The U.S. cheese industry started in the 19th century when European settlers came to America to start a new life. They brought with them their cheese-making skills and have continued to perfect their craft through the years, according to Angélique Hollister, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC) vice president of cheese and consumer products. Results from international contests and the opinions of highly respected chefs show that the work is paying off.
Earlier this spring, the U.S. won a large majority of the medals awarded at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest, proving that it can compete with the world’s best cheeses. Expert judges from 16 different countries critiqued 2,959 cheeses from 23 countries. Only 330 cheeses, or 11%, won medals, and three out of four medal winners were from the U.S.
For the first time since 1988, the top award in the contest went to a U.S. cheese — a smear-ripened hard cheese from Emmi Roth USA, located in south-central Wisconsin.
The World Championship Cheese Contest is held on an every-other-year basis. Based on medals, the U.S. cheese is good and getting even better. In 2012, the U.S. took home 65.9% of the medals; in 2014, 69.3%, and in 2016, 74.8%.
Validation from the World Cheese Awards
At another competition, the World Cheese Awards held last fall in Europe, the U.S. came in third place with a total of 83 medals, beating several notable cheese-making countries in their own back yard. For example, Hollister said the U.S. defeated Italy in the parmesan category, the U.K. in cheddar and France, Italy and Denmark in bleu cheeses.
Middle East chefs change minds about high-end U.S. cheeses
Medals and awards are not the only indicator of success, however, Hollister noted: “Influential chefs from the Middle East who visited Wisconsin on a USDEC reverse trade mission said they were impressed by the quality of high-end U.S. cheeses.”
"This surprises me, for sure," said Hazma Mortada, executive sous chef at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. "It is my pleasure to meet this beautiful line of cheeses (offered at Sartori Cheese in east-central Wisconsin)."
Bruno Troesch, executive chef at Emirates Flight Catering, called the trip an "eye-opener."
"If any of my colleagues in Dubai ask me about my trip to the United States and what I've seen and learned about U.S. cheese, I will openly tell them to start changing their minds, start thinking about American cheeses and start maybe tasting some American cheese ... and see if they can use it in their operations," he said.
Sebastian Nohse, culinary director for the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai, said he knew about Wisconsin cheddar, but that was it. Now that he has learned about artisan cheeses in the U.S., he sees opportunities for those products, "because the quality there can hold up to any other top qualities from other countries in the world, and the flavors are quite distinctive and different."
If they can find consistent suppliers, the chefs visiting Wisconsin said they are eager to introduce high-end U.S. cheeses to their clients.
"If tomorrow, I could have access to the artisan cheese I tried here, I have no doubts that I could start introducing something different," said Carlos Delos Mozos, expert chef from the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Dubai.
Even though all of the chefs work in the Middle East/North Africa, many of them were originally from Europe and had worked in various European countries.