"Be Your Own Everyday Judge": Advice From A Professional Cheese Taster

The sommeliers who dip their noses deep into glasses of Bordeaux and thoughtfully sip and swish have never inspired much of my envy. Maybe it's because, as utter professionals, they never look like they're enjoying the wine the way I'd relish a good glass of it; indeed, they spit it right back out again in order to keep on powering through the tasting without getting sloshed.

Instead, I reserve my jealousy for the duties of someone like Chad Galer, aka Chad the Cheese Guy of the National Dairy Council, a professional cheese taster whose job involves sampling around 160 cheeses at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin. This year's winning cheese, Gourmino Le Gruyère AOP, has been produced for 900 years in Gruyères, Switzerland, and it beat out over 3,600 other cheeses to claim the top prize. As they say, a thousand years of practice makes perfect.

I spoke to Galer by phone about his experiences judging the contest, what makes a great cheese, and his advice for anyone who wants to expand their cheesy horizons. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Takeout: With both wine tasting and beer tasting, there are lots of specific steps involved in evaluating a particular drink. Walk us through the act of cheese tasting.

Chad Galer: The contests I participate in are considered technical judging. We evaluate each piece of cheese on 39 or 40 different attributes for that specific type of cheese. We start with appearance: once the cheese is set on our counter, the first thing we do is judge with our eyes: check the surface, make sure it was formed well, and that we're not seeing any obvious defects or issues with it. A cheddar should have a smooth texture and, obviously, Swiss should have openings in it.

Next, we take a sample, via a plug. We get it from the middle and the outside. With wine and beer, fluid is well mixed, but the inside of a cheese could be different than what's on the surface. We use a trier, the cheese tool, to pull a plug. We cut it in half if it's blue cheese or gorgonzola so we can see that veining. I haven't even gotten the cheese in my mouth for flavor yet; I'm looking at the body and texture. A Gouda should be smooth, unless it has a few eyes from gassing. A Colby or a feta might have a few openings in it, because they're not pressed as hard. If it's an older cheese, it might be crumbly, and in an old cheese, that's okay. But if there's crumbliness in a young cheese, that's probably a sign of a defect, and we take some points away. Every cheese starts out at 100 points, and we take deductions if we see defects.

After evaluating with my eyes, taking a sample, and feeling it between my fingers, I'm finally going to put it in my mouth and start to evaluate it for flavor and mouth texture. Is it bitter? Should it be bitter? Does it have a nice, clean, milky flavor? Is it "off"-flavored? One of the tougher things to judge is if it has added flavors, like a pepper cheese or a smoked cheese. We still want it to have a cheese flavor but then also be complemented by those condiments.

Most of the judges will judge categories that they're comfortable with, and most judges can do several categories. But I don't think there's a single judge that could do every category there, with 130 of them. So we focus on the things we're experts in, and then evaluate based on our ideal picture of that cheese, and how close the one in front of us matches that.

TO: What sort of learning curve is involved in judging cheeses on 39 or 40 different attributes? Obviously, that takes some getting used to, on a professional level.

CG: You learn a lot from experience and working with others who know how to do it. When you see defects, they explain those to you. There's also a few sensory or flavor classes that are offered at some universities that you can take to get your baseline [education] on types of cheese and how to make cheese. Twenty or thirty of the attributes are very common if you work in the cheese industry, and then there are the last few attributes, which might be very minor flavor defects.

Because these are all world-class cheeses, every one that gets set in front of us could be the world champion. So if I'm wearing my judging hat, we're looking at each one with a very critical eye—much more critical than when I'm standing at the deli counter or the cheese aisle. Every one of them [at the competition] is a fantastic cheese. We're really picking each one apart and taking tenths of a point off. These are minor defects; what we're looking for is as close to perfect as they can get.

TO: When you're at the grocery store, what's your go-to everyday cheese, and how does it differ from the ones you're judging professionally and working with on a daily basis?

CG: You can't go wrong with some good cheddar. I appreciate mild cheddar because of that milky, mild cheesiness, but I love the big flavor of an aged cheddar. Parmesan, with that aged, crumbly, delicious savory and sweet flavor, is always good. I really like to try some European-style cheeses, because the U.S. cheesemakers have upped their game the last few years, making a lot of those styles a lot more accessible. They're also doing a really good job with some of the soft cheeses, like Brie. So I guess I answered a simple question, "what's your everyday cheese?" with "I just love all cheeses."

When I approach them [at the grocery store], I'm not going at it as critically as a judge. But I think everyone could try some of these things when they're picking out a cheese. When you go up to the counter, it's usually cut into wedges, so you already have a window to the inside. Really look at that wedge or block of cheese. Make sure it looks uniform, like you'd expect. If it's cheddar, it should look smooth. If it's a Parm, it should look hard and crumbly. You don't always see the Brie because those are usually wrapped up, but pick it up and feel whether it has a soft resiliency. I think anyone can be an everyday judge if they take a second before they throw the cheese into their grocery cart. Try to understand whether it's meeting those attributes that you'd expect from it.

If it's something new you haven't tried, maybe there's someone at the counter you can ask, "What should I expect from this?" Try one and learn what a new cheese is all about. Is it always like that? Is this cheese kind of like a cheddar texture? Is it mild, or is it bigger and bolder in flavor? It's a lot of fun, and you can learn a lot.

Because cheesemaking is a lot of science but also an art, the same cheese from a different cheesemaker might have some subtle differences, and it's really enjoyable just to compare what those are. It's a great way to try some new cheeses that you'll still probably enjoy, even if they're not your new favorite.

TO: What is an under-the-radar cheese that you think more people should be eating?

CG: Here in the U.S., we make a lot of cheddar, and we're really good at it. If people are looking for something special, they tend to buy a several-year-aged cheddar, and that's a fantastic choice. But I think they should also try to find some cave-aged or clothbound cheddar. Those are going to have that great cheddar flavor, but might also have a bit of a musty taste. It's this deep savory note—a little bit mushroomy. That's based on the aging process. It has stronger flavor near the rind versus the middle. It's still a really approachable cheese: it's cheddar, which everyone feels like they know, but it's a fairly different experience.

I also really recommend that people try some Alpine-style cheeses. Emmental or Swiss cheese is one. Try some Gruyere, but ask for an artisan one. There are some great ones from the midsize cheesemakers in the form of an Appenzeller, which is the protected name for cheese made in the Swiss Alps. It's a rich cheese with a little creaminess, but also some nutty flavors that are really prevalent. It's a great thing to try that can be made right here in the U.S. with our high-quality milk. Some cheesemakers are even making a few variations that are more of a cheddar/Alpine-style hybrid, and those are really enjoyable. A little sweeter and a little more nutty than a traditional cheddar.

TO: This is a great set of suggestions for my own shopping list, since I usually tend to go straight for what I already know.

CG: That's something I hear from a lot of people: "What do you recommend? It's overwhelming at that cheese counter!" I want to empower people to be their own everyday judge.