Tag Archives: cheese judging

Some great cheeses from Des Moines (ACS 2016)

 

We tasted a lot of great cheese in the judging room.  I’m sure there were dozens of cheeses in categories I didn’t get to try or that finished a close second in their categories.  Here are a few cheeses that I judged that I gave serious consideration to voting for as “Best of Show.” For info about the judging process, see my previous post “ACS Cheese Judging” and the post by Janee, “The Mobile Monger,”  “Judging and Competition.”

Little Mountain, Roelli Cheese Company, Best of Show

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Check out the paparazzi!

You all know I like the Roellis. Heck, I devoted most of a chapter in Cheddar to their story because it exemplified the realities of cheddar-making so well: a family factory making commodity cheddar just can’t stay in business anymore unless they find other cheeses to make. Little Mountain is an Alpine-style cheese, originally modeled after Appenzeller, but modified to work with the local environment of Shullsburg, Wisconsin. (Jeanne Carpenter did a great write up of this here that you should read.)  This cheese was made to honor the Roelli’s family cheesemaking heritage and we all know Chris Roelli has been struggling to make this cheese perfect for a long time. Looks like he finally did it! Not a dry eye in the house when Chris and Kris walked up to accept their Best of Show ribbons, especially theirs.

Buff Blue, Bleating Heart Cheese, tie 2nd place

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What can I say, I love these cheeses and Seana Doughty does California proud with every cheese she makes. My personal fave is the drought-friendly Double Down, a sheep/cow blend but this buffalo milk blue is really special: rich and meaty in an uncommon way and not afraid of being moldy. Heartwarming too because Bleating Heart was on the ropes not too long ago. On a personal level, I hope that this win puts Seana’s cheese in counters all over the country. She deserves it.

St Malachi Reserve, The Farm at Doe Run, tie 2nd place

Artisan cheese is still regional to some extent, and I so hadn’t heard of this cheese before this conference. I have carried some soft Farm at Doe Run cheeses, so when this was announced I didn’t even realize it was in my own top tier of cheeses while judging. I was sitting in the airport at Denver, waiting for my connecting flight, when I was all, “OMG this is that amazing aged gouda!” Caramel, toasty, meaty, and salty/sweet/sharp. I would say that this is the best gouda made in the USA if not for my love for….

Jeffs’ Select Gouda, Caves of Faibault, tied for 3rd

This is a seasonal, grass fed cheese that I have loved for a long time. The apostrophe is not in the wrong place, it’s the project of two Jeffs: Jeff Jirik and Jeff Wideman. Again, sweet and earthy and caramel and sharp. Glad to see this cheese get some recognition after all these years.

Greensward, Murray’s Cheese/Jasper Hill, tied for 3rd

This is basically a small format Winnimere, made for Murray’s cheese and it’s every bit as awesome as you’d expect. One of the most complex soft cheeses you will ever try and I have written about it a few times over the years. This is the kind of cheese that just wasn’t made in this country 20 years ago. That’s why I keep talking about the cheese renaissance!

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Harbison, Jasper Hill

The complexity of flavor and incredible balance of this cheese makes it just an incredible accomplishment. Just another one of America’s best cheeses.  I have loved this cheese for a long time now and, honestly, I thought it was the best Jasper Hill cheese in the competition, though it was a very close call.

Providence, Goat Lady Dairy

I had no idea what this cheese was until, like the St Malachi Reserve, I figured it out in the Denver airport. I don’t know much about this cheese, but based on the sweetness, I would guess it’s based on a goat gouda recipe. This is just an excellent aged goat, very complex with great depth of flavor, and wonderful texture.

Bella Vita, Firefly Farms

This is an aged goat milk cheese with the delicate complexity of a great Sardinian Pecorino (Yes, I know that comparison switched milk types). A little more subtle than some of the winners, but a cheese with an aftertaste that may have been the best aftertaste of the show.

Labne, Karoun Dairies

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OK, it’s unlikely a fresh cheese will ever win Best of Show at ACS because it’s hard to compare the complexity of an alpine or washed-rind cheese to a “simple” one, but man, this is the best Labne I know of in the USA. I just want to let you know, Labne, I see you. I see you. I eat this at work almost every day with honey and fresh fruit. (This is an old picture. I think it costs $2.39/ea now.)

Red Hawk, Cowgirl Creamery

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In the Bay Area, sometimes people forget how damn good this cheese is. Tasting it again amongst the best of categories, I was reminded how good and grassy and rich and slightly pungently balanced this cheese is. We are lucky to have it as a local standard.

Prufrock, The Grey Barn

I have literally never heard of this cheese before. If you are near Massachusetts, I would seek it out. Incredibly well-balanced washed rind cheese: a touch pungent, fatty, and nuttier than one would expect for the style. I didn’t think about it much but when I tasted it, I assumed it was Canadian. Cheese people know, that is a huge compliment.

 

There were lots of other great cheese but these were the cheeses that spoke to me in that room. Remember that cheeses in competition are the best of that day, and so results may vary – both directions — at stores. Overall though, every year I judge there are more serious contenders for Best of Show and higher scores overall through every one of my categories.  Amazing job everyone!

 

 

ACS Cheese Judging

Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*

Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.

See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)

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Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.

We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!

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A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.

Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system.  First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites.  This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses.  Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year.  Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously.  This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.

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(photo by Rachel Perez)

Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.

I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!

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*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet.  I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.

**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.

***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.

ACS 2013: The Judging

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I spent my first two days in Wisconsin in the judging room of the Monona Terrace Convention Center. It was a day and a half before I realized that I could open a door on the other side of the room and walk out into an adorable Frank Lloyd Wright lobby and an incredible panorama view of the lake. And I do mean incredible. Water skiers were performing stunts and jumps. The view was so big that you could almost see the curvature of the earth, Wow.
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My home county in California actually has a Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center so this felt oddly home-like. I was told later that the Madison building was actually delayed for years due to haters, but that was a blessing in disguise since they were able to omit some Wright features like the unplanned, rain-caused fountains that destroyed part of the library and have cause numerous problems over the years back home.

I have written this before but I will say it again, the things I like the most about judging is the purity of it. Just me, my teammate technical judge, our triers, and our mouths. No packaging, no stories, no sales pitches, no loyalty and no having to assess whether a cheese will sell. Just pure cheese appreciation and love.
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My partner this year was Russell Smith, an Australian cheese dude who spends much of his time teaching other food professionals how to taste and assess cheese (and other foods.) He is also involved with a deer milk cheese project in New Zealand which was supposed to be a secret, but isn’t anymore.
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Yes, I did write “deer milk.”

We tasted a lot of cheese. About 100 cheeses in the evaluation round and then all category winners (81 this year) to determine Best of Show. This year set another record with nearly 1800 cheeses entered into the competition.

Every judge gets their share of flavored categories and we got ours: Flavored Butter and Open Cow Milk Cheese with Flavor Added. We also did Open Soft-Ripened Cow, Open* Molded Goat 0-30 days aged, Sheep (or mixed) Milk Blue. The thing that was most impressive this year was how consistently good most cheese was. In the goat category we had, for example, probably 19 of 21 entries were good cheeses that anyone would enjoy. Even the two that were notably not on par with the others didn’t need much work. In the past I almost found a lot more peaks and valleys in most of my categories, but not this year. In fact, I did not spit out even one cheese because I thought it might kill me! That has never happened before.

My take away is that American cheese is getting better and better.

A new thing this year was that the judges were not told who the winners were. Usually we all got to know at the end of the second day of judging. This was great except when we would run in to people we knew had won. Awkward! I still remember Cary and David from Rogue sitting next to me at a conference lunch the year they won Best in Show. They probably thought I was being a huge jerk as I ignored them the whole time and talked to strangers. I was so worried about letting something slip by accident that I didn’t even want to make conversation. It was a big relief this year to not know until everyone else did. There was even an envelope and dramatic pause just like the Academy Awards and everything.

But, that will have to wait for my entry on the Awards Ceremony…

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Thanks to all my fellow judges and all the volunteers but especially the folks who did the major organizing: David, Todd, Stephanie, John G., Tom, Michelle, Rachel, and John A.

You can see previous judging entries here (this post will be on top but you can scroll down to see more if you are interested)

*As Mervyn’s used to say, “Open, open, open…”

American Cheese Society 2012: Best of Show

It’s always an amazing moment at the awards ceremony when it is time for Best of Show. I like to sit in the front row so that people can’t see that I always cry when the award is announced. An incredibly loud “OH MY GOD!” came from the back of the audience when this name went up on the screen… and I just couldn’t help myself. Congratulations on all the hard work.

2012 Best of Show:
Flagsheep – Beecher’s Handmade Cheese
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After all the individual category winners are chosen, all the 1st place winners get shuffled off into another room so that the judges can taste all of them in order to determine Best of Show. Generally, I go through the room tasting everything, marking down any that are amazing enough that I think they may qualify for my top three. During this whole time judges are not supposed to talk to each other so the room is eerily silent. For about an hour the only sound you hear is the chopping of knives and the soggy plop of half masticated cheese hitting the spit buckets.*

Still, I knew this cheese would be popular when I physically bumped into Marianne Smukowski in front of a bandage-wrapped mixed milk cheese while trying to get a second taste. We didn’t say anything then, but in the waiting room after we had turned in our ballots she asked me if I voted for it and I said yes. When some other folks chimed in as well, I knew that it would be recognized. That is the weird thing in the judging room. I usually think I will be the only one voting for the cheeses I select. Before I turn in my sheet I always say to myself, “Even if no one else votes for these cheeses, will you be proud of your decision?” When my answer is yes, I know I am ready to vote.

The Flagsheep we tasted was awesome and truly deserved this honor. A sheep/cow bandaged-wrapped Cheddar with a ton of complexity: sharp, sweet, nutty, grassy… just amazing. When I tasted it against the other 10-12 cheeses in my informal top tier ranking, I knew I would vote for it as my top aged cheese.

I just wish I could get my hands on some now that the show is over. Word is that they only had 23 wheels aged and ready to go and that they were all allotted.

Here is their happy cheesemaker.
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*Most of you will be relieved, and only a few sickos disappointed, that the picture of my spit bucket was too overflashed to bother posting here. Hopefully they will ask me to judge again next year so I can get a good one.

When cheese fights back

I guess I have one more thing to say about judging… most of the cheese was good to excellent. But we had one cheese that was so bafflingly bad that we had to call over other judges just to be sure how awful it was.

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It was a mild style of cheese, so when I first put it into my mouth I didn’t expect a blast of flavor. However I didn’t expect to taste an absence of flavor either… literally nothing but texture for one beat, two beats… then, after being lulled into a moment of false security… BAM! incredible, horrid bitterness. It was like a IED made by vegan guerillas. My judging partner and I could have been entered in the synchronized spitting competition in the Olympics trying to get this cheese out of our mouths. The only comparison I can think of for this kind of nasty is getting skunked. Not only was it bad, but it wouldn’t go away easily. We had to take a break to cleanse our pallets: bread, pineapple, melons, milky tea. I needed my tongue for the rest of the day; we had another 25 cheeses to taste.

Another judge who works as a consultant with that style of cheese hovered nervously, hoping he wasn’t associated with it. (He wasn’t, as it turns out.) Mysteriously, all the other cheeses by the same company (I don’t know which company, but the coding system enables judges to know the entries originated from the same place) were pretty good. Judging has its risks and pains, but I have never had a stealth attack from a fresh cheese before. Careful out there folks.

Cheese Vote: 2012

I was going to write another entry on judging, but I think I said everything that I wanted to yesterday. So instead, please vote for whose cheese animal is better:

My “Suggestion of Animal with Pointy Ear”
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Or Luis’s “Pasty Cheese Duck”
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American Cheese Society 2012: Judging

Whenever I get a chance to be a cheese judge at the American Cheese Society Conference, I grab it. I really do love it. I am honored to be asked – and that is part of it – but I love it mostly because it is pure cheese: just me, my mouth, and 1771 anonymous cheeses.

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Of course I don’t have to taste all 1771 (or whatever a given year’s number is). Judges only have to taste around two hundred: one hundred assigned via category, then another hundred that won their class and are competing for Best of Show. Still, it’s a lot of cheese over the course of two days. I am not complaining, however. Not at all.

I have written about judging before, but every competition has its own merits. Many cheese judgings use the 4H method, which is non-numerical. There are variations but usually judges taste and then (in their heads) rate the cheese before announcing “Gold,” “Silver,” “Bronze,” or “No award.” If judges are unanimous on “Gold”, the cheese is awarded “Double Gold” and those go into consideration for Best of Show.

Other competitions are scored technically. Dairy scientists are looking for perfect versions of a cheese by type. You have never seen Wisconsin dairy science folks excited until you see them hotly debating the merits of the Colby category!* Technically perfect cheese usually wins these competitions whether or not they are complex or powerful.

At ACS the technical judges are teamed up with aesthetic judges (cheese professionals who are not dairy scientists) in a good cop/bad cop situation. Technical judges start from 50 and grade down for mistakes. Aesthetic judges start from zero and award points for positive attributes. In this way a cheese may even get deductions and positive points for the same flavor attribute. An extremely sweet Cheddar, for example, may lose a little for not being classic, but may gain a lot if that aesthetic judge sees value in its unusual flavor attributes. This means that both technical cheesemaking and innovation can be rewarded in the same contest. It is also why cheese with big flavors usually wins Best of Show.

I have seen critiques of the ACS judging for this reason. I don’t believe that a technically perfect fresh mozzarella, for example, has ever come close to winning Best of Show. It can win its category, but BoS winners are usually in the Alpine family, blue category, washed-rinds, or aged: in other words, the big flavored cheeses.

(Sorry, Little Guy)
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Which makes perfect sense since the ACS was set up to support cheesemakers making innovative cheese. Almost every cheese that has won in the last decade has been a cheese that, upon tasting, a customer at some point has asked me, incredulously, “That cheese was made in the US?” This comment – once an every day occurrence – is dying out these days as people realize the breadth of cheese styles now being made extremely well in this country. And I think the ACS competition has played a part in that growing awareness.

The other thing I love about the ACS competition is how seriously people take it. I mean sure, my fellow judge and I did make some cheese animals out of pasty, non-winning cheese, but the judging itself, and the writing of commentary on the judging form was our priority. Also, unlike other judgings I have taken part in where – embarrassingly and unprofessionally — people openly discussed the cheesemakers and their history (“Leticia’s*** cheese has gotten so much better over the years. I know she has a new aging room now and it really shows”), that would just not be tolerated at ACS. If the judging committee didn’t notice it, other judges would.****

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Lastly, what everyone – retailers, cheesemakers, cheese eaters reading this etc. — needs to keep in mind is that we can only judge the cheese in the room. I had a cheese that I usually love that was not at its best last week. As a cheese seller of many years, there is no way not to recognize the distinctive characteristics of some cheese, even if I actively avoid acknowledging I recognize it to my fellow judge or letting it sway me, good or bad. On a normal day, I know that cheese to be better than what I tasted in that judging room, just like I know that some winners never tastes as good when I try to order it for the store. Come to think of it, that would be an awesome contest too: a consistency competition where the same cheeses are tasted in, say, 6 different batches over the course of the year. But in this judging, we can only judge what is in front of us.

Anyways, I will post tomorrow about some of the great cheeses and winners at this year’s competition, but today I just wanted to set the stage. Judging. It’s awesome.

*I will be mocked by my Wisconsin friends for this, but until I judged I never thought of Colby as anything other than mild Cheddar. Since then, I just pretend there’s a difference.**

**Kidding! Kind of!

***Obviously this is a name chosen because it was not one of the actual name used. In this way I am remembering Leticia’s restaurant on Market St. whose closing has left a little hole in our hearts.

****I am still kicking myself for not reacting strongly enough at one non-ACS judging. After loudly discussing every cheese’s origin as they judged it, one individual came to one that they didn’t recognize and asked me if I knew what it was. I responded, “Why do you need to know who made it to judge it?” They responded to me, “Why do you think that would affect my scores?” I didn’t realize that “blind judging” was an ambiguous term.