The white hats are reserved for the judges. The red hats, they are worn by those who supervise the judges.
The blue hats are worn by those typically found behind the maroon burgundy curtains where they do the work that makes the largest technical cheese contest in the world hum.
About 100 volunteers have donned the blue hats at this year’s World Championship Cheese Contest at Monona Terrace, where 66,000 pounds of cheese along with yogurt and butter entries have been the focal point this week of the cheese world.
Their work began last week in a cooler in Little Chute, where the contest’s 3,402 entries were shipped and stored on 78 pallets prior to the start of Tuesday’s judging. Known as the B Team, the work of the blue hats won’t end until well after the top cheese is crowned at Thursday night’s gala, where the top 20 cheeses, which will be determined Thursday morning, square off for bragging rights as best in the world.
“These guys are constantly working back here,” said Phil Lindemann, owner of Pine River Pre Pack in the Manitowoc County town of Newton, who was volunteering with his wife, Mary, for the fourth straight year.
Their jobs include unpacking and delivering cheese to the judges and then retrieving, repacking and storing the cheese on designated pallets. The top three in each category get their own pallet. Others not so lucky are stored on pallets and shipped to cheese shops and grocery stores. Pink stickers on each box designate that a cheese has been judged. Nearby, other volunteers slice and cube cheese for tasting tables at the center of the 35,000-square-foot exhibition hall.
“We have won awards at these contests lots and lots of times,” Mary Lindemann said. “Four years ago, our first time volunteering, did we ever realize the work and the effort and the planning. It’s a well-oiled machine.”
The contest draws entries from around the world. But to no one’s surprise, Wisconsin cheesemakers again dominated the competition. It’s unclear if a state-made cheese will replicate the best of show performance of 2016, but the Grand Cru Surchoix from Fitchburg-based Emmi-Roth USA, which took home the top prize two years ago, will not repeat. It placed fourth in the washed rind/smear-ripened hard cheese category with a 99.35 score. But the 2018 results again proved that Wisconsin does it better than any other spot on the planet when it comes to quality, quantity and variety.
State cheesemakers grabbed first place in 46 of the 121 categories, had 46 second-place finishes and 37 third places. Those numbers include a sweep of the top three spots in 18 categories, including sharp waxed cheddar, brick/muenster, havarti and flavored havarti. Other sweeps were in mild gouda, flavored gouda and smoked gouda, while Lactalis in Belmont swept the Brie category.
Chula Vista Cheese in Browntown took the top three spots in Latin American-style melting cheese. Hidden Springs Creamery in Westby swept the semi-hard sheep’s milk category, while Yodelay Yogurt in Madison swept the low-fat cow’s milk yogurt class.
The Lindemanns again found success in the cold pack division as they took the top seven spots in the cold pack food category with their extra sharp cheddar and placed first in cold pack cheese spread with their pepper jack.
“The cold pack market has been flat for many years, but the Midwest is the mainstay of the cold pack world,” Phil Lindemann said. “If you go to the South, they don’t know cold pack.”
The Lindemann family has strong and deep roots in the state’s dairy industry. Phil’s father founded Pine River Pre Pack in 1963, but the Lindemann family has been in the dairy production business since the 1880s when Phil’s great-great-grandfather, Herman, emigrated from Prussia in 1870 and established his dairy farm 16 years later in Manitowoc County.
Gustav Lindemann, Phil’s great-grandfather, studied at UW-Madison under Stephen M. Babcock and later became a cheesemaker in Denmark before founding, in 1907, Northern Wisconsin Produce Co., a firm that assembled, warehoused and sold Wisconsin cheese nationwide. Phil’s grandfather, Oscar, joined Gustav in 1918 after his graduation from Lawrence University in Appleton, became a licensed cheese grader and was a director-member of the Wisconsin Cheese Exchange in Plymouth.
The Lindemanns are now working to expand their business and have created a line of preservative-free cheese spreads that consist primarily of cheese, whey and butter. The flavors include port wine, sharp cheddar, garlic and herb and a hot habanero. They will not attend Thursday night’s gala so they can travel to California for a conference to promote their products, which can be used on sandwiches, baked potatoes, pasta and soups. It even works for a grilled cheese sandwich.
“It stays intact,” Mary Lindemann. “It’s not just for crackers anymore.”
This story has been corrected to reflect the number of second the third place finishes by Wisconsin cheesemakers.