's so much variety and diversity here," the 67-year-old said. "It's so wonderful. When you get to taste them, it's almost like you're traveling to different countries."