Two Days in the Life of a Cheese Judge

ContendersBefore the recent American Cheese Society conference began, organizers and cheese judges from around the country gathered at the Oregon Convention Center to taste and evaluate nearly 1,000 cheeses over the course of two days. I had the honor of being one of the aesthetic judges for this year's competition, and this is my story.

A phenomenal, incredible amount of work goes on behind the scenes to make the ACS competition possible. Nearly 1,000 cheeses were received, unpacked, cataloged and judged...only to be repacked, sorted, labeled and set out several days later at the Festival of Cheese, and later repacked and sent to the Cheese Sell-Off. The competition is a truly heroic feat of organization and orchestration by Competition Chair David Grotenstein and all of the volunteers who contributed to this effort. For a complete listing of judges, categories and results, see here.

Judging Teams   Twenty four judges were divided into teams of two, one aesthetic and one technical judge per team. Each judge was responsible for 50% of the total score. The technical judges were, for the most part, cheese or food science professionals, including several from Washington State University, Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin. Local aesthetic judges included Martha Holmberg from the Oregonian, Steve Jones from Steve’s Cheese, Eric Rose from New Seasons and Christine Hyatt (aka “Cheese Chick) from DPI Northwest.

Each team sampled in the neighborhood of 80-90 different cheeses over the course of the two day judging – and that’s not including the finals! I should add that all cheeses were unwrapped and coded by volunteers prior to our arrival, so the tastings were completely anonymous; we had no idea what we were tasting or where it was from other than that it belonged to, say, the sheep's milk feta category. That's not to say that I didn't think to myself – hmm, I'll bet this is  "XYZ," but there was no way of knowing for sure.

Judging Judging Criteria  What do you look for when you judge cheese? Each type of cheese has distinguishing characteristics that make it what it is....and problems such as gassiness (indicated by the presence of holes inside the cheese) or pastiness (excessive moisture) are fairly easy to spot. Problems in cheese result from bad cheesemaking technique, poor handling or processing, or even improper shipping. I saw a number of fresh goat and cow’s milk cheeses that were swimming in pools of whey/moisture (and weren’t supposed to be). More than a few aged cheeses had, upon closer inspection, teardrops of whey present inside the flesh of the cheese – which, besides looking funny, creates a sharp acidy flavor that really ruins the whole tasting experience. Balance was another thing I found myself noticing – flavors should work in harmony and not dominate one another. You really see the issue of balance writ large in a category like smoked cheeses: here, smoke and salty flavors shouldn’t be so strong as to cancel out what the cheese tastes like underneath.

One valuable aspect of cheese judging was comparing samples across a spectrum. Where you might taste an aged cheddar at a party and say – oh, that’s pretty good – when you taste that same cheddar up against 20 other similarly aged cheddars, this puts things into perspective pretty quickly. If it’s bad, you know it right away, and if it’s great, it stands out.

Judging Technique  How do you sample 100+ cheeses over the course of two days without a) numbing your taste buds and b) becoming horrifically ill?  I observed sampling techniques ranging from dainty nibbles to the taste-and-spit technique employed by most of the technical judges (the most experienced judges of the group). I tried to spit at first, but I found it surprisingly difficult… I suppose this was just conditioning, because by the second day of judging, I was tasting and spitting with the best of them. Organizers also provided a lot of bread and fruit for palate readjustment...pineapple works amazingly well, I found, to cut the coating of fat in your mouth.

Smoked_cows_milk_cheeses Best in Show  Once the judging teams had judged and scored every category available, heroic competition organizers (after compiling all of the data) ushered us into the final rounds. First place winners from every category that had a first place winner were set out in groups. From there, judges selected group favorites. These winners were separated out into a final group, from which we voted on Best in Show.  In the end, I found my loyalties divided between a fantastic aged blue (I believe this was the Shepherd's Way Farms Big Woods Blue), a beautiful washed rind (Leelanu Raclette from Michigan), and the eventual winner, the Cabot Clothbound Cheddar. After much angst and deliberation I ended up voting for the cheddar.

Awards Ceremony  Although a select group of us knew the competition results on Wednesday, we held our secrets close until the awards ceremony on Friday night. The room was packed for the awards ceremony and anticipation crackled in the air...finally, David Grotenstein and John Greeley announced category winners. While all of the winners were very excited, it was especially fun to see how thrilled some of the smaller cheesemakers were to accept a ribbon...and in the end, I think that’s what the competition is all about and why it’s a worthwhile exercise.

For additional accounts of ACS judging see the following links:

  • Dr. Diane Stemple's account of the 2005 Conference judging
  • Amy Albert's account from Fine Cooking Magazine