The record 2,615 cheese and butter entries include more than 350 made with goat, sheep or mixed milk, an increase of nearly 18 percent from the last competition in 2012 and about 65 percent from eight years ago. The tougher competition among so-called alternative milk cheeses reflects greater participation by European cheesemakers, the influence of the local food movement and Americans' seemingly unending desire for novelty, according to the contest organizer and experts in food trends.
Americans in general eat more cheese than they did a decade ago, with more than four-fifths sampling cheddar, Swiss or another variety at least once in a two-week span, said Harry Balzer, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group, a consumer market research firm.
One reason for that is the United States' love affair with the sandwich, which is the nation's most popular food item. The four most popular sandwiches are a hamburger, ham, turkey and a hot dog - and cheese is good on all of them, Balzer said.
Another factor is Americans' quest for novelty even as they stay within their comfort zone. Consumers can swap goat cheese for shredded cheddar in a salad and feel like they are trying something new, Balzer said.
"Look at all the craft beers that are coming out, but in the end, what are they? Beer," he said. "We all like to think we're explorers and we are, but we're not explorers of the unknown. We are explorers of the known."
Cheddar and mozzarella remain among the most popular cheeses in consumer research. Less than 1 percent of Americans eat goat cheese regularly, according to NPD's research. About 2 percent eat feta, traditionally made with goat or sheep milk.
More than two-fifths of the goat and sheep milk cheeses entered this year in the biennial world cheese championship come from outside the United States and reflect organizers' efforts to recruit participants from Europe, where goat and sheep milk cheeses are more common, contest manager Jane Cisler said.
"A lot of it has to do with the land available," said Cisler, explaining that the smaller animals need less space than cows.
U.S. cheesemakers have been making fresh chevre and other goat milk products in earnest for only about 30 years, said Cathy Strange, a cheese buyer for Whole Foods Markets who will help judge the cheese championship. Sales of goat cheese have gotten a recent boost from the local food movement and health-conscious consumers, she said.
"They're seeking flavorful products," Strange said. "They're eating less, so they're not eating a lot of mild cheddar. What they will do is eat something with a little stronger flavor that they can use in different ways. For example, goat cheese, you can spread on bagels and then you can use it on a sandwich and also put it on top of a salad."
Long known as "the cheddar state," Wisconsin had only a handful of cheesemakers who used goat and sheep milk when Ken Monteleone opened the Fromagination cheese shop in Madison in 2007. But more artisan producers have moved here since, attracted by lush land, University of Wisconsin research facilities and businesses that support the dairy industry. About a dozen local creameries now supply his store with goat, sheep or mixed milk cheese.
Monteleone often includes one goat, one sheep and one cow milk cheese in platters he assembles for customers. He recommends Martone, an ash-covered cheese from LaClare Farms in Chilton that's made with a blend of goat and cow milk, and Dante, an aged sheep milk cheese produced by the Wisconsin Sheep Dairy Cooperative.
"Having a variety of milk types, the various flavors really come through and complement each other," he said. "Sheep tends to be fuller in flavor because of the fat content, and a lot of the people who have lactose intolerance can tolerate goat's milk cheese."