August 7th, 2007
This year I had the opportunity to be an aesthetic judge for the cheese society competition. There were more cheeses entered than ever before and thus more judges too. The cheese categories were divided among 15 teams of judges- each team has a technical and aesthetic judge. A division of labor in the evaluation of the cheese- the technical judge is looking for flaws and the aesthetic judge is looking for everything that is good about the cheese (aromas, flavor, texture, and rind/appearance). The technical judges start with 50 points and deduct while the aesthetic judges build up points to a maximum of 50.We started out the first day with a training session where John Greeley and David Grotenstein (the competition co-chairs) explained the judging protocols of the American Cheese Society. Then we did a trial run of five cheeses, comparing our scoring and comments to ensure that we all understood how to put our judging sheets into practice. The teams were announced, our white lab coats were issued and we were unleashed on our tables.
Bob Bradley was my technical partner. He is a retired professor and researcher from the University of Wisconsin. I thoroughly enjoyed working alongside him- he’s got some serious cheese evaluation skills- figures considering he was the coach of the Dairy Products Evaluation Team for years in Wisconsin. The coolest thing about Bob though was that he was that rare combination of confident and curious. When I didn’t taste things that he did, we would discuss it at length- not necessarily to alter our scores but to understand each other’s palette. Of course these conversations mostly ended in a litany of questions from me to him about the science happening in cheese when it is made and during its maturation.
Each cheese is marked with an alphanumeric code- you can see them on the stickers in the photo. This prevents the judges from knowing for certain what any individual cheese is, who it was made by, etc. Bob and I would taste each cheese together- discuss- complete our judging sheets separately and then move on to the next. A lot of people have asked me about spitting- I found that it didn’t make much of a difference because you’re not taking big bites or many bites of each cheese and spitting out a mouthful of food into a bucket just didn’t work for me. So I pretty much fully ate all of them.
Later on in the second day of judging I got a tour from the staff who had coordinated the receiving and organization of the 1200+ cheeses that were in the competition. Boxes started rolling in the Thursday before the conference and were received in cold room, sorted by shipping company, opened, and the cheeses were placed on rolling racks. [Note- the cheesemakers received their alphanumeric coded stickers in advance and submitted the cheeses to the competition without any labeling except for the sticker.] The racks were then wheeled out back to four large walk in refrigerated trailers that were labeled with groups of categories. The cheeses left their first rack to be sorted into their appropriate categories.
Any boxes that were wet, crushed, or damaged in some way went immediately to the triage station where they were photographed inside and out, internal temps were taken on the cheeses and in cases where there was enough concern they were tasted and evaluated before being announced damaged. If I remember correctly, Debra Dickerson (the woman who works her rear off on this coordination each year) said that there was only one instance where they contacted the cheesemaker and gave them the option to resubmit.
Within any given category there could be 8 oz. pieces and 40 lb blocks so the small pieces were put on trays towards the top, big blocks and wheels at the bottom and tempering charts were drawn up so that the judges would ideally have all the cheeses at the correct temp during evaluations. Totally, ridiculously impressive.
It is important to give credit to two less visible people who made this level of logistics possible- Karen and Richard Silverston. They sat down with the teams who put on the competition each year and picked their brains thoroughly to develop a database and data entry sheets and screens for every possible scenario. The beauty of this is that every piece of cheese received is tracked all the way through the process and the tabulation of scores is much faster than in previous years.
The judging culminates with the selection of the Best in Show. They used a new process this year where the first place winner in each category was set out on the tables and all 75 of them were tasted by all judges. To earn first place in any category a cheese must score over 91 points (so some categories don’t have first place winners), second place must earn at least 81 and third place must score over 75 points. So at the end of day two of tasting 65+ cheeses, the judges circulated on their own to taste all 75 blue ribbon winners and select three cheeses (ranked in their order of preference) for best in show.
In previous years there was only one Best in Show cheese- this year they decided to acknowledge 2nd and 3rd place in this overall category. My approach was to give everything I tasted either a 1, 2, or 3 and then to re-taste and consider only those cheeses with 3 points. We knew the winner about one hour after the cheeses were ready for us to taste. While all of the judges likely have suggestions about things that could be tweaked in the judging- we were universally impressed by the care and organization it took to run a tasting of this size.
Check out results on the ACS website!