The big cheese: For Penn State dairy foods expert, it's OK to be judgmental

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, Kerry Kaylegian was fond of cheese. But, she recalls, that changed during a trip to New York City when she was 14.

"I was visiting my aunt and uncle -- the trip was a present for graduating eighth grade -- and they took me to Murray's Cheese Shop in the West Village," she said. "After seeing and tasting so many varieties, I developed a passion for cheese."

Now a dairy research and extension associate with the Department of Food Science in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences, Kaylegian has built a national reputation as a judge in cheese competitions. She has parlayed that expertise into playing a key role last year in the creation of a cheese contest at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg.

"I see Pennsylvania's artisanal cheese-making industry in the same position as Vermont's was a decade or so ago," she said. "We want to help our state's specialty cheese-making efforts rise to a similar level and notoriety as that of Vermont's."

Kaylegian got her start in dairy-products judging in the great dairy state of Wisconsin, working at the University of Wisconsin's Center for Dairy Research. She was studying butter at the time and wanted to know how butter was evaluated, so she contacted the coach of the University of Wisconsin judging team and trained with members to learn how to judge dairy products.

A part-time graduate student at the time, Kaylegian was able to join the team and compete in the collegiate contest in 2000. As part of the competition, Kaylegian and her teammates judged the quality of milk, butter, cheddar cheese, cottage cheese, vanilla ice cream and strawberry yogurt. When she went on to graduate school at Cornell University about a year later, she started helping with the New York State Fair, where she judged a variety of dairy foods, including cheese

After arriving at Penn State, Kaylegian accepted an invitation to be a cheese judge at a state fair in Springfield, Massachusetts, and shortly after began judging regularly in competitions managed by the Wisconsin Cheesemakers Association. Over the past five years in that capacity, she has judged a number of national cheese contests.

This past winter, Kaylegian was one of 38 judges who evaluated the more than 1,800 entries in 90 categories in the 2015 U.S. Championship Cheese Contest, held in Madison, Wisconsin.

In competitions, cheeses are submitted in wheels, small chunks and blocks of various sizes. Entries are categorized by type and then submitted to the judges in random order. Then a ritual begins: Judges cut off a piece of the wax (or plastic) covering, insert and twist a cheese trier, pull out a plug, then sniff, examine, bend, taste, chew and spit.

"If you had to sample 112 cheeses in two days, as we did judging six categories in that contest, you'd spit, too," Kaylegian said. "Judges can't swallow that much cheese -- we just discern the taste and quality and go to the next one."

She estimates that she has tasted and judged close to a thousand cheeses by now. But eating cheese is way better than judging it, she believes.

"I don't mind admitting it, I'm a cheese snob," she said. "People ask me all the time what my favorites are. It depends -- I like different cheeses in different seasons. The cheeses I tend to favor most are what we call Alpine cheeses -- somewhat like a Swiss cheese but a little bit different in that they have a nutty character to them usually, with a close body and a complex flavor.

"I also really like sheep milk cheeses, and another cheese I eat a lot is called surface-ripened soft goat cheese."

The most memorable cheese Kaylegian ever tasted was a very mild, very fresh ricotta cheese in Italy.

"I remember I was there with a class, and I stayed for a few extra days and went to buy cheese. I tried to communicate in Italian that I don't speak very well, and the deli guy didn't speak any English," she said.

"He pointed to this tiny 2-inch by 2-inch pot of cheese and conveyed that I just had to try it. Turns out it had one flavor the day I took it home -- the day it was made -- and the next day it was slightly different, and the day after that it tasted different again. It had a sweet, delicate milk flavor."

at Harrisburg show contest

Cutting a block of cheese at the Harrisburg show -- next year there will be a cheese-contest exhibit on the main floor of the Farm Show.

Image: Penn State

Kaylegian is proud of her involvement in the new cheese contest at the state Farm Show, and she has high hopes for the expected annual event. The Harrisburg show approached her for help because of her expertise as a judge, but she acknowledges that she had no idea how complicated it would be to put together a competition from the ground up.

The 2016 competition will be slightly expanded. Entrants will be allowed to enter four cheese samples, up from three in the inaugural event, and there will be a cheese-contest exhibit on the main floor of the Farm Show. "We had so many people stop by and ask where they could sample and buy cheeses featured in the competition," Kaylegian said.

"Pennsylvania cheeses are definitely up-and-coming, and we are soon going to be known as a big state for artisanal cheeses," she said. "We are hoping the Farm Show competition expedites that process. At Penn State, we are committed to boosting the quality and consistency of farmstead cheese-making and bringing some exposure and recognition to Pennsylvania cheesemakers."

Last Updated June 03, 2015