atching 40 judges in white lab coats nibble on cheese and then spit the samples into garbage cans might not sound like an elegant evening to most people, 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 attended by just a handful of spectators and reporters. But with a growing number of foodies seeking to outdo each other in their pursuit of local, sustainable, organic and handcrafted fare, the artisan cheese competition has become a hot ticket among those looking to get their gouda on.
The 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 400 ticketholders will be able to sample 15 of the top entries, mingle with Wisconsin cheesemakers and meet the international panel of judges. The event is sold out.
"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.
Cathy Durham, 54, a Madison business appraiser who bought tickets for herself and her husband, said she was looking forward to talking to the food scientists, cheesemakers and others who serve as judges about their jobs.
"I'm really curious — what is it you're looking for? Can you really taste (the subtle differences)? Could you taste that when you first started or did you get it over the years?" she said.
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 competition.
Being chosen best in show can mean big business. Some previous winners have talked about a crush of demand for their cheese following the announcement. After 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 consistently outperforms other U.S. states. The Dairy State won 21 of the 79 categories in 2010, while second-place New York had six wins.
Madison retiree Jennifer Ondrejka, 60, bought tickets for herself and her husband after hearing about the contest on Facebook. She said the debut of entries from India and her native Croatia piqued her interest, but she also looked forward to chatting with other cheeseophiles.
"It's a party. You know, mingle with other people, have hors d'oeuvres — it makes for a really nice evening," Ondrejka said. "It's not the judging. I don't really picture myself going to the event just to watch people nibble and spit."