Cheesemaking is a competitive sport. Wisconsin lays claim to being “America’s Dairyland” and California calls itself the country’s largest dairy producing state. So it is a big deal when a small cheesemaker from Ohio steps up on the stage to grab top honors in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest.

That happened in March in Milwaukee when Richard Guggisberg of Guggisberg Cheese, Millersburg, Ohio, accepted the award. I caught up with Guggisberg last month and asked him how a Swiss cheese from the Buckeye State came to win the contest, which is hosted by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association.

Guggisberg Cheese plans to triple production

Guggisberg was in the middle of installing new automated manufacturing equipment from France at his Sugar Creek plant in Ohio when we spoke by phone. When completed and commissioned in nine months, the upgrade will triple production, he said. The cheese vats, vacuum molding and pressing equipment will give the company more control in the cheesemaking process and allow it to serve more customers. In addition to plants in Sugar Creek and Millersberg, the company has a production facility in Indiana.

Although winning the best of show in the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest was a first, Guggisberg is no stranger to the winner’s circle. In this year’s American Cheese Society competition, Guggisberg received first place awards for a reduced-fat Swiss wheel, a baby Swiss and a Colby. It took a second place for a mild Emmental wheel and a third place for a Maasdam.

Meet the team that made the U.S. Championship Cheese

The team that made the U.S. Championship Cheese consisted of Tom Beck, Jennifer George, Marvin Raber, Cecylia Szewczyk, Derek Yoder and Norman Yoder. Szewczyk (pronounced “sefchick”) is a natural cheese specialist working in Sugar Creek where the Swiss and baby Swiss products are made. She told me the cheese was made in the plant’s production vats and then finished on vacuum-molding and pressing equipment on a pilot line in the research and development lab. (The pilot line is a smaller version of the new equipment that is being installed.)

The team made four wheels for the contest. Two were damaged and two were set aside to age naturally to be entered into the contest. Szewczyk and Guggisberg told me they were uncertain about their prospects for winning. Normally, they age a cheese for six months to allow the gas-forming flora to develop eyes and flavor. In this case, the cheeses they entered were only three months old. One of the wheels developed a crack and was disqualified. That left Guggisberg with only one entry. But it was nearly perfect. The award-winning Emmental cheese scored of 98.496 out of a possible 100 points.

Szewczyk was at home in Ohio during the judging in Wisconsin. When she received the phone call notifying her of the win, she jumped up and down, screaming for joy. Naturally, it was recorded on a cell phone video, which she shared with me.

The cheese is gone, consumed by employees and customers. The company retails its own branded cheese and it makes bulk cheese and private label products for customers.

“We make a good-quality Swiss-style cheese. We focus on quality. There’s a demand for that,” Guggisberg told me.

When the new cheese line is operational, he will be able to continue to meet that demand, and then some.