When the United States Championship Cheese Contest announced its 2023 Top 20 cheeses in February, nine of the finalists were from the Badger State. That’s impressive, but no surprise, considering Wisconsin cheesemakers win more awards than any other state or country.
Creating a culture of innovative, award-winning cheese is a critical factor in the growth of Wisconsin’s dairy industry. Receiving a prestigious award for their product isn’t just a point of pride for cheesemakers. The distinction can be a game-changer for their business and benefits the dairy farmers they credit as essential to their success. After all, our high-quality milk is the not-so-secret ingredient to crafting the best cheese on the planet.
Wisconsin’s status as a cheese contest powerhouse is due in part to the resources that Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin (DFW) provides cheese companies in their pursuit of excellence. We don’t just encourage participation by reimbursing some of the fees associated with contest entry and shipping. DFW also invests in innovation and marketing efforts that transform a winning idea into a sought-after product.
Developing the next best cheese
Cheese competitions spur innovation and improvement among Wisconsin’s dedicated dairy manufacturers. They provide an unparalleled opportunity to sample and brainstorm based on the best qualities of many kinds of cheeses. Experienced judges uphold uncompromising technical standards, and their notes can encourage cheesemakers to get creative or further perfect a concept.
Pat Mugan, chief research and development officer at Sartori Company, said it might take five to 10 years of incremental improvements to create an award-winning cheese. Contests can validate progress. “We may then brainstorm and innovate experimental cheeses similar to those attributes of the winning cheeses,” he said.
Cheesemakers often partner with the Center for Dairy Research (funded in part by dairy checkoff dollars) to explore enhancements. CDR also plays a role in developing new award-winning cheeses such as Cupola, a small-batch, semi-hard cheese handcrafted by Red Barn Family Farms, first runner-up in the 2023 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.
Selling the specialty cheese story
Awards build brand recognition and product demand. According to past U.S. Grand Champion cheesemaker Marieke Penterman, of Thorp, Wis., her company sold out of their stock after their win and needed to begin taking preorders for the winning aged Gouda.
Penterman says the media attention generated by the contest win and the consumer awareness it creates has a higher return than any other form of advertising their small operation might invest in.
DFW promotes award-winning cheese by sharing the stories of craftsmanship and creativity behind the products. Awards provide fantastic opportunities to celebrate the brands that bring home accolades and encourage cheese lovers to look for the Proudly Wisconsin Cheese badge on their next shopping trip. Our storytelling work engages food fanatics to learn about and help share Wisconsin Cheese — at gatherings with friends and family and online.