It lingered on the edge of medaling for years before it hit: Roth’s Grand Cru Surchoix earned fourth place in its class in 2012, 2013, 2015, and then struck gold with the overall World Champion win at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest in March.
“I was home,” Emmi Roth USA Director of Operations Rob Frie told WCMA, “and I got the text at 8:30 that night: ‘Can you believe it! We won the whole damn thing.’”
What makes a cheese a World Champion? US cheese makers have waited 28 years to explore the answer to that question. The World Championship Cheese Contest was last bested by a US cheese maker when Dale Olson, plant manager at Burnett Dairy Co-op in Grantsburg, Wisconsin, made the winning String cheese.
“We’ve talked about what made this vat, this wheel, special,” Frie said. Made in November 2014, the winning vat of cheese started with fall milk when summer silage is fresher, Frie said. Roth has strict requirements for milk purity and this vat, made late in the week, would have had the freshest farm milk in the silos. “This wheel was just right, not too dry at about 36 percent moisture and we’re looking for crystals in the body. This one was crumby but still creamy,” Frie said.
Twenty-three people interact with every wheel of Grand Cru Surchoix made at the Monroe, Wisconsin, cheese plant that Fermo Jaeckle and Felix Roth purchased in 1990. Swiss cooperative Emmi later purchased Roth Kase in 2010, keeping the company largely intact. Today, Mark Druart, Director of R&D, Bob Bobak, Head Cheese Maker, Jon Conkey, Cellar Supervisor, and Rob Frie set aside time for two cheese tastings per month to see which Grand Cru vats will advance to Grand Cru Reserve (aged 6 months) and Grand Cru Surchoix (9 months or older).
The make procedure was refined in 2012 to create a formula for Grand Cru meant for aging, Frie said. “We closely monitor every stage in the making, brining, washing and turning of each wheel – two of our employees are in Switzerland now sharing knowledge about best practices,” he said.
Frie credits Center for Dairy Research in Madison with “making us a better company.” In addition to sending staff through short courses at the University of Wisconsin, Frie and the Emmi Roth cheese makers have had CDR staff on-site many times to improve quality and solve issues, he said.
About two-thirds of Grand Cru production is marketed as Grand Cru Original, about a quarter reaches the Reserve label and a few percent is Surchoix. Emmi Roth cures only about 25,000 pounds of Surchoix per year, Frie said. “It’s a very small market segment here in the US,” Tim Omer, President of Emmi Roth USA, said minutes after the Surchoix was named World Champion in March. “So if you’re going to do it, you have to be kind of crazy, because you’re not going to make money doing it, you just really have to have a passion for it.”
The night of the World Champion announcement, Frie said, he checked inventory on wheels from the award-winning vat. “We locked ‘em all down that night.”
Frie believes the win will reflect well on the entire Roth Cheese line of products. The company recently debuted Prairie Sunset, an aged gouda-style cheese to broaden its line of specialty cheeses. Roth’s Private Reserve, a raw-milk smear cheese, has racked up awards and placed second behind the Surchoix in its category at the 2016 World Championship Cheese Contest.
“At the plant level, we now tell our people, ‘All this work can come to a peak like this. Everything you do every day can lead to greatness,’” Frie said.
Even now, the tasting team is trying cheeses that will compete in next year’s US Championship Cheese Contest, Frie noted. “There was a lot of hard work, all the way back to 1991, to make this Alpine style in the US,” Frie said. “It would be quite a feat to win it again,” he added with a smile. JU
John Umhoefer has served as executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association since 1992. You can phone John at (608) 828-4550; Fax him at (608) 828-4551; or e-mail John Umhoefer at
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