Thirty-four judges clad in white lab coats were ensconced inside a chilly room at the Raleigh Convention Center Wednesday doing this routine: sniff, taste, spit, score.
These experts werent tasting wine or beer but cheese: crumbly rounds of smoked blue cheese, dripping hunks of feta, musty circles of aged cheddar and more. Wednesday was the conclusion of a two-day competition at the American Cheese Societys annual conference, which continues in Raleigh through Saturday.
It was another record year for the American Cheese Society, said Todd Druhot, the competitions chair. Every year, weve had growth.
A decade ago, the competition had about 700 entries; this year, it had 1,711. When the society started in 1983, 150 people attended the first conference; this year, more than 800 cheese mongers, cheese makers and cheese enthusiasts preregistered for the event.
Thats no surprise given how popular artisan cheese has become. Cheese was the largest specialty food category in the nation in 2011 with $3.44 billion in sales, according to the National Association for Specialty Food Trade.
Its a viable business now, explained Lassa Skinner, a judge and owner of Oxbow Cheese Merchant in Napa, Calif., and founder of Culture, a magazine devoted to cheese.
Beyond the competition, whose winners will be announced Friday night, conference goers can attend sessions with such titles as Handling Cheese in a Retail Environment, and Communicating in a Food Safety Crisis. Cheesemakers can have one-on-one evaluations of their cheese by scholars-in-residence, visit local farms and even see cheesemaking demonstrations.
And for the first time, 150 people took an exam to become certified cheese professionals, like a wine sommelier for cheese. Whole Foods Market sent more than 80 employees to take the test.
Several judges remarked on how the quality of American cheese has improved over the years. Max McCalman, an award-winning author and dean of curriculum at Artisanal Premium Cheese Center in New York City, believes that is partly because the young industry is hungry to learn.
The quality is improving dramatically because they are more receptive to critique, McCalman said.
That is the point of the societys cheese competition; judges are asked to write extensive notes on their ballots to help the cheese makers.
This isnt a judgment, Skinner said. Its how can we help you to make a better cheese.
And so, the judges spent Wednesday afternoon shivering inside a conference room kept at a constant 55 degrees for the cheeses sake. They were evaluating the cheese on aroma, flavor, body, appearance and rind development or what the outside reveals about how well the cheese was made. With a special tool called a cheese iron that some carried in leather pouches, they would pull out pieces from the cheeses center, study the texture, inside and out, take a deep sniff and finally taste.
If its good, you swallow, said another judge, N.C. State University professor MaryAnne Drake. If its not good and not worth the calories, it goes in the spit bucket.