"For all participants, the competition is a unique opportunity to achieve a bit of glory and represent their countries on an international stage," says Marc Beck, senior v.p., market development, U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC), a sponsor of the event.
This was USDEC's third year participating in the annual World Cheese Awards, which is one of two major international cheese contests. The other-the World Championship Cheese Contest-takes place biannually in Wisconsin. Both events have entries from around the world; however, the U.K. event is more European and the Wisconsin contest more North American.
"The U.K. event gives U.S. cheesemakers the opportunity to compete head-to-head with many of the world's oldest and most respected cheese companies," says Beck.
Thus, winning awards in London helps U.S. cheesemakers shed their image of being producers of only commodity or processed cheeses. With U.S. cheeses establishing a premium image, USDEC has an impressive story to tell when selling U.S. cheeses in the international marketplace.
"We use the fact that U.S. cheese performs well against some of the world's most venerable brands as a platform to support our message that the United States makes many of the world's best cheese products," adds Beck. "Having U.S. cheeses win prestigious awards goes a long way in convincing buyers in other countries."
And though the United States exported a mere 2,707 metric tons of cheese into Europe this past year, European specialty cheese shop owners increasingly express interest in selling farmstead U.S. cheeses.
"I have been trying to import U.S. farmstead cheeses for the past two years," explains Patricia Michelson, owner of London-based La Fromagerie, a specialty cheese, food and wine shop. "Price is not an issue, as my customers are not price sensitive. They care about food and want quality . . . the best of the best.
"I encourage young people who want to become specialty cheesemakers to do so," Michelson adds. "Follow your instincts and work hard at it. There are customers who want to buy your cheese."
Jeremy Bowen, sales mgr., for London's cheesemonger Paxton & Whitfield, suppliers of cheese to the Royal Family, adds, "The United States has proven itself as both a producer of some of the best wines in the world, as well as of fine cheeses."
It's exciting to know that Europeans no longer think that U.S. cheeses come individually wrapped, with a dozen slices to a pack. "Trend-setting chefs and consumers from inside and outside of Europe are starting to notice that U.S. cheese factories make some of the best delicacies in the world," says Gerken. "Our strong showing at the World Cheese Awards has helped elevate the image of all U.S. cheese in our target markets."
Indeed, the United States has been very successful selling products to countries with few access barriers. When it comes to the 25 countries that make up the European Union, demand exists for U.S. specialty cheeses, but access barriers make it a challenge to penetrate the market. This will hopefully no longer be an issue as World Trade Organization agreements change in the next few years, opening markets to more U.S. products.
"Our ability to sell U.S. cheese is dependent upon the competitive position of U.S. products in individual international markets," Gerken adds. "The United States does not want to compete with traditional European cheeses. We have some specialties that we call our own."
To encourage participation, USDEC provided U.S. cows milk cheesemakers with financial support to enter and ship cheeses to the contest. For more information on participating in next year's contest, call USDEC at 703/528-3049.
Sidebar: U.S. Cheesemakers Win 44 MedalsThese 23 U.S. cheesemakers won the following awards:
Bingham Hill Cheese Co. (1s, 2b)
Fort Collins, Colo.
Bittersweet Plantation Dairy (1g)
Cabot Creamery Cooperative (1g)
F. Cappiello Dairy Products Inc. (1g)
Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese (1b)
Cypress Grove Chevre Inc. (1g, 1s)
Fair Oaks Dairy Products LLC (1g)
Fair Oaks, Ind.
Fire Fly Farms (1s, 1b)
Fiscalini Cheese (1g, 1s, 1b)
Hillman Farm (1g)
Leelanau Cheese Co. (1s)
Suttons Bay, Mich.
Level Valley Creamery Inc. (2g, 1s)
West Bend, Wis.
Marin French Cheese Co. (2s, 1b)
Rising Sun Farms Inc. (1s, 2b)
The Rogue Creamery (2g, 1s)
Central Point, Ore.
Rondele Specialty Foods (1g, 2s)
Roth Kase USA Ltd. (2g)
Sweet Grass Dairy (2b)
Swiss Valley Farms Co. (1b)
Valley Gold LLC (1s)
Vermont Shepherd LLC (1b)
Widmer Cheese Cellars (1b)
Willow Hill Farm LLC (1g, 2s, 1b)
(g = gold; s = silver; b = bronze)
For details on the contest and the winners, visit: www.finefoodworld.co.uk/html/2004win.htm
Two of America's finest artisan cheeses received special recognition. Smoked Oregon Blue from The Rogue Creamery was awarded the USDEC Award for Best American Cheese, 2004. And, Harvest Cheese from Hillman Farm received Best American Cheese, World Cheese Awards, 2004.