Cheese whiz: Penn State food scientist judge in international contest

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – A food scientist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences will be one of the judges for the 2012 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis., March 5-7.

Kerry Kaylegian, director of industrial outreach and pilot plant manager in the Department of Food Science, prepared for the national event by serving as a judge for the U.S. Cheese Championship last year and has judged the regional Big E cheese competition in Massachusetts the last few years.

Kaylegian, whose primary research and outreach interests are dairy chemistry and processing, started judging dairy products out of curiosity when she was a graduate student working on butter research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned both her bachelor's and master's degrees in food science.

"I got involved with the Collegiate Dairy Products Evaluation Contest, where we judge vanilla ice cream, strawberry yogurt, milk, butter, cottage cheese and Cheddar cheese," she said. "That contest has been around since 1919."

Learning the nuances and causes of flavor defects is interesting to Kaylegian, she said. Over the years, she expanded the types of products she judged and moved from the collegiate contest to other competitions. Later in graduate school at Cornell University, where she received her doctorate in food science, she helped to judge dairy products for the New York State Fair.

"We dealt with many samples, and it was cool to see the variation among cottage cheeses -- for example, we saw more than 50 samples in one morning," she recalled. "The more products you get to see and taste, the better judge you become."

Judging cheese is fascinating, Kaylegian noted, because one gets to see and taste an amazing variety of cheeses. Last year, when she judged the U.S. championships, she and her judging partner tasted more than 120 samples in two days, and then another 40 or so in the championship round to name the Best in Show.

"I am honored to be invited to judge such high-level competitions," she said. "There is a community of judges in the United States that come from a variety of backgrounds. We all started by training with experienced judges who help to identify flavors that are new to inexperienced judges.

"It's like an apprenticeship program," she added. "It's often a matter of personal connections to be asked to judge, but it's a matter of personal integrity to be invited a second time. The opportunity to learn continually from experienced judges is invaluable."

Judging the quality of cheese is fun, Kaylegian admitted, and she learns more about cheese at every competition in which she participates. That helps her do her job better at Penn State, she emphasized.

"The increased knowledge makes me a better scientist and helps in my tech-transfer activities to support our local cheesemakers," she said. "The number of artisan cheeses in the United States and the world is growing quickly."


Media Contacts: 
Last Updated March 05, 2012