By Nicola Viola Wenz

After moving to the U.S. in 2003, Marieke PentermanMarieke Penterman, won 2013 'Best Cheese in America' grew homesick for the Gouda cheese of her native Netherlands.

“I always would ask family or friends if they could bring cheese in their suitcases,” she recalled. “But then restrictions by the border got tougher and tougher.”

Desperation, and a desire to start her own business, spurred Penterman to start making the cheese herself. The moment of inspiration came late at night, during a bout of insomnia on the farm in a tiny cow town in central Wisconsin where she and her family live. “I was tossing and turning, thinking, ‘what business I should start?’ and then I heard a cow calving and I’m like ‘that’s it!’,” she recalled. “I would say the birth of the cow was the birth of our cheese adventure.”

In 2013, within months of making her first cheese, Penterman won ‘Best cheese in America’ for her Gouda Mature, (aged 6-9 months) from the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, making her the second female ever to win.

“That’s how I got my Green Card because then we qualified for the extraordinary ability route,” she said. “I’m the first cheesemaker to win it that way, so I call it my Green Card cheese.” On the strength of that first success and subsequent wins, Penterman landed orders from a range of major outlets - her cheeses can be found at Whole Foods Market and at a variety of other grocery stores, specialty shops and restaurants around the nation.

To be sure, not every cheese champion walks away with such a dramatic tale of triumph, but with America’s appetite for cheese continuing to grow, success at one a top cheese competition can bring substantial rewards. In 2018, the per capita consumption of cheese in the U.S. was 40 pounds. That’s an increase of 25 percent, or eight pounds, from 2000, according to data collected by Statista. By comparison, Americans’ per capita grape consumption in 2018 was about a pound and a half. By 2022, the global cheese market is expected to reach $124 billion, right between ice cream and chocolate, two other culinary indulgences that continue to grow in popularity.

Cheese kudos win customers

The Cheese Store of Beverly Hills carries between 450 and 600 artisanal cheeses at any given time, said Norbert Wabnig, the shop’s longtime owner. In 2019, Rogue River Blue cheese was the first American-made cheese to win the World Cheese Awards, the second-biggest international cheese contest after the World Championship Cheese Contest.

Soon after winning, right around the time customers started asking for this particular cheese, Rogue hiked their retail prices by 50 percent, from $40 up to $60 a pound, Wabnig said. According to Rogue’s website, a wheel of the winning cheese can be had for $235. The store had carried the cheese for years, Wabnig said, “and no big interest in it until this year, when it won that award.”

Another big seller at the Cheese Store in Beverly Hills is a Gruyère This hard yellow cheese from Switzerland is made from cow’s milk and is aged between five and 12 months from Switzerland that was named 2020 World Champion at the WCCC.

“I still don’t know how you get that award, and I mean, ‘the best cheese in the world?’” Wabnig asked. “What does that mean anyway?”

Wabnig said he’s noticed a shift in the cheese industry since he first started packaging cheese behind the counter as a young employee in 1975.

“The people that shop here are pretty serious about what they’re buying,” he said. “They travel a lot, they have certain expectations, and yes, since I started here, there has been a huge upturn in the quality and variety and just a general feeling and taste for cheese.”

Rogue River aside, it’s a long way from Beverly Hills to the typical palate, and Gurth Pretty, Canada’s maître des fromage. Pretty says North America has not yet reached the golden era of cheese.

“There are still lots of opportunities for cheesemakers and cheese companies to establish themselves in different parts of North America, whether that be Canada, the U.S., and Mexico,” Pretty said. As a wider array of more complex cheeses become more broadly accepted, that opens the market even further. “A lot of American cheese is that big block of cheese with plastic wrapped around it. That’s not cheese. So, there is still great potential in the United States.”

In Europe, by contrast, strict regulations intended to protect existing cheese styles have spurred a mini out-migration. “A lot of young European cheesemakers are actually coming to North America to have the freedom of doing whatever they wish to do in what styles of cheese they want to make,” Pretty said.

Inside a big cheese competition

The opportunities were on full display in February at the 33rd biennial 2020 WCCC in Madison, Wisconsin. Imagine a room filled with over 1000 different cheeses, kind of like A-list actors wearing designer garb, but these stars have a variety of smell intensities, colors, sizes, and tastes. Not to mention the poker-faced judges in white lab coats, sampling an average of 60 cheeses a day for three days straight. Some swallow, some spit into a bucket close by. It’s both glamorous and gross, amusing and overwhelming.

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Competitors came from 26 nations, logging more than 3,600 entries, all vying for the top prize: a gold medal and the coveted big cheese status it brings. The World Championship and other competitions provide a forum for cheesemakers to test new flavors and styles while refining existing ones in the quest for the very best cheese. Pretty, who is also a judge at the WCCC, said competitions are essential for both the cheesemaker and the consumer.

“They’re vital from, say, extra publicity and marketing, but also because the cheesemakers receive the comments from the judges so that they can improve their product,” Pretty said. “It definitely shows the public how innovative and delicious the cheese is, and also that there is a whole world of cheese that a lot of consumers don’t know about.”

During a pause in a round of judging, Cathy Strange, a World Championship judge and vice president of specialty product development and innovation at Whole Foods, reflected on what it takes to make a great cheese. “All cheesemakers are artists,” she said. “You have to be a microbiologist, you have to understand the raw ingredient, the herd has to be very healthy for you to make good cheese.”

Keith Glewis, principal consultant and director at Foodplus Technical Consultants in Australia, has been a cheese judge for 25 years, with a focus on medium cheddar, which is aged about nine months longer than mild cheddar. He says it’s important “to judge the cheese true to type.”

“The first thing we look at is the appearance of the cheese, and secondly we look at the body and texture after we’ve "taken the plug,"A metal scoop-like device is used to extract about four to eigh inches of cheese for judging Glewis said. “Finally, we look at the flavor. It can be a little bit [biased], but I suppose you need to train yourself as a professional to evaluate the taste from a technical point of view.”

Michael Peterson who works at Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture as Cheese grader, said each cheese is evaluated based on a "100-point system."

Each cheese starts with 100 points, with deductions made for “flaws” the cheese graders find. This can be anything from too much salt to too little flavor. Using a score sheet uploaded on their tablets, the judges then nit-pick each cheese with the help of a ‘defect evaluation key.’ This gives the judges a range (0.1 points or more) of how many points they should deduct. For example, the winning Gruyère, earned a score of 98.81 out of 100, beating the runner-up by 0.11 points.

Cheese as a lifelong passion

Strange was born in Brooklyn and grew up eating New York cheddars, “which are still some of my favorites,” she said, adding that most American cheeses are based on European production techniques.

“I think a lot of American cheeses are modeled on European-style cheeses,” she said. “For example, Parmigiano-Reggiano This hard and granular cheese from Italy is made from cow's milk and is aged between 12 and 36 months has been made for over 1300 years. There are cheeses that go back two centuries.”

In the U.S., Strange said, cheese is purchased primarily as an ingredient for pizza or pasta.

“The home consumption, though, has certainly grown with artisan cheese and that changes seasonally,” she said. “When I first started in the industry, you could not get mozzarella packed in water. Now, that would be a part of an everyday diet for an American during certain seasons."

But, she said, there has also been a general shift in the cheese industry, in terms of people seeking higher quality products.

“There are more travelers, so you get exposed to a lot more cheeses,” she said. “So, you see different varieties coming up in different styles and it’s very exciting.”

Exhibit A for “cheese enthusiast” might be Kit Rachlis, a former editor at the Los Angeles Times and current senior editor at California Sunday Magazine, who discovered his love of cheese after a divorce.

“My first wife was a journalist and wrote about food and was a very good cook,” Rachlis said. “When she and I split up, I decided that I wanted to teach myself everything I could about cheese… I realized I wanted to teach myself something. I wanted to take on a kind of project.”

That desire took him to the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills.

At a dinner party around that time he had a sudden “flash” that he wanted to work at the cheese store so he could learn more about cheese.

“For the next nine months, every Saturday, I worked at the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills,” Rachlis said. “People would see me behind the counter and think I had lost my job as editor.”

Rachlis said he became deeply interested in cheese as “craft, as art, as food, as reflective of culture…it’s like knowing the world better.”

“When you go to a cheese store in France…you are not going to see American cheeses in their stores,” Rachlis said. “And in fact, in France, you are not going to see Italian cheeses.”

Even with regional distinctions intact, John Farrand, managing director of the Guild of Fine Food and host of the World Cheese Awards in Europe, said he sees the effects of globalization. Consumers and cheesemakers are more open to trying—and making—different kinds of cheese.

“I think I see the world getting smaller,” Farrand said. “People are more prepared to experiment with cheeses from other countries, even Spain and France and Italy are becoming slightly more broad-minded.”

A cheesemaker’s journey

Back at the World Championship competition in Wisconsin, Chad Grossen, firefighter and cheesemaker, said his personal cheese journey began when his was a child, growing up on a small cheese plant in Monroe, Wisconsin.

“Like my father and my grandfather, we were born and raised either farming or making cheese. So, I was born into the cheesemaking industry mainly,” Grossen said. “At a very young age I was helping out with a number of things at the cheese factory because it was a family co-op. Growing up in a small co-op…you learn pretty much every aspect of the trade in making cheese.”

He and his father, Gary Grossen, shared three things in common growing up: “farming, making cheese, and firefighting.”

Grossen is the master cheesemaker at the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant at the University of Wisconsin, where he also teaches food science about the production of cheese.

At age five, Grossen started working in a small cheese plant in Monroe where they ran about 100,000 pounds In the cheese world, milk is measured in pounds for accuracy. It’s difficult to measure milk in volumetric measurements such as gallons because it foams of milk a day. He did everything from scrubbing the vatA stainless steel tank or tub into which milk is poured to painting the farmer numbers on the outside of the milk cansA stainless steel type of vessel used to store and transport milk to building cheese boxesRound vessels made of maple, ash, or hickory bentwood are used to transport cheese wheels.

“The whole family worked at it. My dad would stack us up a Swiss wheel lid and give us water and a brush and we’d have to scrub them,” he said.

His family made big Emmentaler Swiss wheels.

“Tuesday was a special day because the cheese grader would come and grade the blocks of Swiss cheese” Grossen said. “We’d load them on a truck and take them to Monroe, where there is are different cheese buyers. Sometimes we got to do a few fun things like go swimming or something but then it was back home and we’d start leading the supplies and load the truck with the cans for the next day.”

Now Grossen teaches students about the production of cheese.

“It’s not going to be the way I was raised,” he said. “A lot of it nowadays is you working in one area of the plant, but back in my era you did everything; you’re the cheesemaker, you’re the field person, you’re the inspector, the maintenance person, the marketer, everything.”

Grossen said it's rewarding to see young people take an interest in the dairy industry.

In fact, Gurth Pretty said Ontario started two new cheese-making programs for professional cheesemakers.

“It’s been realized that in the next ten years, there will be a lot of professional cheesemakers retiring, and who’s going to take over their jobs?” Pretty said. “Cheesemaking is not exactly a hot and sexy job right now. So, community colleges are creating full-time, year-long programs to get that next generation of professional cheesemakers ready.”