I’ll Judge You(r Cheese).

Phew. I know I haven’t posted in awhile. It’s not for lack of places I’ve been or things I want to say about those places. It’s just that I’ve been traveling a bit more and I’m still adjusting to the new job life. That being said, I recently got back from the biggest cheese event of the year so while my camera is loaded with so many pictures of past events, I’m going to talk about The American Cheese Society Conference.

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Last year I did a series of blog posts all about what we in the cheese community lovingly refer to as cheese camp. It’s a four day long education and networking conference, which for any other industry doesn’t sound quite as fun, but in the land of cheese it means tasting sessions, learning about the science of cheese crystals, delving into the world of microbes to figure out how to best harness them for cheesemaking, beer drinking, and schmoozing around the largest tables of butter the world has ever seen. Nerdy with a nice dose of booze. Not a bad gig, right?

Every year I try to lend a hand in some way to make the conference run a little smoother. It takes a lot of hands to put on something this large. We had over 1,300 people in attendance this year! In past years I have been a cooler captain, an Official Conference Cheesemonger, and a volunteer that was just anywhere they needed help. This year though, I got the opportunity to be a judge.

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Caught in the act by Rachel Perez.

Besides the immense networking opportunities, the Conference is where cheesemakers submit their products for a panel of judges to taste and determine which are the best representations of their category. This year we had 2,024 cheeses submitted for judging. This is a huge number of entries. Every year the number just increases. It’s not just about ribbons either. Judges are heavily encouraged to leave notes on the score cards for the cheesemakers so they can see what the judges liked or thought might need a little help. It’s one of the few times that a cheesemaker can get really honest feedback from a trusted pool of cheese professionals.

Judging and Competition is a multi layered process that begins on the day of receiving. Cheeses are unpacked with care and checked for any thermal abuse and then they are separated out into their categories with a blind number. The number is a code to keep judges from knowing what the cheese is but to track the cheese through it’s many lives during the conference. The cooler captains pull the cheeses out to be tempered at the appropriate times so they are at the perfect temperature for the judges to fully taste the cheese. Then they go back to the coolers where they either await Best in Show judging or they are moved on for Festival of Cheese prep. Inventory is done at least 5 times throughout this process so no cheese is left behind. It’s important that we keep track of these cheeses because cheesemakers entrust us to take care of their product so when they are perusing the enormity that is the Festival of Cheese, they can easily find the cheese that they submitted.

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For me, it’s an immense honor to be asked to judge. Judging is done in teams. An Aesthetic judge and a Technical judge. Aesthetic judges come from a variety of backgrounds but mostly they are cheesemongers, cheese writers, or cheese educators. This means that there is a large pool of people that can be judges. The Technical judges, on the other hand, are much harder to come by because they are Dairy Scientists or Professors. You can imagine this pool to be much smaller. The Aesthetic judges are there to be the cheerleaders, always finding the positive in every cheese, where the Technical judges are the ones that grade down for defects. The Technical judges can, and often do, point out the good things in a cheese also but it is their job to specifically point out the defects.

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It was an arduous two days worth of work with a couple of unintended consequences. First, my ankles got nice and swollen from all the salt. Second, I didn’t really eat cheese for the rest of the conference. And lastly, I had a terrible case of brain fuzz on Tuesday morning. I had already been in Denver for a few days so I didn’t think it could have been from altitude and I had been drinking enough water to keep me running to the bathroom consistently. All I know is that I tried to send a couple of emails Tuesday morning and I failed at both of them. Maybe I was just flush with dopamines from the intense amounts of cheese I ate. Hopefully I will get to test this hypothesis by getting another opportunity to judge next year!

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