The scoop on what’s behind the world’s award-winning cheeses.
You’re standing in front of a sea of cheese choices at your favorite retailer. Maybe you are looking for something new in an old favorite. Or something out-of-the-board from what you normally put together. Or a way to wow friends coming over for a wine and cheese party. How much stock should you put in stickers or signage that calls out a cheese as an award winner? As it turns out, a lot. Those two words, award and winning, are the tip of the iceburg into the fascinating world of cheese competitions and what this accolade means for a cheese connoisseur at the store.
“Awards are an opportunity to shed light on new producers, perhaps a small cheesemaker who didn’t have a big reach until arriving at the awards. It shows that it does not have to be the most popular or most well-known cheese to win, it just must be really well made and delicious. Awards can often highlight trends and shifts in the industry, such as a decade ago there were only one or two spruce-wrapped cheeses submitted to the American Cheese Society (ACS), and now there are several,” says Lizzie Roller, director of merchandising for Murray’s Cheese, a specialty cheese and foods retailer based in Greenwich Village, NY, with over 300 locations in Kroger branded supermarkets nationwide.
The World Championship Cheese Contest (WCCC), the ACS Judging & Competition, and the World Cheese Awards (WCA) are the three biggies in the cheese world, especially for cheesemongers and customers alike in the U.S. Each competition is different, but they all follow the same basic rules.
The WCCC, started in 1957, is hosted annually by the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association. The biennial competition gets nearly 4,000 entries from the U.S. to as far afield as Argentina, Croatia, China and New Zealand. The most recent contest happened in early March, in Madison, WI. This is the world’s premier technical cheese, as well as butter and yogurt, competition. Teams of technical judges, made up typically by professionals that work in dairy science or research at major universities, microbiologists, and representatives of culture or cheesemaking equipment companies, start with 100 points. Defects in areas like flavor, texture, salt, color and body equal points deducted. The top three scoring cheeses receive gold, silver and bronze medals.
The ACS Judging & Competition is the largest event of its kind for cheeses made in the Americas. Some 1,500 entries in 120 categories by producers in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and even Brazil are expected for the May 19-20, 2022, event in Minneapolis. Two judges each, one technical and one aesthetic, work in teams. Aesthetic judges come from the worlds of retailing, marketing and media. Each starts with 50 points, 100 points between the two, with the technical judge taking off for defects, aesthetic judges scoring for taste, flavor and appearance. The top three scores earn first through third place, receiving medals, ribbons and certificates. However, if none of the entries receives a certain threshold of points, then there’s no winner in that category.
“The goal our competition was founded on in 1983 is to improve the quality of American cheese across the board,” says Rachel Perez, ACS CCP, co-chair of the Judging & Competition Committee for the Englewood, CO-based ACS. “We are the only competition that gives feedback to the entrants. The feedback is so valuable it’s why some cheesemakers enter; winning an award is icing on the cake.”
The WCA, founded in 1992 by British-owned gourmet new publisher named the Guild of Fine Food, welcomed over 4,000 entries from 45 countries and 250 judges last November when it took place in Spain as part of the International Cheese Festival. This makes it one of the most recognized of its kind in Europe. Judging is a ladder process. First, teams of a trio of judges evaluate all entries on criteria like color, texture and taste and choose Gold, Silver and Bronze. The Gold medalists advance to judging by a Super Jury of internationally-recognized experts. Each of these global experts selects a champion contender for the final round and ultimate naming of the World Champion Cheese.
“For me, the most important competition is the World Cheese Awards, primarily because it is the only competition that for the past 10 years has concentrated on becoming more international and diverse,” says Carlos Yescas, UK-based cheese expert and author of “Quesos Mexicanos”, who has judged at the WCA as well as other cheese competitions in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, France and Spain.
BEHIND THE SCENES AT CHEESE COMPETITIONS
The starting point for all competitions is a call for entries. Obviously, only if a cheesemaker enters a cheese can that cheese win an award.
“I would say with the daily and seasonal changes in the milk, it would be difficult to craft a cheese specifically for a competition. Instead, first comes quality in all the cheese we make each and every day. When we keep that focus, then all the cheese is fine,” says Richard Guggisberg, president of Guggisberg Cheese, in Millersburg, OH, whose Baby Swiss placed first in its category at the 2019 ACS Judging & Competition.
Similarly, there are no batches we make specifically for competition, says David Gremmels, president of Central Point, OR-based Rogue Creamery. “In fact, all the cheeses we entered in the 2019 World Cheese Awards competition—including the winning wheel of Rogue River Blue—were chosen at random from our cheese caves. The same with the Crater Lake Blue that received Gold at the 2021 World Cheese Awards. I think this alone speaks volumes about the quality of cheese being produced in our every vat.”
The contest committee uses the two to three months between the call for and the arrival of the entries to create its categories. Cheeses don’t compete against each other, like a blue up against a cheddar, but in their own groupings and subgroupings. These classifications aren’t static and can change year to year each year. For example, the ACS has combined sheep and buffalo milk cheeses into one category and added categories for cottage and bark-wrapped cheeses.
Timing can differ based on how far an entry needs to travel and the schedule of a particular competition. But, if we consider this process in the timeframe of a week, then a Monday would be when producers send—via refrigerated truck or express shipping, in ice or bubble wrap—their entries to the competition site.
“This, I think, is one of the most important parts of a competition. Not only because of the logistics needed for the cheese to arrive on time but because it pushes producers to package, ship and plan for their cheese to arrive at the perfect temperature and conditions for the competition,” says Yescas.
Volunteers, such as industry professionals, those from local civic organizations and cheese lovers from the public, unpack, remove any branding, assign specific anonymous competition identification for blind judging and re-refrigerate the cheeses. This can take up to 75 volunteers and two days, depending on the number of entries. Many judges get their start as volunteers.
“In the past, we had cheesemakers send in full wheels, like 200-pound wheels of Swiss. Now, we’re requiring smaller quantities like 5- to 10-pound retail cuts to maximize storage space and minimize waste,” says the ACS’s Perez.
For the first face-offs, volunteers kick it off by arranging cheeses on judging tables, usually most mild first. The systematic organization is key to ensuring all cheeses are on the tables as producers rely on the organizers to present their cheeses in the best way to the judges. After that, the evaluations start. It might seem like a kid in a candy shop work to sample through table after table of the best cheeses in the world, but this is work, not play.
“As a judge, you need to stay balanced and focused to be able to evaluate each cheese on its merits, whether it’s the first cheese you taste for the day or last. The challenge is that you start early in the morning and often go through the late evening for two or three days in a row, so you have to have stamina. To get through 70 or 80 entries in a day, it’s key to set a pace. In some competitions, judges are allowed to talk among themselves, and in others not. For the ACS contest, it’s all about giving constructive feedback about each cheese as well as the scoring, and this means doing so after each tasting before moving on to the next cheese. Diligence and focus are important because sometimes there’s only 1/10th of a point between Gold and Silver,” explains Cathy Strange, vice president of specialty product and innovation for Whole Foods Market, a 500-plus store natural and organic foods retailer headquartered in Austin, TX.
Satiety and palate fatigue can be real issues. For the former, many judges will spit out the cheese after tasting. For the latter, cheese has a considerable amount of salt and fat, so eating a lot of it relatively fast requires frequent palate cleansers. Something sweet or acid can re-set the taste buds for salt, while the bubbles in sparkling water can clean the fat coating on the tongue.
“Apple slices, grapes, melons and pineapple are good palate cleansers, so are unsalted crackers and bread. Iced tea works well, too,” says Kirsten Strohmenger, events manager for the WCMA and WCCC.
In the end, scores are tallied, and awards are either announced immediately or later at a time that serves as a highly-anticipated unveiling.
“The best cheeses have that perfect balance between the technical side (meaning the cheesemaking is top-notch) and the subjective flavor side—does it taste delicious? Many winners often have that extra layer of complexity, either the flavor is just extra nuanced, or it’s something vastly different that hasn’t been seen much before. At the end of the day in my mind, the winners tend to be just really, really well-made cheese,” says Murray’s Cheese Roller.
GOLD TO SOLD
So, what’s the best way to use the fact that a cheese is award-winning to select at the retail cheese counter?
“Overall, I think being an award winner translates pretty well outside of the industry. It means best in class; it means that it was deemed the best that year compared to other cheeses. We typically call out award winners in our product signage and on our website and in emails, so when customers are looking at an item, they can learn everything about it, from its terroir and maker to tasting notes and any notable awards it has received. Part of our job is to cull the awards and to translate them for our customers in an impactful way,” says Murray’s Cheese Roller.
Awards can help steer shoppers to something new.
“If you like a certain type of cheese or brand, then see what else is similar either in type or from that same producer,” recommends Judy Creighton ACS, a certified cheese professional and competition judge who, with her husband, Charlie, owned Creighton’s Cheese & Fine Food for over 20 years in San Francisco.
A good example is Rogue Creamery’s Crater Lake Blue. This won gold at the 2021 World Cheese Awards. It’s a good choice for anyone who is a fan of the maker’s 2019 winner, its Rogue River Blue.
Like some eagerly follow Food & Wine’s annual naming of the nation’s Best New Chefs and Wine Spectator’s Restaurant Awards, the list of winners from the WCCC, ACS Judging & Competition, and WCA can be cause for a party. It’s fun to buy a couple of the awardees, invite friends over, and have a sampling party. Ultimately, says Murray’s Cheese Roller, “We don’t advise shoppers to solely look at award winners: cheeses are so varied, the flavors so different and each customer is different. Hopefully, being an award winner helps guide a customer to a product that they might not have known or may not have tried otherwise, giving them that extra push out of their comfort zone.