I am not a good traveler. It kind of hurts me to admit it, but it’s true. If it’s not anxiety, it’s ailments. I knew it was risky getting on the plane to Seattle with a head full of allergy congestion, but wow… I was in serious pain by the time I landed even though it was only a 1.5 hour flight. My ears weren’t just stuffed — I had about 25% of normal hearing in my left ear, 50% in the right – but they were painful. Like someone was jabbing them with icepicks. I felt like a cheesemonger Trotsky… but then I guess I do sometimes.
When I got to the Seattle Sheraton – home of the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference – I ignored my cheesy friends, loading up on antihistamines, ordered terrible, overpriced room service, and went to bed. I had 1400-some cheeses to judge the next day.
Of course, as most of you know by now, I didn’t have to judge that many cheeses myself. I was part of 15 teams of two dairy professionals – one aesthetic judge (me and other retailers, distributors, and/or writers) and one technical judge (usually a dairy scientist). We each taste and judge a few subcategories — about 50-60 cheeses a day. Then, we taste all the winners of each subcategory to decide on a winner for Best of Show. This year, that was about 100 more cheeses.
Dr. Nana Farkye (of Cal Poly) and me were a judging team. Chutarat from the Cheese Board Collective and Bonnie from a cold storage company (that I didn’t catch the name of) were the folks who kept the cheeses coming.
I can’t count how many times I was asked, “How do you taste that many cheeses and not die?”
I actually don’t find it that hard, at least until the Best of Show voting. We fill out forms and comments for every cheese we taste, then have to get a new cheese and core or cut into it before we start on the next one, so it’s about 5 minutes between every cheese, even if you are working fast. Plus there are plenty of plain crackers, fruit and tea to cleanse one’s palette with. There are also spit buckets. It should be noted that spit buckets for cheese are even more gross than spit buckets for wine. Just saying.
What is actually very hard is the 100-cheeses to taste in an hour whirlwind of the final round, when all the Best of Category cheeses are set up for the final vote. I will admit, that after two days of tasting I had to really spit out a lot of cheese, and concentrate on remembering to cleanse my palette often, and not just eat all the awesome cheese.
My categories this year: Cultured products/flavor added (39 entries!!), Soft-ripened sheep and mixed milk, Marinated/flavor added, Hispanic and Portuguese fresh cheese, American Originals/Brick Muenster, Soft-ripened/flavor added (all milks), American made/European style/Emmenthal, and Mature Cheddar/over 48 months.
I will write about the winners and my favorites later in the week, but it is a stunning thing to be surrounded by so many good cheeses. While not every one of the 1400-some cheeses is amazing, the sheer volume of cheeses is something to behold. I also think that the amount of very good cheeses is up every year, even when individual categories may go up and down.
The judging, for me, is the purest part of the whole conference. No hype, no relationships, no looking for non-tangible selling points. Just us and the anonymous cheese.
The judging room. I didn’t see that Steve Jones was on his cell until I test posted this entry. I’m sure he was NOT breaking confidentiality.