The 2012 Wisconsin World Championship Cheese Contest concluded March 7th with a record number of entries from around the world – over 2,500. Of the sixteen finalists, seven of them were from the U.S. As usual, Switzerland had several finalists, Canada and Spain each had one, Holland had two; one of the Dutch cheeses won Best in Show – a low-fat Gouda. There were 93 categories in the competition; which gives an idea of how many different directions fermented milk can go.
A couple of cheeses were entered and did not fit into any one of those 93 categories! They defaulted into Open Class Hard. At first they were placed in one of the categories I was judging – Gruyère, however that would not have been fair; even though it looked like a Gruyère, it was a similarly made cheese from another part of Switzerland.
The logistics involved in gathering 2,500 cheeses from around the world, assigning them numbers, separating them into their groups, gathering the international team of judges, working with the convention center, etc., is a huge undertaking. I can say that the planners, coordinators, and volunteers for this contest are a dedicated and hard-working group. The warm and generous Wisconsin hospitality is unsurpassed. If you aren’t use to experiencing it you might think it is a little surreal. Perhaps it is partly all the cheese they eat; I know it can’t hurt. (For more on that phenomenon, come to our Cheese & Wine 201.)
At this competition (like most others) the judges are first assembled for an introduction and brief training seminar. These opening sessions are always thrilling. You may meet other cheese experts from other parts of the world, or you see old acquaintances you rarely see. Even though most all of the judges have judged in at least one other contest, the procedures and scoring systems are a little different. The judges are teamed up in pairs usually, to go through the process: assessing cheeses within the categories they are assigned, and scoring them by deducting points for flaws, or adding points for positive attributes. This may sound a little subjective, assigning the attributes, but there are commonly accepted standards for different types of cheeses. This is a full-time job for cheese graders.
Most of the competitions that I have judged ask what types of cheeses you feel you are best qualified to judge. Some judges are very familiar with cheddars, while others are much more familiar with blue cheeses, for example. The judging committee then assigns the judges to the groups of cheeses they claim to know best. Some styles of cheeses are much more popular than others, so teams of judges invariably end up with at least one group of cheeses they would rather skip. Nevertheless, the judges go through the judging process as professionally as they can, and evaluate the entries for the qualities that represent the class best.
I was very fortunate to be assigned categories I believe I know well – categories I also enjoy. My judging partner, Samir Kalit from the University of Zagreb, listed the same styles as his strengths: the hard sheep cheeses, Gruyère, Appenzeller, and soft and semi-soft sheep cheeses. We also got another category a little outside our expertise: flavored soft/semi-soft mixed milk cheeses.
The judges are usually advised to arrive at their own decisions independently. If their scores are widely different after the evaluations, they can compare notes and consider the flaws and attributes jointly. This process can take as little as five minutes for each cheese, or as many as ten. If a cheese has several defects, the judging process can go fairly quickly: deducting points for each of the flaws (which usually mean there will be fewer attributes in aroma/flavor and texture) and coming up with an appropriate score. We found it a little amusing that our scores were almost identical, from one cheese to the next. Our scores were often exactly the same value, or only different by a tenth of a point.
The cheese maker looks to the judge for specific comments, and some suggestions on what might be done to improve the cheese. When the cheese has fewer defects and the aesthetic attributes are pleasing, the evaluation and scoring can take a little longer. Every time I taste one of those outstanding cheeses I am reminded of a question I am frequently asked: “What is your favorite cheese”?
All in all, the cheese we were very good to excellent. Even though there were about 2,500 cheeses entered, there are thousands of other fine cheeses being produced today. One of the great cheeses that did enter the contest in the Hard Sheep category was Royale (formerly known as Stella Royale), though if you did not already know this cheese you might not recognize it by the producer’s generic label. This has been one of my favorite cheeses since the first time I tasted it. It was in great form so it scored very high in a crowded field.
I was so impressed by the Wisconsin World Championship Cheese Contest’s judging criteria that I will be using a similar scoring system for the students in our “Best in Show” classes. I thought it would be a great way to introduce cheese evaluation in a fun, interactive, and elevated level for cheese lovers.