CDR’s Dean Sommer on being a U.S. Championship Cheese Contest judge

For the first time this year Dean Sommer, a cheese and food technologist with the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research, was among the group of experts that sniffed, tasted and scored their way through the cheeses submitted to the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. That’s no small task. The competition, run by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, takes place over the course of three full days and this year drew a total of 1,885 entries from 28 states.

The results once again reflect Wisconsin’s prowess in artisanal cheese. The state’s cheesemakers won gold medals in 56 of the contest’s 90 categories. And while a wheel of Swiss cheese from Ohio took Best of Show, both the First Runner Up (Mill Creek Cheese’s brick) and the Second Runner Up (Land O’Lakes’ medium cheddar) were Wisconsin-made.

Want a taste of what it’s like to judge a cheese contest? Sommer was kind enough to compile a short summary of the process for eCALS. You can also read more about the sensory evaluation of cheese in this story from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which quotes Sommer’s CDR colleague Mark Johnson, who also served as a judge this year.

Here’s Sommer’s summary:

The preliminary round of judging occurred that Tuesday and Wednesday. I was paired with Terry Lensmire, a Wisconsin Master Cheese Maker from Agropur. Terry and I were responsible for judging six categories of cheese: string; Parmesan; brick and Muenster; Asiago; open class hard cheeses; and surface-ripened cheeses made with mixed milk.

We scored the cheeses on initial appearance, flavor, body and texture, color and rind. A perfect cheese would score 100 points. Every defect found would result in a deduction. All of the cheeses in these six categories were graded independently by both Terry and I. The officials averaged our scores, and the top three scorers for each category were named Best of Class.

On Thursday, phase one of the Championship Round was held. For this, all of the gold (top) Best of Class cheeses were brought together and scored. There were distributed among eight tables, with four judges assigned per table. Each judge worked independently and secretly to pick the top two cheeses on their table to advance to phase two of the Championship Round. From our table, the two cheeses that advanced were brick and Asiago.

The finals took place on Thursday evening. All 32 judges independently evaluated each of the 16 finalist Best of Class cheeses. Our scores for each cheese were averaged, and the three top-scoring cheeses were awarded Best of Show, First Runner Up and Second Runner Up

From my perspective, it was a wonderful experience that gave me the opportunity to taste and evaluate some of the top cheeses in the U.S., although it was much more intense and draining than I expected. I found it rewarding that two cheeses that Terry and I picked as Best of Class during the preliminary round advanced to the Championship Round (Brick and Asiago) and that one of them (Brick) was ultimately declared First Runner Up Best of Show.

I am grateful that working here at the CDR for the past 12 years has exposed me to so many different cheeses from around the country and world. Working here has also helped me develop my cheese evaluation skills beyond what I could ever have imagined, to the point that I was offered the opportunity to be a judge in such a prestigious contest.

Dean Sommer at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research.