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USA 22.01.2024

Cheese judging versus grading in cheese competitions

Source: The DairyNews
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Cheese judging and grading are important activities performed by the cheese industry, but both play very different roles.
Cheese judging versus grading in cheese competitions
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John A. Lucey
John A. Lucey
professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the director of the Center for Dairy Research.
Judges at a contest do an intensive evaluation of a cheese, which usually starts with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for the number and severity of any defects. Attributes like flavor, body and texture, color, finish and appearance of cheese are evaluated.

Here at the Center for Dairy Research (CDR), staff members regularly serve as judges at various cheese and dairy contests. Dr. Mark Johnson, distinguished scientist, said one of his main goals with contest judging is giving feedback to the cheesemaker. Did their cheese meet the high level or standard that the judge is familiar with? How does their cheese stack up against other cheeses in the category?

Cheese judges evaluate attributes using the scale: very slight, slight, definite and pronounced. Johnson describes “very slight” as something that only very sensitive judges would detect; typically, the average consumer wouldn’t notice. “Slight” is a little easier to detect, “definite” is when an attribute is more obvious; and “pronounced” is when something is very obvious to everyone.

By scoring cheeses, they can be compared to one another and a “winner” for each category or overall contest winners can be selected. Contests may vary on the details or procedures they use to pick a winner. For instance, some contests award gold, silver and bronze medals based solely on the score of that sample alone, so one could have many golds, silvers or bronzes in a class or category. Other contests only pick one gold, one silver and one bronze winner in each class and then all gold winners may compete for the overall top prizes or champion cheese.


Contests play an important role in the dairy industry as they help promote the manufacturing of high-quality products and allow plants to market their successes to help drive consumer trial/tasting and ultimately, sales.

In industry, cheese graders play an important role in giving feedback to the cheesemaker. Licensed cheese graders evaluate similar attributes to judges, but governments or industry standards outline what levels of defects are allowed to meet the different grade standards; graders ultimately assign the cheese a specific grade such as AA, A, B, C, D, or undergrade. Grades C and D are used for Swiss cheese. There are licensed cheese graders approved by the State of Wisconsin and by government (USDA).

Licensed cheese graders use grading sheets to grade the cheese. Different cheese varieties have different grading sheets. For example, very slight mold is acceptable for Swiss but not in other cheeses. There are Wisconsin grade standards for Cheddar, Colby, Monterey Jack, Brick, Muenster and Swiss. Other cheese varieties are also graded by commonly agreed industry standards, typically with a pass-fail system. Graded cheeses have to comply with the compositional requirements listed in their standards of identity.

Manufacturers often have their own experienced industry graders on staff that evaluates and grades their own products based on their own set of criteria they’ve established or agreed with their customers. For example, industry graders evaluate cheeses like Mozzarella, and they focus on evaluating its end use (how will it shred, how will it function on pizza?) according to its customer preferences.

There are many aspects to the job of the licensed cheese grader. One key point is that the grader is typically evaluating the cheese when it is young. Graders need to be able to make a judgement and determine how it will age (for instance, if looking at cheddar, should it be used when it’s mild for shredding/slicing or will it make a great mature product if it is aged for 12 months or more). Due to growing industry interest, the CDR now has workshops dedicated to both grading and judging cheese. Cheese grading and contest judging serve different purposes, but both help to uphold high quality standards and maintain integrity in the products made by the dairy industry.

Unfortunately, not everyone is able to be a good cheese grader or judge. This is due to genetic differences between people regarding their ability to taste different flavors. The most common example is bitterness. Some people are genetically 'bitter blind' impairing their ability to taste bitter flavors, a key defect in many cheese varieties and especially cheddar.

Lastly, the only way to become a good grader or cheese judge is with practice. Grading or judging skills come with lots of practice and years of experience. Another key to this experience is having a good cheese grader/judge mentor to teach a beginning cheese evaluator what they are tasting or what they should be tasting in that cheese type.

Source
The opinion of the editorial board may not coincide with the opinion of the author
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