How Professional Cheese Tasters Sample 100 Cheeses Per Day

The highly technical art of cheese grading, explained.

Given that The Takeout is a Midwest-based food publication, no one can ever accuse us of insufficient cheese coverage. We think about cheese ceaselessly, obsessively, and lovingly. Yet despite the depths of our dedication, it pales in comparison to that of Craig Gile, whose career in cheese spans more than two decades.

Gile is a longtime employee of Vermont-based Cabot Creamery Co-operative, whose cheeses are available at grocery stores nationwide. Though he has held many roles within the company, Gile was a longtime Cabot cheese taster, a position that no doubt inspires a mix of fascination and envy in all who hear about it—even more so when you consider that tasters must sample between 100 and 200 cheeses in a single day.

How professional cheese tasting works

Tasting is part of the process known as cheese grading, and for Cabot's team of professional cheese graders, there are many technical elements to consider while sampling. From the structure to the flavor to the smell, graders must carefully inspect the product to determine how it's aging and what its best uses might be. Though this sounds like it might require a preternaturally refined palate, Gile says it's more about staying aware throughout the tasting process.

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"My palate's probably not much better than a lot of other folks out there," he told The Takeout. "One of things I have to do is actively think about what I'm tasting. That's something that anyone can do."

So how do the professionals evaluate all this cheese? They start with a visual check.

"The first thing you do is look at the exterior of the cheese block," Gile said. "You're looking for crystallization, discoloration, and the shape. That starts to give you your first idea of what that cheese might taste like."

Next, tasters use a small knife with a half-moon-shaped blade to "plug" the cheese, or pull a core sample from the block. This cylindrical selection shows every layer of the cheese (so that experts aren't just experiencing the characteristics closest to the surface). The core sample can tell the tasters a whole lot. Imperfections such as eye holes, slits, or cracks are noted, as is any discoloration within the body. Even the resistance of the cheese against the knife, Gile says, will indicate how the cheese is setting up as it ages.

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Then comes the smell test. "You're looking for any kind of sweet milk flavor, fermented flavor," said Gile, adding that "this whole time you're keeping in the back of your head what's going on, taking notes."

When it's finally the moment to taste the cheese, it's little more than a nibble, but one that's very carefully considered.

"As you're tasting it, you're rubbing the cheese between your fingers to get an idea of how well that cheese breaks down," Gile said. Tasters take notes on the cheese's pH, moisture, and salt levels, as well as "everything you're picking up on the body and flavor." Keeping these notes brief and technical prevents tasters from growing "mentally exhausted."

"You put that all together and assign it to the best category," Gile said.

Why cheese needs to be tasted and graded

Categorization is a part of the cheese grading process many everyday cheese enthusiasts might not know about. Producers like Cabot don't just staff all these tasters to make sure the cheese is coming along deliciously; the graders help determine how each cheese should ultimately be aged, packaged, and sold.

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"As you've probably seen at the supermarket, the shape that cheese takes can be shreds, slices, cracker cuts—all of that is impacted by how well the cheese will go into that form," Gile said. "So it's up to the grader to write down not just what the taste of the cheese is, but its best functional use."

Some cheeses might lend themselves best to being sold as 2-lb. bricks. Others might need their aging process extended or halted, based on how they're progressing. And some cheeses might boast fantastic flavor, but the body contains a lot of slits or eyes that would cause a tidy square cracker cut to fall apart. No worries; in those cases, the cheese can usually be turned into shreds or integrated into processed cheese. (Don't be scared by that term—it just refers to the combination of two or more cheeses with the aid of an emulsifier.)

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How cheese tasters keep their palates pristine

Given that these graders taste 100 to 200 cheeses in a day, you might wonder how they keep their palate primed for tasting even more cheese. In a technical setting like the Cabot warehouses it's often as simple as drinking water between bites, but in the context of, say, judging an international cheese contest—a setting in which Gile spends much of his time—prepping one's palate can involve a different type of forethought and care.

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"[There's] a lot more writing, a lot more evaluating, and you're not going to judge nearly as many pieces of cheese throughout the day," Gile said. "It gives you a little more flexibility to spend more time in between the cheeses. That's when we might bring in, in addition to water, apple slices or crackers to help cleanse the palate."

Preparation starts well before the contest itself. Since exhaustion can dull one's palate, and since contests take place all over the world, judges have to stay one step ahead of jet lag if they want to taste each cheese to the fullest. For Gile, this often means booking a flight that arrives with plenty of time to acclimate before the competition.

"Caffeine—coffee—is always a big talking point among cheese judges," Gile noted. "There's a lot of research out there showing that drinking coffee can numb the taste senses for some amount of time. But if you drink coffee every day and you choose the day of judging to not drink coffee, that's also going to create a level of exhaustion." These are, as he puts it, "added factors you have to learn about yourself."

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As we probably all know too well, hunger can affect our sense of taste, too, and judges who attend contest too hungry or too full might accidentally evaluate a cheese according to their own personal level of satiety. Gile noted that even factors like age and an individual's saliva production can influence how a cheese will taste. As such, it's important to know how fellow tasters respond to it as well.

"It's about always checking in with yourself and talking a lot with other folks to see, 'What are you tasting here?'" he said.

In spite of all the nuances, however, the act of tasting cheese is one that should ultimately be joyful—a fact that can get lost when consumers are trying too hard to approach cheese the "right" way.

"I think the biggest mistake I see when I talk to people is that they take it a little too seriously, rather than just making it a fun experience," said Gile. "I've seen people overthink what they're going to bring to a party or put on a board. The part that really trips people up is that they're scared of speaking about what they're tasting."

No matter which cheese a consumer chooses to sample, Gile encourages them to start with the basics: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Which of those five foundational flavors does the cheese present most prominently? Which flavors feel like they're lacking? With practice, this will help the amateur taster find the cheeses they like best.

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"Everybody is an individual," Gile said. "Trust your instincts."

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