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A gouda time: Green Bay hosts US Championship Cheese Contest

Judges evaluate over 2K dairy product entries across 113 classes

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A man pulls out a light yellow section of cheese using a drilling tool.
David Satterness pulls out a sample of cheddar cheese before evaluating it Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

This week, Green Bay is playing host to a time-honored Wisconsin tradition that’s quite cheesy.

The U.S. Championship Cheese Competition is being held at the Resch Expo in Green Bay’s Resch Center Complex, featuring cheese makers from 35 states, along with judges from 12 states.

During the competition, judges evaluate over 2,000 dairy product entries across 113 classes. Winners in various categories of dairy products will be announced Thursday.

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John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said the association has hosted the competition biennially since 1981, but this year’s contest represents a generational shift.

Yellow and white cheeses are displayed on a table as attendees take a look.
Attendees look at cheese displayed Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“There’s a great generation of cheese judges and cheese makers that are starting to hand the reins over to the next generation,” he said.

For example, Nasonville Dairy out of central Wisconsin was represented by multiple generations at this year’s contest. Third-generation cheese makers Ryan and Trevor Heiman were accompanied by Ryan’s wife, Amanda, and teenage sons, Sam and Tyler.

Ryan and Trevor Heiman’s grandparents purchased the dairy in 1985, and their fathers took over in 2000.

“Trevor and I started in our family business going to the dairy (and) working with our dads ever since we were old enough,” said Ryan Heiman.

A woman in a white coat and hat sniffs a piece of cheese.
Tammy Alderman Miller with Colony Brands sniffs a Swiss style cheese Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

He’s tried to share a similar experience with his sons. Tyler Heiman said he’s excited to continue the decades-long family legacy, and hopes to build a career in the dairy industry like his father and grandfather.

“Being the fourth generation, it’s something truly amazing,” he said Tuesday. “It’s just a natural thing, you’re just instantly drawn to the dairy. It’s just something that you just fall into.”

While the competition provides the opportunity to build family memories, it also gives some cheese makers bragging rights when they come out on top.

Umhoefer said the competition’s judging is meticulous and compared it to figure skating.

“This is like figure skating-style judging where you assume the figure skater is doing perfectly and you look for what they did wrong,” Umhoefer said. “We assume the cheese is perfect, and we look for defects.”

A large block of Swiss cheese is examined.
Steve Stettler with Decatur Dairy examines Swiss style cheese Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

Chad Galer, with the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, is one of this year’s judges. He said judges can taste between 50 and 60 samples per day, but grades go beyond taste.

“Before we put anything in our mouth, we want to make sure that the packaging is right, the surface of the cheese looks good (and) we’re going to check the texture,” he said. “While everyone thinks about wanting to grab that cheese and eat it, we’re going to do three or four steps before we ever put it in our mouth.”

Beyond the competitive aspect of the event, judges and cheese makers said the dairy community and sense of camaraderie are what keeps them coming back year after year.

A white piece of cheese bends as a judge holds it.
A judge holds a sample of cheese before evaluating its quality Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

“It is fun to see the variety of cheeses, but also the people — we’re like a big family,” said Laura Laehn, one of this year’s judges. “I missed (the World Championship Cheese Contest) last year due to having a baby and the year prior was COVID, so it’s been two years for me, and I was really looking forward to seeing everyone and talking to them.”

But the competition isn’t just for cheese makers and judges. Jeff and Mary Kay Blomquist drove to Green Bay from Wausau to attend the competition.

“My dad worked in a cheese factory for a good number of years (and) I grew up on a farm, so there are a lot of connections,” said Mary Kay Blomquist. “It’s just interesting to see the different types of cheeses and to talk to some of the judges and see what they look for.”

In addition to the pomp and circumstance of the competition, the event also features its fair share of cheese puns.

“Why did the cheese curd cross the road?” asked contest judge Galer. “To get out of the whey.”

Two judges stand at a table around a large block of yellow cheese.
Judges examine cheddar cheese Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023, during the U.S. Championship Cheese Competition at the Resch Center Complex in Green Bay, Wis. Angela Major/WPR
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