3,400 cheeses are carefully tasted and evaluated at the World Champion Cheese Contest
The World Championship Cheese Contest takes place this week in—where else?—Wisconsin. Dozens of judges from 20 countries and 15 different US states will gather to taste their way through 3,400 different cheeses. Among the 121 classes, there’s every cheese from camembert to cottage to string, plus eight different cheddar categories, and, for the first time, paneer. At the end of it all, one cheese will be named World Champion.
To make sure everyone’s being graded by the same standards, an exclusive group of “red hat” judges—kind of like a black belt, but for cheese—will oversee the competition. I spoke to one of these experts, Jim Mueller, in an effort to find out more about how one becomes a cheese judge and what, exactly, they’re looking for in an ideal cheese.
Extra Crispy: Hi, Jim. You’re a “red hat” cheese grader. What does that involve? Is there like a cheese sommelier test?
Jim Mueller: The Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association has a cheese contest committee which makes the selections of the red hats. It’s based upon experience, someone that has a passion for dairy products. They’re looking for someone that has the ability to perceive the four basic flavors: sweet, salt, acid, and bitter. There are some people who cannot pick up bitter flavors. They’re also looking for people who have technical knowledge of cheese varieties.
How did you end up with enough expertise to become a cheese judge?
I’ve been in the cheese industry for probably 50-plus years. My dad was a Swiss cheese maker, and I really started grading cheese back then, when I was ten years old. My dad had us work in the cheese factory. I used to grade cheese with him. I worked there through college, and then my dad retired and I went on to spend some time with the corporate world. Kraft, Schreiber Foods, Bel Brands USA, working with both natural and processed cheese. I retired six or seven years ago, and I kind of reverted to grading cheese for different companies throughout the country. I also do some food safety training and some food safety auditing. I am a licensed Wisconsin cheese maker and a licensed Wisconsin grader as well.
When you say grading cheese, what exactly does that mean?
Grading is when you evaluate and give an opinion of the quality of the cheese. The four main steps are appearance, flavor, body, and color. Let’s take a 40-pound block of cheddar as an example. You look at the makeup and the appearance of the block. Is it uniform? Are there any irregular finishes to it? Then as a grader we pull a sample from that block. You bore a hole into the cheese and you pull out a section of that cheese, which you then flavor. When you flavor the cheese, you’re not only tasting the cheese, you’re taking the odor and determine the overall flavor of the product. In addition you look at the body and texture, you look at the firmness, and you evaluate the color.
What are the actual grades?
USDA has a grade system: Grades AA, A, B, and C.
How does judging on the World Championship Cheese Contest work?
It’s what we call a technical contest. We employ a 100-point system for scoring, then we deduct for the identified defects. We have two rounds of judging. For the first round, we pair two judges and then they each independently judge that cheese, and then that is averaged to a final score.
How many cheeses are there and how many cheeses is each judge tasting?
For this contest, we have 3,402 entries. We have 121 different classes, or styles of cheeses. We’re bringing in 56 expert judges who will get paired. Then each pair of judges will judges probably four to six different classes, and up to 60 to 70 entries during a day’s evaluation.
Does tasting that much cheese get difficult?
The judges are experts in the different classes that they’ll be judging. They’re able to identify the defects. Plus, if you have to cleanse your palate, we provide the judges with water, unsalted crackers, grapes, apples. But no wine.
When they taste the cheeses, are they on their own or with crackers?
They taste just the cheese.
Is there a best in show?
We have the first round, then from the first round, each class will have a gold, silver, and bronze medalist. Then we’ll move to the second round and take all the gold medal winners into the second round. Each judge will independently reevaluate the best of the class entries and each cheese will be judged on its own merit for that variety. From that, we’ll select the grand champion, second place, and third place of the show.
Is there a favorite to win?
Quite honestly, anybody could win it. Typically at the world contest, the Europeans have done quite well. But just two years ago, we actually had one of our American products win the best of show. Typically the cheeses that do the best are in a wheel form. They tend to have some really outstanding design on the outside of the cheese.
I know you get to taste a lot of wonderful cheeses, but cheese can get pretty funky, too. Do you have contest horror stories?
Because most of the cheeses that are submitted at our contest are hand-selected, they know they’re sending the best of the best. It’s very rare that we find anything that we could call bad. Our scores are a maximum of 100, and very rarely do we find anything that drops below 95 points. The winners in that first class are usually in the 99-97 point range. Just a deduction of a couple tenths can take you from first to fourth place.
Do you have a favorite cheese?
Swiss. I grew up making Swiss cheese, and Swiss cheese is probably one of the more difficult cheeses to make, simply because you need to get that consistent eye development. That’s one of the grading attributes on Swiss cheese, the size of the eyes, the number of the eyes, the appearance of the eyes. To do that consistently can be very difficult.
When you’re not judging cheese contests, do you still eat a lot of cheese?
I eat more than I probably should. I like a lot of table cheese. I like cheese with a little more intensity, some people like more mild cheese. I even eat Limburger!