MADISON, Wis. — Watching 40 judges in white lab coats nibble on cheese and then spit the samples into garbage cans might not sound like the most elegant evening. But hundreds of cheese lovers have paid $25 each for a close-up view of Wednesday's World Championship Cheese Contest finals.
This is the first year the international contest has charged admission to its finals, which historically have been low-key affairs, drawing just a handful of spectators and reporters. As a growing number of foodies try to outdo one another in their pursuit of local, sustainable, organic and handcrafted fare, the artisan cheese competition has become a hot ticket for those looking to get their Gouda on.
The sold-out contest, held every two years in Madison, typically draws more than 2,000 entries from nearly two dozen nations. Usually, only the judges taste the cheese, but this year's 400 ticketholders were able to sample 15 of the top entries while they mingled with Wisconsin cheesemakers and the international panel of judges.
"In the past, unless you were a super cheese geek, this is not something you went to," said Jeanne Carpenter, executive director of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, an organization of artisan cheese fans. "But getting to try 15 different cheeses from 15 different countries, plus meeting the best of Wisconsin's cheesemakers, people love that."
Experts compare specialty cheeses to wines: Both have subtle variations based on their region of origin, year of creation and the techniques employed by master craftsmen.
Judging in cheese and wine contests is similar as well. Judges roll entries in their mouths, search for nuanced characteristics and then discard the samples. Some cheese judges wipe their tongues with napkins between tastings.
One of the paid spectators was Steve Ceder, a painting contractor from Madison.
"This is Wisconsin," he said, as he nibbled on a few samples. "I enjoy cheese a lot, and to have a chance to try so many different cheeses is just such a wonderful experience."
The three-day contest began Monday, with judges grading 2,500 entries in 82 cheese and butter classes on flavor, texture, body and color. The winner in each class advanced to the semifinals, where the top 16 were chosen for Wednesday night's finals.
As expected, cheesemakers from the U.S. and Switzerland came out strong. Seven finalists are from the U.S. — five from Wisconsin and one each from Utah and Vermont.
Five other finalists are from Switzerland, which has produced champions in each of the past three contests. The Netherlands has two finalists, and Canada and Spain each have one.
Landing best in show can translate into big business. Some previous winners have talked about crushing demand for their cheese following the announcement. When Swiss cheesemaker Christian Wuethrich won in 2006 with an Emmentaler, he raised its price more than 10 percent, from $8 to $9 per pound.
Switzerland has dominated recent championships, taking top honors in each of the past three contests. Wisconsin, meanwhile, is consistently the top-performing U.S. state. True to form, the Dairy State won 30 of the 82 categories this year.
Estela Roustan, a Spanish teacher from the Wisconsin Dells, tried several cheeses from Switzerland and France and said she was eager to try the samples from Croatia and Spain.
"There's so much variety and diversity here," Roustan, 67, said. "It's so wonderful. When you get to taste them, it's almost like you're traveling to different countries."