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18th July 2020 saw the inaugural Virtual Cheese Awards, a not for profit event organised by two veterans of the cheese industry, Sarah de Wit and Nigel Pooley. The awards were set out to support the British Cheese industry from the dairy farmers through to the cheesemaker, with all profits going towards the Specialist Cheesemakers Association (SCA) and the Royal Agricultural Benevolent Institution (RABI).
Awards are valuable for many reasons, two of which are as follows. Firstly, to reward cheesemakers for their work and creating more widespread awareness about their products for cheese buyers, retailers and ultimately the consumer. Secondly, to seek out new and innovative cheeses and up and coming producers who may at this stage be under the radar. Sarah de Wit and Nigel Pooley were sad to see that 2020 could be a missed opportunity for this, so the Virtual Cheese Awards were born.
As all ‘in-person’ judging events this year were cancelled due to Covid-19, they decided to use virtual platforms, which we globally have become accustomed to using, to create this new awards ceremony giving those cheeses and producers their opportunity to be rewarded, promoted and or discovered. I was a judge throughout the process from class judging through to the final supreme judging panel, and I did this all from my dining room.
The Cheese Explorer
Sarah de Wit kindly asked me to judge for them as I have worked in many different sectors of the industry. I started as a cheesemonger in Partridges of Sloane Square, managed the Speciality department of the grocery store Whole Foods Market in Richmond (I was also the head cheesemonger at the Kensington store), assisted with cheesemaking at Gringa Dairy and most recently looked after the Wholesale department for Mons Cheesemongers for the past four and a half years.
Now I have started up my own consultancy business The Cheese Explorer (@thecheeseexplorer on Instagram) to aid retailers, makers and beyond with their internal staff training, range reviews and general help looking at systems and sales channels. When speaking with Sarah, she was adamant that, “At the Virtual Cheese Awards a key focus was to create a fair, valid and consistent judging procedure and using independent judges who were not aligned to a particular dairy,” and I fitted this post.
Now, when I first heard about the awards I found it difficult to comprehend how they would work logistically. It was undertaken so smoothly that it seemed like such a simple process, however there were many stages. My hat is off to those logisticians involved in orchestrating an event where judges are not in the same room but dotted around the country. Read below to learn about the process which you can adapt for your own businesses to undertake virtual tastings with your team - which is particularly beneficial if some of you are still dispersed and working from home around the country.
So how did it work?
10 judges were chosen from different corners of the industry and were paired up to judge through a selection of cheeses. Judging took place over two days, with day one being the class judging. This included anything from Artisan Soft Buffalo Cheeses to Best Cheddar. Each pair were in advance sent identical sets of cheese so they could in effect taste together over Zoom. You can try this at home with your team. We were told to clear out our fridges, so I spent a week eating through all the half jars of chutneys and fermented goods, miscellaneous dairy and beyond. It made for a good clear out, mind! I was paired with Ruth Holbrook, the head of wholesale for Paxton & Whitfield and together we judged a range of Artisan Best Soft Cheese categories, Best External White Mould Cheeses, Artisan Washed Rind Cheeses and Cheeses with Savoury Additives.
How to enter cheese as a producer
Each cheese is entered into the awards by the producer. They enter it into the class that they deem most fit and in some cases into multiple. For instance, a Wensleydale would most likely be entered into the Best Wensleydale class and a cheese with Fenugreek will be entered by its producer into the Cheeses with Savoury Additives class. A soft, white rinded sheep’s milk cheese could enter itself into multiple classes for instance both Best Artisan Sheep’s Milk Cheese and Best External White Mould Cheese.
These cheeses were assigned a unique number to identify them and once the entry deadline has passed, those in charge of the logistics side are given the unenviable task of making sure the cheeses are assigned the correct number and sent to the correct judges! There is no room for error as everything is posted out to the judges in advance.
The judging system
The cheeses were judged firstly in their classes as explained above. The winning cheeses from this stage were sent through to the next stage, the Best in Category, where they were judged live on the Saturday. Once whittled down further by the judging teams to reveal the Best in Category over seven different categories, these seven finalists are judged once more by the final supreme judging panel which comprised of myself, Bruce Macdonald (founder of The Guild of Cheese Graders) and Peter Mitchell (operations director at Coombe Castle). As you will have seen, the washed rind cheese Renegade Monk by Feltham’s Farm took the crown – the winner out of over 300 cheeses judged.
The judging technique used is uniform for all teams to keep it fair across the board and it can be translated out of the judging room and into a useful tool for retailers and buyers too. Sarah de Wit explained that, “The system included 6 attributes which had to be scored out of 10 each and the cheese with the most points won. Comments were mandatory for all cheeses judged.” This system considered the appearance, aroma, flavour, texture, aftertaste and whether the cheese was true to character.
How to use this technique for your business
This scoring system can be used when trying new samples from suppliers or at events, especially if you are tasting many cheeses of the same style as it can get very tricky to differentiate and to remember!
It is also helpful in house when grading the cheeses in your shop. I used a similar system working at Mons where we would taste through around 40 – 50 cheeses on a weekly basis out of our maturing rooms. If you are tasting in your deli or shop, it is a useful tool where you can work together and calibrate your tasting with your staff. The scoring out of 10 can be adapted if you deem fit also – scoring out of 20 can give you a little bit more wiggle room, for instance. If you are visiting trade shows or cheese festivals with a colleague you can try this system together or if you have already tried it together and calibrated, just one of you can do this as you know what the results will mean.
What I found very refreshing about these awards was the complete transparency. Judges were recorded on the class judging day and live on the final judging day. All these videos can be found on the Virtual Cheese Awards Youtube channel so you can watch them with or without your staff to see the full process and practice it for yourself. The videos are also available for producers to watch and see how their cheeses were analysed. Sarah de Wit was elated to express that, “so much appreciative feedback has been received from our customers (the entrants) because this was the first time they had seen their cheeses judged and had received direct constructive feedback via video for the classes and live at the event”. She continued, explaining that “A full report has been sent out by Good Sense Research to all category winners and the final winner outlining the judging feedback and how they scored in comparison to the other cheeses. This process ensures that judges take responsibility for their decisions made and justification is key”. The entrant has always had feedback from the judging process in Awards I have judged at, however this is an extra step where the producer can listen to and see the whole process. This way they can see on camera the exact appearance of their cheeses and how they travelled, so apart from tasting alongside the judges (perhaps technology will allow for this one day!) they can see everything which is one of the most valuable traits of these awards.
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