Morry Gash  /  AP
Judy Capparelli of Smithfield, Utah, smells a sample of cheese at this week's U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.
updated 3/17/2005 10:07:36 AM ET 2005-03-17T15:07:36

For three days straight, they squeezed, poked and nibbled nuggets of cheese after cheese, stopping only to cleanse their palates with water and dry crackers before savoring the next slice.

All in the quest to choose the cheese champion.

The 14 judges at the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest declared a Swiss-style emmentaler from Fair Oaks, Ind. the overall winner. Randy Krahenbuhl, who also got nods in several other categories, produced the cheese for Fair Oaks Dairy Products.

Wearing white lab coats and hats and carrying clipboards to note the taste, smell, shape and color, the judges jotted down the "cheesy" details, winnowing the selections from more than 1,000 entries. Some donned bifocals for a better view.

"They're all surprises," said John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, in describing his reaction to the top finishers. His group co-sponsors the event.

More and more of the cheeses at the semiannual competition are coming from smaller producers experimenting with flavors and specialty products, including one made from buffalo milk. And they're making more of them. This year, contest organizers got 300 more entries than they expected, from 25 states.

Second place went to a raclette from Leelanau Cheese Co. in Suttons Bay, Mich. and the third-place winner was a semisoft goat's milk cheese coated in cocoa powder from the Dairy State's own Carr Valley Cheese Co. in La Valle.

The tasting requires a sensitive palate, said Bill Schlinsog, a retired dairy specialist for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture who grew up in a cheese factory and has been judging it for 20 years.

"It's honing the taste buds to determine what you're tasting," Schlinsog said. "You can say I don't like it, but here you have to record why you don't like it."

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