ACS - The Judging
Exactly 1,327 cheeses. More than 100 subcategories. Two days and 14 teams of judges. Sound like an assignment from Mission: Impossible? It’s actually the American Cheese Society’s 26th Annual Competition, where a Best in Show medal can make a cheese famous overnight, where thousands of foodies gather to learn more about American cheeses, and where a group of technical and aesthetic judges—after inhaling, squishing, tasting, and analyzing hundreds of cheeses—begin to secretly crave anything but dairy.
“By the end of the second day of judging, I’m dreaming of a green salad,” says Kate Arding, industry veteran and a third-year judge at the competition. So why do she and other judges attend the ACS competition nearly every year? “It is an absolute honor to be asked,” Mark Johnson, senior scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research and an ACS technical judge, answers. “This is a contest where each cheesemaker’s passion for their craft is incredibly obvious. They really want to know how their cheese stands up. We’re evaluating their life’s work, and every judge on the floor takes it very seriously.”
In fact, the entire two-day judging period is an extremely serious affair. From the time cheesemakers send in their entries, labeled with only an ACS alphanumeric code, to the moment those same cheeses appear on the judge’s table is a well-rehearsed, meticulously run operation.
The process begins with nearly three hundred cases of cheese arriving each day for a week before the competition. Boxes are parked in a cold room and carefully categorized by volunteer staff, but remain sealed until workers are ready to handle each and every cheese. The boxes are opened, and cheeses are “triaged” to check for any problems that may have occurred during shipping; if complications are found, those cheeses are marked with a red dot and specific notes are prepared for the judges. If a cheese arrives in bad shape—say, crushed during shipping, or too warm—volunteers personally contact the cheesemaker and offer him or her the chance to send another sample.
Cheeses are then placed on rolling racks by category and stored in a 53-foot refrigerated trailer. Volunteers retrieve each category at a specific time, so that the cheeses reach just the right temperature for judging. For example, cheddars come out of the cooler three hours before judging; fresh goat cheeses, only thirty minutes prior.
Fourteen teams of two judges—one technical judge analyzing the body, flavor, and texture of each cheese; and one aesthetic judge surveying flavor and texture, as well as appearance, rind development, and aroma—work together to score every cheese in a class. Unlike other competitions, where entries start with a score of 100 and are graded down for technical defects, the American Cheese Society’s goal is to give positive recognition to the highest-quality cheeses. Each technical judge deducts points from a perfect score of 50, while each aesthetic judge awards points to a maximum of 50 for outstanding characteristics and qualities. The two scores are added, for up to a total of 100. Based on a minimum number of points awarded, first, second, and third places are named in each category; ties are allowed only for second- and third-place finishers. Contrary to most competitions, if no entries receive the minimum number, no award is given in that category.
After the teams of judges examine and taste a cheese, they discuss what they’ve just spat or swallowed. Ray Bair, owner of Cheese Plus in San Francisco and a three-year aesthetic judge at ACS, says, “We absolutely talk to each other—constantly go back and forth. It’s a great way for each of us to learn about the other’s areas of expertise.” Then it’s time to write copious notes for the cheesemaker, with each judge noting his or her opinions and suggestions for improvement. “I don’t think most cheesemakers enter for the purpose of getting an award. What they are really looking for is feedback,” Bair affirms. “Judges are very much encouraged to write detailed notes for the cheesemaker to make it an educational opportunity.”
The final task for the twenty-eight judges is a second round of evaluations of all blue-ribbon winners in all categories—between seventy and eighty cheeses and cultured products—in order to choose the Best in Show. Judges work independently, without comparing notes, in this round. At the end, results are tallied and a simple majority rules. The cheese with the most votes for first place is named Best in Show; the first runner-up and second runner-up are those with the next-highest numbers of votes.
The process demands extreme focus and concentration. Arding explains, “We’re trying to compare a cream cheese against a cloth-bound cheddar against a cultured butter. It’s incredibly challenging.” Bair agrees: “By that stage in the competition, you’re battling some serious palate fatigue. And then to compare so many different classes of cheese and cultured products against each other is really just awkward. But in the end, a consensus is reached. The Best in Show is always an outstanding product.”
After the competition is over and ribbons have been distributed, all judges’ notes from the first round of competition are sent to the cheesemakers—an incredibly valuable lesson. “It’s not a competition; it’s a judging,” says David Grotenstein, chairman of the ACS competition. “The goal is to assess the cheeses and give feedback to the cheesemaker on his or her work. Three-quarters of the people who enter will not win an award, but they will come away with a detailed critique, and for many of them, that’s just as important as a ribbon.”