How Do You Become a Cheese Taste Tester?

June 01, 2017

If you want to be a professional epicurious evaluator of cheese, you best learn the right lingo.

Those in the biz call themselves “cheese graders,” meaning someone who evaluates and, you guessed it, grades different cheeses based on a host of characteristics, including body, shape, color, texture, smell and flavor.

Becoming a cheese grader is similar to becoming a cheesemaker in that many people who have grown up in the cheese business learn how to grade cheese as they go. Cheese graders often have mentors who help them learn the craft and develop their palate so they can effectively evaluate and grade cheese, according to Dean Sommer, cheese grader and cheese and food technologist for the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“My very first week on the job we were tasting a bunch of cheese, and I remember tasting it and thinking ‘I don’t know what these guys are talking about,’” Sommer said.

Sommer now clearly knows his stuff, and Food & Wine featured him in a new story. 

By developing their palates, cheese graders can define a cheese’s profile – for example, whether it’s mild or sharp. But it’s a bit more complex than that. Cheese graders need to be licensed, which involves being familiar with more than 100 specific cheese definitions and characteristics, as well as remembering desirable and undesirable flavors, finishes, textures and appearances for different types of cheeses.

It took five years before Sommer took the licensing exam, and he’s still working on his palate today.

“It’s kind of like a building block process: brick on brick on brick and you build a foundation and just keep adding to it and pretty quick your structure gets stronger and bigger. And that’s how cheese grading goes too.”

Today, Sommer helps others learn how to grade cheese, and he’s found while personal preferences may differ, the key is making sure that everyone can taste the same things.

While there was certainly some cramming when it came to memorizing terminology and other details for the licensing exam, Sommer said when it comes to grading cheese, it’s pretty straightforward.

“You either get it or you don’t,” he said.

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