World Championship Cheese judges, finding the perfect cheese
MADISON - Cheese judges, like the 51 judges at the World Championship Cheese Contest, at Monona Terrace on March 6 - 8, spend entire days judging cheese, yet consume none of it. Judging 3,402 entries in 121 classes of dairy products, the judges don't want to contaminate the taste from one sample to the next.
"They will spit it out. I know that's maybe a little gross, but that's what they have to do," Chief Judge Emeritus Bill Schlinsog told visitors to the event on March 8. "They want to work with clear taste buds. They'll even cleanse the palate a little bit during that time, perhaps with a drink of water, or a slice of apple or a grape or something."
Schlinsog knows the judging process well, having judged at the World Championship Cheese Contest for 34 years.
But tasting the cheese is the final step in the judging process.
Sight, smell, touch and taste all come into play as judges systematically score each entry. Visually inspecting the cheese is the first part of the system judges follow. Samples are taken from each entry and smelled, they feel each sample of cheese and finally taste it.
Behind red curtains at the World Championship Cheese Contest, the B Team is hard at work as two volunteers assigned to two judges, bring samples from each class being judged throughout the large room at the convention center.
"As soon as the cheese hits the table, they (judges) are going to look at it and see, does it represent the type of product they are judging," explained Schlinsog. "Is there anything in it that would detract from the 100, which is the perfect cheese?"
Any deductions from that perfect score of 100 might be seen as a little mold on the cheese or a spec of dirt or maybe a shape that doesn't conform with the type of cheese being judged, Schlinsog adds.
Now it's time to take an actual sample of the cheese, either cutting a piece with a knife or using a cheese trier, an instrument used to push into the cheese, turn and pull out a core of cheese from the entry.
"That gives them a chance to look into the interior of the cheese," said Schlinsog. "Again, they are going to be using their eyes."
After the judges have examined the core, the first thing they do is smell it to catch any odors coming off that cut of cheese — an odor that's supposed to be there.
"Those odors tend to dissipate quite rapidly," noted Schlinsog.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are four fundamental odor sensations - fragrant, sour or acid, burnt, and caprylic or goaty. With the centers for determining odor in the uppermost part of the nasal cavity, maximum benefit is gained from inhaling slowly and deeply both before and after tasting, since flavor is a combination of taste and odor.
Next, judges feel the cheese. Judges are checking to see if the cheese is soft like it's supposed to be, if it's hard, grainy, or bendable, does it flex the way it should when bent.
"They will pinch some of it between their fingers to see if it's molding together the way they want it to," Schlinsog said.
Adrian Fowler of Fowlers of Earlswood in the United Kingdom, spread cheese on the palm of his hand while judging surface mold ripened goat's milk cheese.
"I'm looking for a paste, a grain. I'm looking for how it smears. I'm looking for a greasiness, in goats cheese, which is not what you want in other cheeses," Fowler told the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. "It goes quite translucent as it warms up on the palm of your hand."
Finally, comes tasting the cheese.
Judges will take a small piece of cheese, roll it around in their mouths, letting it go over their taste buds and evaluating the sensations coming to them.
"There are different tastes that come in different waves," Schlinsog explained, "like sweetness is one of the first things that would come to you and bitterness is one of the later things."
According to the USDA, the four primary taste sensations are sweet, sour, salt and bitter. The sour taste may be noted along the sides of the tongue, with salt along the side and tip. Sweet is generally noted at the tip of the tongue and bitter at the base, according to the USDA publication on judging and scoring milk and cheese.
As judges roll the cheese around their tongues and taste buds, they are evaluating the sample. Then they spit it out.
Each judge goes through this judging system, then tallies the results on a tablet.
"We don't do it on sheets anymore like we used to, which is a godsend to us," said Schlinsog. "It's so much easier to calculate everything and get it done in a hurry. And these judges have a lot of products to go through, so time is of the essence."
Best of class, second and third awards are given in each class of cheese, but everyone waits to hear which cheese is chosen as the World Champion.
The 2018 World Champion cheese from France scored 98.376 points out of 100.
However, cheesemakers that don't win top prizes "gain a lot of knowledge," Schlinsog said.
During the judging process, judges can provide cheesemakers with comments on their entries.
Dominique Delugea, of Saputo Cheese in Wisconsin, said, "As much as I can, I do give comments. I try to be as constructive as I can."
Sometimes judges may find things cheesemakers don't see, Delugea said, and the comments help them.
For those who take home awards at the World Championship Cheese Contest, the benefits extend beyond that moment on the stage when their product is announced.
"The cool thing is the people who really know cheese and appreciate cheese, they understand the importance and relevance of it, so they understand the honor and respect," said Tim Omer, president of Emmi Roth U.S.A. in Fitchburg.
In 2016, Emmi Roth claimed the world title at the championship cheese event with its Roth Grand Cru Surchoix, scoring 98.882. Omer said since then, they "can't keep up with sales.'
"It's been just a huge impact and it keeps on going," Omer said. "We are actually sold out for the next five months. It's been incredible."