I got asked to judge in the American Cheese Society Competition for the first time this year. It was an honor. Even though I've been cheese buying for 13-some years, I was one of the least experienced cheese people in the room.( Here is that room, moments before the judging started )
There was a staggering amount of cheese to taste. There were 1208 entries this year broken up into 91 categories** making this year's competition the biggest ever in the US. There were 30 judges working in teams of two. I was an Aesthetic Judge which meant I got to be a positive, touchy-feely, point-awarding, good cop. I was teamed with a technical judge who got to be the mean, callous, point-deducting, bad cop. We scored on separate sheets of paper but our points were totaled for each cheese within its category.
See, look what an aesthetic good cheese cop I am:
If you've ever noticed (and honestly it's unlikely you have, but it's my job to read labels so I'm speaking from experience here.) and incredibly bland or boring cheese boasting something like "Winner of the Somecountryorasscoiation's Cheese Championship 2002" and said to yourself, "If this cheese was voted the best, that company must sponsor the contest," here's the explanation. Most contests are judged by the technical folks: dairy scientists or very experienced large-scale cheesemakers. Technical proficiency is was is being judged, not necessarily outstanding flavor.
For example, excessive sweetness or bitterness in a cheddar is considered a defect. As a consumer though, that might be what you love about the cheese. Not only is taste subjective on some level, but it is often regional. My technical partner made fun of me, as a Californian, for preferring sweet-tending cheeses more than bitter-tending ones.
The idea of teaming up the technical and aesthetic judges is to get the best of both worlds. Rewarding cheeses that stand out flavor-wise but that are technically well-made enough to be consistent. The technical judges seemed to mostly know one another, often calling each other over to look at some strange mold, or odd cheese formation. They use a non-retail language for cheese that isn't useful for my every day cheese life, but that I find fascinating. So many great words for cheese… close, corky, marred by whey taint…( Here's a typically intense conversation about a cheese oddity amongst the (mostly technical) judges )
My partner and I judged 7 categories. As advertised he was efficient, quick and professional. He'd jab the tryer into the cheese, sniff it right away, replug the cheese with the end bit, then take the remaining sample, bend it to test the texture, and put a piece in his mouth. He had his score sheet filled out in seconds. My Technical Judge didn't spit much, but some in the room didn't seem to swallow a single piece.
Me? I sniffed. I tasted. I pondered. Oh, and if you were wondering, I swallow.
Of the 100-120 cheeses I tasted over the two days of category judging, a number were exceptional (a later post will talk about my cheese favorites from the conference). Only 2 or 3 were horrible. Because I'm me, and because I had to be the good cop in the evaluations, let's talk about the bad first.
While out drinking in downtown Burlington, I made a faux pas with one of my favorite cheesemakers. I love the Pure Luck Goat Cheeses
but I don't carry 'em because they pretty much sell their whole supply in their local area. Thus, I didn't realize, while describing a cheese I had to spit out because it was so bitter, rancid, and nasty, that she had a cheese entered in that very category. Of course, I had no idea at that moment, since the entries are anonymous, if her cheese had won the category or was the nasty one. Awkwardness ensued.(It wasn't her cheese. In fact, she won a ribbon in that category. Whew!)
As a retailer, I will say that I could recognize a fair number of the cheeses I tasted, certainly more than most of the technical judges or distributors probably could. It certainly didn't affect my ratings though since only one cheese that I sell won its category among the cheeses I was judging. The cheese that I voted for Best of Show I hadn't even heard of before this competition.
The most tragic cheese wasn't in my category and I still don't know who's cheese it was. I didn't taste it, so I can't speak to that, but it was a ripened goat log that had lost it's bottom. Somehow three sides looked beautiful, but the bottom detached itself so much that you could actually spin the cheese all the way around inside it's moldy casing. I don't know that any of us had seen that before. Judges gathered from all over the room. One said, "it looks like goat cheese in a coffin". I, being a positive aesthetic judge, said, "We could market this. It's like those mini cereal boxes that you cut open and add milk." Another aesthetic judge said, "We'll call it Chevre on the Go!"
Oh, cheese humor…
We weren't judging on packaging, indeed, I gave a perfect score to a cheese that came in a wrinkled and taped paper bag, I gave a very good, if not ribbon-worthy, score to a cheese that came in ugly, tight plastic and, I swear, looked like a freezer-burnt dog turd. I can't imagine anyone buying it with that packaging, but it was a good cheese.
And really, though it was a fun thing to do and I learned a lot form being around the technical folks, I wonder how much good contests are for the cheesmakers. We give feedback on the cheeses, but it could be that the producer sells out every piece of their cheese even if the judges say it's too bitter, too pasty or the texture is wrong. The cheeses that were really bad needed a lot more help than could be conveyed on a judging sheet.( Look, I have a white coat too! )
After tasting our assigned 100-120 cheeses over a day and a half, we weren't done. The first place winners in each category were brought out and we all had to go around the room and try another 80*** dairy products in order to vote on a Best of Show.
I was embarrassed to see that the cheese my partner and I clearly thought was the best in its category had severe rind rot that we couldn't see when using the cheese iron to take the core sample for judging. Still, it tasted damn good.
Given the amount of cheese we were tasting, it seems unlikely that a mild cheese would ever win the competition. A fresh chevre could be absolutely perfect, a cream cheese could be the best you ever tasted, a colby could be executed to perfection, but the aged and assertive cheeses will leave an impression in that setting.
I voted for two of the top three winners, including the Best of Show Leelanau Aged Raclette
as my top choice. I used my third vote for a dairy product ( a few cultured milk and butter categories are included in the competition) I knew wouldn't win but that I just couldn't ignore because it was so perfect. Later that night, a technical judge at the bar told me he thought it was technically the best thing there but didn't vote for it because it wasn't a cheese. Fair enough.
What is a little concerning though is that in the past three years, cheeses of fairly similar flavor profiles have won the competition. All are great cheeses, don't get me wrong. But, since the Red Hawk won 4 years ago, it's been all aged, cow's milk cheeses with a tendency towards sweetness. Pleasant Ridge Reserve is more onion-y and gruyere-like, the Cabot bandage-wrapped cheddar is sharper, and the Leelanau the sweetest and most stinky, but they are definitely the types of cheese that I would sell to the same customer. Still, I think we made the right choice among the cheeses we had to choose from. The was the obvious choice for me though there were another 4-5 that I could have used my 2nd and 3rd choices for.
The ACS is starting to try and brand their awards ceremony, selling shelf signs and stickers to retailers so we can tell people that certain cheeses we sell are "ACS award winners", but awards only measure what a small number of people think about something on a certain day. I have had great cheeses at the Festival of Cheese, only to find them totally inconsistent or young when we tried to sell them in our store. I think all the Best of Show winners in my cheese years have been fabulous and worthy of the award, but one should take every award with a grain of sea salt. Still, I would judge again in a second if asked. It was an awesome experience.
By the way, another judge, Sasha Davies has an account of her judging experiences at her fabulous website Cheese By Hand
*The beautiful thing about me writing about the cheese conference a week later is that you won't have to hear me whine about my getting-there travel nightmare. Even I'm bored with that story. This first footnote represents the original, but now deleted, opening paragraphs of this entry.
**If you want to ask, "91 categories! That can't be right. Are you exagerrating again, Gordon?" Then go here and download the pdf.
*** Not ever category had a first place winner. Cumulative points needed to exceed a certain amount to get a blue ribbon.