ASHWAUBENON, Wis. — Judges at the United States Championship Cheese Contest are looking for more than just flavor as they work to pick the marquee products from around the nation.

What You Need To Know

  • The contest has almost 2,500 products up for judging

  • More than 40 invited judges are working to pick the best cheeses in 113 classes

  • Wisconsin producers have the most entries, followed by New York and Idaho

Just ask Chad Galer. He’s one of the invited judges.

“Judging is more than just tasting cheese. A lot of people think, ‘You’re going to go eat some cheese.’ Before we put the cheese in our mouth and taste it, you can see we look at the exterior,” Galer said. “This is such a competitive competition, and technical competition. We’re looking to make sure the cheese is formed the way it should be and presented.”

That means making sure wheels aren’t lopsided and blocks of cheese look like blocks.

“Then we’re going to take a plug and we’re going to feel it and look at it and see what the texture is,” Galer said. “I’ve done three, four, five evaluations before I even put it in my mouth.”

The championship is held in odd years. Almost 2,500 dairy products have been entered across 113 classifications this year.

The event is hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. John Umhoefer, who heads up the organization, said it brings attention to the entire industry.

“This is the chance for people — and we’re seeing it even this year — with a new cheese to come in, enter the contest, get a gold medal and change their whole sales picture,” he said.

Cheese makers have seen shifting markets between restaurant and retail sales throughout the pandemic. Umhoefer said the industry is on sturdy ground.

“The industry has really been facing some uneven waters, but they’ve navigated it,” he said. “We haven’t lost anyone in the industry and we’re very proud the cheese makers put cheese on grocery store shelves all through the last three years.”

When Galer isn’t judging cheese, the Wisconsin native is the vice president of food safety and product research with Dairy Management Inc. in Rosemont, Ill.

“I usually steal the conversation at any dinner party,” he said. “When I tell someone I judge cheese they’re like, ‘How do you do that? How do you get paid to eat cheese? How did you learn enough to know how to do that?’ People are always fascinated by it. I feel really lucky to have this job and to represent the dairy industry and dairy farmers that way.”

Winning products will be announced Thursday at 2 p.m. A livestream of the announcements can be found here.