Jeff Jirik and his team at Faribault Dairy Co. are happy cheesemakers.
They won the top prize Thursday in the Gorgonzola category at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis.
This contest is an Olympics of cheesemaking. It’s held once every two years and draws thousands of entries from around the world.
“It’s been crazy trying to absorb it,” Jirik said. “It’s such a big accomplishment for such a small plant like ours.”
The Faribault dairy is Minnesota’s only winner, beating 16 other entries in the Gorgonzola category. In all, the judges considered more than 2,300 cheeses from 20 countries. Winners were announced Thursday.
Jirik credits caves for the quality of his firm’s Gorgonzola. The Faribault dairy makes its Amablu brand cheese in a series of interconnected caves along the Straight River just outside downtown Faribault.
The St. Peter sandstone is perfect, Jirik said. The pure quartzite creates a pure hygienic environment with 99 percent humidity — an ideal place to grow Gorgonzola.
The plant has quite a history. The cave opened in 1854 as a brewery, but shut down during Prohibition. Cheese master Felix Frederickson turned the cave complex into the nation’s first blue cheese plant in 1936.
Jirik took a job at the plant in 1979.
“My first job was scraping mold off cheese, for $4.65 per hour,” he said.
After the plant changed hands a few times, ConAgra shut it down in 1991. Jirik moved on to another dairy and eventually to another industry. But his heart remained in the Faribault caves.
In 2001, Jirik bought the property and started making cheese again. Today, the firm turns out 18,000 pounds per week.
You can buy the prize-winning Amablu in most major grocery stores.
“We don’t grow special cheese for the contest,” Jirik said. “I am saying with 100 percent accuracy that the cheese that won is out in the marketplace now.”