GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN — When you hear two middle-aged men in Green Bay, Wisconsin, talking about statistical records, it’s easy to assume they are discussing sports.
After all, Green Bay is home to the legendary Packers of the National Football League, who so dominate the local culture that the city’s public buses have green and gold stripes to honor the team’s colors.
But two guys chatting in amazement over the record figure of 2,555 weren’t talking about passing or rushing yards, or anything at all to do with the beloved Packers.
They were talking about cheese.
In the United States these days, cheese is emerging as a product and point of pride that in some circles is beginning to rival that of local sports teams.
That was clear at the United States Championship Cheese Contest held here last week, where a crowd of about 500 people packed a ballroom to see a champion named. Two days earlier, a steady stream of people watched judges sniff, taste, spit and rate nearly 3,000 different cheeses from across the nation.
“It’s become a phenomenon,” said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, which organizes and hosts the contest every other year. “People fly in from across the country to go to this.”
A Baby Swiss cheese made by Guggisberg Cheese in Ohio was named the overall champion. Two aged Goudas made by Marieke Gouda, a Wisconsin company, finished second and third in the competition that also chose winners in 116 categories.
The contest has come a long way from its humble beginnings in a butter factory’s garage in 1981.
“There was a boat in there, and six people judging a couple hundred cheeses,” said Umhoefer, whose organization also hosts a biennial world championship contest in Madison, Wisconsin. “Now, we’ve got 2,555 cheeses, butters and yogurt, and we’re in Lambeau Field” — home of the Packers.
The contest bills itself as the nation’s largest technical cheese, butter and yogurt competition.
In a state called America’s Dairyland, where locals are called “cheeseheads,” the changes in the industry and products that have swept across the nation have played out here on a larger scale.
“There are so many more good producers of cheese in the United States than there used to be,” said Gordon Edgar, who has been a cheese buyer for San Francisco’s Rainbow Grocery cooperative since 1994 and has written two books, “Cheesemonger: A Life on the Wedge” and “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese.”
“There are all sorts of cheeses that weren’t made in the U.S. for a long time, if ever,” he said.
Cheesemaking is by no means a new industry in the U.S. English colonists and Irish immigrants brought it to New England, while Swiss and German immigrants brought it to Wisconsin.
Farmstead operations, with cheese made from a farm’s cows, gave way to cooperatives and commodity cheese — mozzarella is the top-produced cheese in the U.S.
Two forces brought change among U.S. cheese producers. The counterculture and back-to-the land movements of the 1960s and 1970s sparked people to make cheese on their own farms. From there sprang small artisanal cheese companies.
In Wisconsin, agricultural leaders in the 1990s were faced with the prospect of California becoming the country’s top dairy producer. Unwilling to lose its leadership position, local governments got to work.
Tax breaks helped dairy producers and cheese plants modernize. Other government funding led to the founding of the Dairy Business Innovation Center and the spread of smaller, specialty cheese operations throughout the state.
In 1997, Wisconsin made 50 million pounds of specialty cheese. By 2007, that figure grew to 174 million. In 2017, the most recent available statistic, the total was 799 million — 47 percent of specialty cheese made in the U.S.
Throughout the U.S., consumers wanted more locally produced and unique foods, and the cheese industry was well-positioned to meet the demands.
Low prices, tariff anxiety
Despite an enthusiastic market for specialty cheese, these are tough times for the dairy industry. More than 1,000 Wisconsin dairy farms have closed in the past two years. Milk prices have been low, and cheese exports to Mexico and China have dried up because of tariffs.
“With an event like this, you see the innovation and you see how people are trying to market their way out of the doldrums,” Umhoefer said of the contest. “The commodity price is low, but that just means you need to make something better than a commodity.”
Many U.S. cheesemakers are succeeding at doing that.
Besides the contest in Green Bay, cheese fans have filled tents and convention centers throughout the U.S.
In 2016, a U.S.-made cheese, Grand Cru Surchoix by Roth Cheese of Monroe, Wisconsin, won the world cheese championship for the first time since 1988.
In 2017, Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese Company in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, was the first U.S. cheesemaker honored by the prestigious international Slow Food Award.
“In the past, people would come into the store and say they had visitors coming from France, so they would want to buy French cheese to impress them,” Edgar said of the customers he’s seen in 25 years. “Now if they have visitors, they want to buy American cheese to impress them, to show them how good American cheese is. That’s just a complete switch.”