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All Rise: A Judge’s Perspective on the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest

I really love my career and all the opportunities it provides. I was recently a judge at the 2019 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, one of almost 60 nationally renowned judges tasked with selecting the best cheese in the country from more than 2,555 entries divided into 116 classes.

While this sounds like all fun and games (it really is fun), it takes a lot of experience and focus to critically judge 140 to 150 cheese samples over the course of two days.  In the opening rounds the cheeses ranged from mild and milky (brick and muenster) to more intense flavors (natural rind cheeses and Gorgonzola). I even judged hot-pepper-flavored cheeses. Keeping my taste buds fresh was a challenge, but I would swish some water or eat small bites of sliced apple between samples to help.

For me, the most exciting part of the competition comes on day two, when we narrow the 116 gold medal class winners down to the top 20 cheeses and then eventually select the champion. The biggest challenge as a judge is trying to compare a mozzarella or a sharp cheddar to an Alpine-style cheese, and then throw in Swiss, Brie or Gorgonzola. It is impossible to compare such different cheeses to one another. Instead we judge them on how perfect each cheese is for its specific variety. Having the chance to try such a wide variety of cheese, really the best of the best from across the country, is humbling.

In the end, a Baby Swiss Wheel from Guggisberg, Ohio, was crowned the best cheese in the U.S. for 2019. Its balance of taste, texture and eye distribution (the holes in Swiss) made it an obvious high-scoring cheese. Almost any of the top 20 cheese would have been a worthy champion, making the decision all about the finest of details.

Next time you are at your cheese counter ask if they have any award winners from the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest. Look for some of your usual favorites like cheddar, Havarti, Baby Swiss and Swiss. Also, ask about some of the new trends I had the chance to sample, like cave-aged Parmesan or Alpine-style cheese. One of the most unique cheeses I judged was a hot pepper Brie. The peppers and texture of the Brie complimented each other really well. I know I’ll be putting this on cheese trays this summer.

Check out my blog post on DairyGood.org for more cheese-inspired tips and make sure to share some cheese this season.

By Chad Galer