Cheese Whizzes

In the hall off the dining room at the Kendall College culinary school in Evanston, the men in white coats have arrived. Hailing from as far away as San Francisco, Mississippi, and Delaware, a group of lab-coated dairy experts (actually nine men and one woman) has convened to judge the 2001 United States Championship Cheese Contest, running March 13-15. Each judging table is manned by two people, and Virgil Metzger–a senior researcher for Kraft Foods in Glenview, and the only local judge–has been paired with Bill Wendorff, a food-science professor and dairy manufacturing specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Metzger’s coat is adorned with two bright red patches, one identifying him as “Virgil,” the other with “Kraft” spelled out in cursive. Each judge wears a crisp white cap bearing the official contest logo.

This is the first time either Metzger or Wendorff has judged this particular competition. Officially this is only the 11th United States Championship Cheese Contest, but the event has its roots in a competition initiated in 1893 by the Madison-based Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, then a rebellious splinter group from the Wisconsin Dairymen’s Association. The WCMA took its biennial contest national in 1981.

It has blossomed over the years. Records from 1912 show 26 entries in four classes of cheese: American, brick, Swiss, and Limburger. This year, 663 cheeses were entered in 30 categories ranging from fresh mozzarella to reduced-fat cheese to string cheese. There’s even an open category for otherwise unclassified products like flavored cheese. Butter is also judged by categories: salted, unsalted, and flavored.

Metzger’s no stranger to cheese competition; he’s been the lead cheddar judge for several years at the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest. In fact, he’s a cheese brat–he grew up on a 400-acre dairy farm in Lester, Iowa. “I grew up milking cows, and my five brothers still milk about 225 cows,” he says. “We’ve got close to 1,200 acres now.” Metzger has a master’s degree in dairy science from South Dakota State University in Brookings. After graduating, he spent eight years as a quality-control manager at a Kraft cheese plant in Champaign; in 1985 he moved to the research and development center in Glenview to head the cheese division. “Over the years, I developed something of a niche in cheese, and it’s really what I like to do.”

Metzger has a clipboard with an official score sheet in front of him as a Kendall student takes the first 40-pound block of aged cheddar off of a two-tiered rolling cart and places it on the table. “We’ve got 23 aged cheddars to cover this morning,” says Metzger. “We first look for defects in appearance.” The score sheet covers five categories: flavor, body/texture, makeup/appearance, color, and rind. Metzger checks for mottling, then inspects the packaging for wrinkles. A loose seal could mean late fermentation, which creates gas bubbles–a deduction of up to half a point on a scale of 100. Next he picks up a cheese trier, a semicircular device similar to an apple corer but longer. He plunges it into the center of the cheese and pulls back a four-inch cylindrical cross section called a plug, which he examines under a spotlight. “It’s close–no mechanical holes,” he says. He slowly bends the plug to see how quickly it snaps. “This one’s very short–it breaks very quickly. It’s too acidic and probably was overworked during processing.” He marks down a deduction in the texture category. Then he pinches the cheese between his fingers. “It won’t even hold together and would crumble right away when you go to slice it.” Another demerit.

He pops a piece into his mouth, chewing intensely for about 15 seconds. Then he spits it into a white plastic bucket behind him, much like an enologist at a wine tasting. “It’s not bad, but you can taste a bitterness on the sides of your tongue,” he says. “And it lingers a little too long.” A few more points are subtracted.

“The off tastes are usually from poor handling and transportation,” interjects Wendorff. “When a cheese is temperature-abused, the cultures and bacteria have a tendency to create off flavors.” While there’s no standard cheese terminology, several terms are printed on the scoring sheet as a guide–“metallic,” “yeasty,” “feed,” “sulfide,” “fermented.” “You just develop the terms over time,” says Metzger. Wendorff chimes in to say there’s a study group convening this year to try to establish a standard lexicon.

The first block of cheese is whisked away, replaced by a white cheddar. Judging will continue throughout the morning. After a lunch break, the judges will taste blue cheese, provolone, reduced-fat cheese, and hard cheese. Thursday morning they’ll tackle string cheese, fresh goat cheese, and mozzarella. At 2, the winners of each of the 30 categories will go up against each other to determine an overall winner.

The winner in the aged cheddar category turns out to be Cabot Creamery cheddar, out of Cabot, Vermont, with a score of 98. Other category winners include an unaged cheddar from Henning Cheese in Wisconsin (99.85 points), a Swiss from Brewster Dairy in Brewster, Ohio (99.05), and a provolone from the Park Cheese Company in Byron, Wisconsin (98.9). Beating out all of these contenders for the title of overall champion is a Camembert made from mixed milks–part sheep, part cow–by the Old Chatham Sheepherding Company in upstate New York, and a personal favorite of this cheese consumer. It’s a sign of progress for the American cheese industry to award such a prestigious medal to an artisan cheese maker, and Old Chatham will no doubt flaunt the award on their packaging. Oh, and the flavor–in my own lexicon, it’s creamy, earthy, fruity, and downright soul satisfying.

The Dish

Construction is under way at 2039 W. North, where Shawn McClain of Trio plans a late May opening for his first solo venture, Spring. oThe Dellwood Pickle has lost its lease and will vacate its current premises on Balmoral by the end of March. At press time it had not found a new location.

–Laura Levy Shatkin

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Futran.