Beginners Guide to Cheese Part 1: How to Judge Cheese

Cheese judging is hard!

Even with all the knowledge in the world, and a pallet that can pull out a bad flavour note at 400 paces, it is still hard.  

That is because for all the different types of cheese, people are more different. Two people can taste the same cheese and come to completely different conclusions.  

Judges don’t just have to know their cheeses, they need to know how other people, from Wisconsin to Osaka, might respond to those cheeses. Really good cheeses are usually very complex in their flavours, like wines, and it’s what makes them interesting. 

The problem with flavour is that it’s incredibly subjective. One person’s meaty can be another person’s yeasty. For some, marjoram means pizza, for others it suggests newly cut hay. 

That’s why the World Cheese Awards draws its Judges from 6 continents and 40 countries.

(By the way – You don’t get paid for being a World Cheese Judge. You do it for the love of it. And of course for the joy of tasting hundreds of cheeses, meeting old friends and having a good **** up at the end of it.)

So how do they do it?

Here is Charlie Turnbull’s guide to judging cheese. It is as valid in your own living room as it is at the World Cheese Awards, so keep a note.

What kind of Cheese is it?

Cheese is a broad church – before we Judge it we must first ask why does it think of itself? There are four main categories which you should be able to tell at a glance:

  1. Fresh Cheeses: Fresh cheeses are soft, usually white and often a bit wet. They also respond well to flavouring so you may see herbs or spices on the cheese. Examples include goats curd, cottage cheese, and cheese spreads.
  2. Cured Cheeses: cured cheeses are cheeses that have been treated in some way to change their texture flavour or shelf life. Most likely some part of the cheese will have a firmer texture. Examples include feta, mozzarella and halloumi.
  3. Ripened cheeses: ripened cheeses have undergone secondary fermentation using yeasts, moulds or bacteria. These are easy to spot. When judging these, perfect ripeness will be essential to it being an award-winning cheese
  4. Aged cheeses: otherwise known as hard cheeses there are a huge variety of aged cheeses from all over the planet

What should you expect of the Cheese?

Some types of cheeses are one-offs created by creative cheese makers to their own recipe and matured in a unique way. These will be branded cheeses and may come from anywhere in the world. 

Other types of cheeses conform to a standard. We can place expectations of look, shape, flavour and texture on them.  They usually come from specific historic regions. Cheeses of this type include parmesan, camembert and cheddar.  

It is part of a cheese Judge’s job to recognise cheeses of this second type. 

There will be “tells” in shape, wrapping, colour, texture or aroma that give them away.

 Could you tell a Swiss camembert from an English camembert from an American camembert from a Camembert de Normandie AOP? A Camembert de Normandie AOP could be expected to be 220 to 250 grammes, have a matte white mould, with hints of orange bacteria at perfect ripeness, very light ammonia on the outer edge and notes of cabbage, leak or brassica in the paste. 

An American or English camembert need not conform to any of these expectations. 

It might have note of woodland mushroom, dry straw and clotted cream, even some light bitter buttercup, and still be a world class cheese. 

A French Judge may mark down a Camembert de Normandie AOP for some or all of these characteristics, but a Spanish Judge may not.  

It’s a world court these cheeses need to present themselves to.

What Milk is it?

The vast majority of cheeses in the world are made with cow’s milk. It is an incredibly robust and practical milk, and substantially cheaper. However goats, sheep, buffalo, donkeys, yaks, horses, camels, these are all milks that have had their moment at the World Cheese Awards. 

They look and taste different.  They also react differently to different cheese recipes due to the relative amounts of fats, proteins and sugars in the milk. 

As an example a cheese with a large number of small cracks and misshapen holes could indicate a young Cheshire made from cows milk or a matured manchego made from sheep’s milk. Over 3-6 months the Cheshire will lose its holes. A young manchego starts with no holes at all, developing them as it ages.

But most of all, knowing the milk gives a guide to taste:

  • Cows milk is the slowest to mature, the least sweet and most savoury
  • Sheep’s milk, less savoury than cow’s milk, has a distinct nuttiness increasing as it matures
  • Goats milk, while not quite as sweet as sheep’s milk, retains a light velvety milkiness throughout its life as a cheese, often with a slightly enhanced herbiness

Stay Tuned

I will finish our guide with Part 2 on How to Judge Cheese, and you can watch the judging on World Cheese TV http://www.gff.co.uk/wca

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