Diary of a Dairy Judge: British cheesemaker Mary Quicke shares highlights of her stint as a first-time ACS judge
It was the best cheese gig ever—tasting some of the most magnificent cheese on the planet (and some not) among the 1,676 cheeses in competition at the 2011 American Cheese Society (ACS) competition, held in Montréal. I was chosen to be one of several judges in the “Aesthetic” category, paired with technical judge MaryAnn Drake, an expert in sensory evaluation from Raleigh, North Carolina.
The judging form guided real rigor and completeness, as each of us had to record in detail what we thought of each cheese. Scoring was something of a dance with my technical partner. She took points off for technical faults; I added points for desirable features. We both rated complexity and balance. Both of us were sensitive to bitter flavors and didn’t like them. We discussed Lactobacillus helveticus starters in the cheddars—that sweet note so widespread in modern cheddar—which we tended to take marks off for if it overwhelmed the complexity.
As a cheesemaker I was able to introduce MaryAnn to the distinct scent of cheese mite, and the difference between adult mites and juveniles, as well as that bitter metallic flavor that completely dominates the base of some cheeses as a result of using microbial rennet. She taught me the difference between tyrosine and calcium lactate crystals (tyrosine doesn’t taste salty).
All the judges around us were also cross-fertilizing aesthetic and technical viewpoints, each adding to the other, but in hushed tones. Judging chairman David Grotenstein had said at the beginning that he was looking for a quiet, almost reverential atmosphere, so that we 34 judges and as many volunteers could give the best of American cheese our rapt attention. We did, but it wasn’t always easy; occasionally, a gorgeous cheese would come along, and we’d have to make sure our excitement wasn’t too distracting to others.
Our ultimate job was to give a clear winner in each class, although we could have ties in second or third place. MaryAnn said it was an established thing in sensory evaluation that you tend to mark the first ones high. So after the first tasting in each class, we went back to check that our initial judgments were a fair reflection overall: Hmm, was that really the boldest aroma? No, knock that mark back. Did that cheese with subtlety right along its length come out on top? No—add marks for that. Could MaryAnn stomach that interesting cheese coming out higher than that technically faultless but less interesting cheese? Could I surrender a flavor mark given that there were holes indicative of coliform gassing? (Sometimes I could, sometimes not.)
The category I found most difficult to judge was the 12- to 24-month cheddars, almost all block. There were a lot of entries, and almost all were technically sound, but just not exciting. I could see why so many cheddars now have the sweet L. helveticus starter, because it lends interest if the baseline cheese is samey. It took us nearly three hours, and it felt tiring because too much L. helveticus often eclipsed any other flavors. We gave first place to a nicely balanced, interesting goat’s milk cheddar, although we pondered a while over the rankings.
The marking scheme supports giving cheesemakers useful feedback: it covers what you would expect to find and whether it was there. We made comments we hoped would be of value to the cheesemaker, such as “I’d love to see this with animal rennet,” “Consider taking more moisture out of the curd,” or “Try controlling acidity more.” One blue cheese tasted perfect, a high blue-ribbon standard on its top half, but it was sitting in moisture and overacid on the bottom half, so I put in a plea for more turning during maturing.
We judged around 100 cheeses over two days, which felt very achievable. After tasting dominant cheeses or when our palates felt jaded, we cleansed them with fruit, crudités, and iced tea. In big classes we’d even take a break and trawl around other teams to find out if anyone had anything interesting. We’d also ask another judge’s opinion: a saponified, acid blue cheese, for example, didn’t land with us, although it worked for the person we asked, and that opinion clarified ours. Other teams would bring over their stars with real delight and vice versa, adding to the depth of opinion.
The final judging for the three Best in Show ribbons was an extraordinary experience—two hours of tasting all the blue-ribbon first-place winners. I started at the mild end, the butters, yogurts, and mascarpones, and worked my way to the blues and matures via the mold-ripened and washed-rind entrants. Wow, what an extraordinary treat: some really glorious cheese and each new star refreshing our palates with stunning balance.
It wasn’t unanimous which cheeses were the top three—there were around ten in the running, a real testament to the rapidly developing quality of American cheese. Clearly, the ACS competition is contributing to this remarkable evolution by giving cheesemakers full, informed, rigorous feedback on what works and what doesn’t, and by honoring the process, not just the product. It was a great privilege to be part of this moving and motivating experience.
Written by Mary Quicke
Photography by Allen McEachern