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Local companies thrive in Hispanic cheese market
Bill Hoesley of the Wisconsin Cheese Group in Monroe holds queso fresco and queso quesadilla. The Wisconsin Cheese Group will be competing in the World Championship Cheese Contest and the queso fresco will be one of the cheeses it will enter. To order a reprint of this photo, click here. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)
MONROE - Competitors from the "Swiss Cheese Capital of the U.S.A" and surrounding area are gearing up for the next World Championship Cheese Contest, hosted in Madison next week.

Established in 1957, the contest is a competition of cheesemakers from across the globe. Proceeds from the event go to the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research graduate program.

The Green County area has been well represented in the past. Valley View Cheese Co-op in South Wayne, for example, won second place for its brick during the 2014 competition. Cheesemaker Hansi Lehner Jr. said he hopes to win an overall class this year. But either way, "it's nice to get recognized."

A sizeable bit of that recognition for area cheesemakers came from outside the brick and Swiss varieties, with several local companies picking up honors for their Hispanic cheeses.

Bill Hoesley, new product manager of Wisconsin Cheese Group in Monroe, said the market for Hispanic cheese has grown in the last two decades. Wisconsin Cheese Group makes only Hispanic types of cheese and during the 2014 world contest received second place for a queso fresco called Panela.

"When it started, it was very, very small," Hoesley said. "It's getting a little more specialized. Years ago, you might only have two companies. Now there are 15 to 20 factories."

In the dairy business his entire career, first with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Dairy and then later in research for cheese and food safety at University of Wisconsin, Hoesley has witnessed the growth. He said a driving reason is the increase in the Hispanic population within the country and the desire of those consumers to eat food true to their culture.

"As that's grown, naturally the Anglo population has grown inquisitive," Hoesley said. "They want to be authentic in recipes."

Hoesley added that while it is a fast-growing business, Hispanic cheese is still a small percentage of total cheese production in the country.

Emmi Roth USA in Monroe won Best of Class and second place for its hard Hispanic cheeses during the last competition.

Chula Vista Cheese Company in Browntown won Best of Class for its Hispanic melting cheese. The Queso Chihuahua is usually referred to as quesadilla cheese, Browntown plant manager Tom Dahmen said. The company employs 66 workers cycling through nine-hour shifts to create 40,000 pounds of cheese daily.

"They take a sense of pride in it," Dahmen said. "It's a great honor to all the farmers who supply milk and all the workers at the plant to be recognized in a competition measured against worldwide producers."

The contest, which runs Monday through Wednesday, had a record of 2,955 entries to judge this year. Tickets for the 500-person event have been sold out. Those who managed to gain entry will sample cheese from all over the world and hear 48 judges from 16 countries announce the 2016 World Champion Cheese.