The Cheesemonger’s Guide to Cheese Tasting
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The Cheesemonger’s Guide to Cheese Tasting

Have you ever tried a new cheese, only to find that you don’t have the words to describe just how good it is? We’ve been there, so we took the liberty of writing this guide on how to talk about cheese.

There’s a big difference between eating cheese and cheese tasting. To be clear, we believe in enjoying the majesty of cheese in whatever way you like—but in order to appreciate the full spectrum of sensory experiences a cheese can offer you, you must train in the art of cheese tasting. Picture yourself as a sommelier of cheese.

How to Taste Cheese Like an Expert

Every cheese has its own personality and no two cheeses are alike--even among the same variety. An aged cheddar from Cedar Grove Cheese can be delightfully different from an aged cheddar made by Hook’s Cheese Company, despite both originating from the same family of cheese and both hailing from Wisconsin. 

If all of this sounds intimidating, that’s ok! Your local cheesemonger can help you navigate this new and exciting world of cheese with expert advice on proper cheese tasting.

What’s a cheesemonger? They’re the go-to expert behind the counter at your local cheese shop, and the ultimate resource to help you discover your next favorite cheese.


The Cheese Tasting Journey

Sight

So where does the cheese tasting journey start? Well, like we talked about in our meat and cheese pairing guide, the journey starts with the eyes.

Before you even touch the cheese, visually take in its appearance with your eyes. What does the texture look like? What color is the rind? Are there any cracks or veins of color? Consider this an ocular pat-down.

Touch

The next step on the cheese tasting journey is touch. Getting a tactile feel for the cheese influences your perception of taste (seriously, it’s science). Is the cheese hard or soft? Light and crumbly, or dense and hard? These tactile cues can help you pin down cheese characteristics like aging and the type of rind.

Smell

Take a deep breath in through your nose. Right this moment, millions of neurons in your brain are dissecting all the smells around you and telling you what’s what.

Smell is one of our most developed senses, so it should come as no surprise that around 80% of our “taste” actually comes from “smell.”

When smelling cheese, make sure you keep some distance between the cheese and your nose—some nose-kicking cheeses like limburger or muenster pack a wonderful but stinky punch! You can also slowly wave your hand towards your face, gently wafting those beautiful aromas right into your olfactory system. 

What kind of smells should you be looking for? Cheesemongers keep an eye out for these notes: 

  • Lactic (milky)
  • Grassy
  • Fruity
  • Floral
  • Nutty
  • Earthy

Taste

Finally, the part any cheese enthusiast has been waiting for: taste. Resist the temptation to start with a big chunk. You want a small piece that can comfortably sit on your tongue and move around your mouth. It might help to close your eyes so you can really focus on the dance of flavors.

Trying to pin down all the particular flavors you’re experiencing can be challenging, or even overwhelming! Use the five flavors that the taste buds on our tongue are capable of discerning as a jumping off point:

  • Sweet
  • Sour/Acidic
  • Salty
  • Bitter
  • Umami (savory)

As you spend some time acquainting the cheese with your mouth, pay particular attention to any flavors that shine a bit brighter than the rest. These persistent flavors left after swallowing are known as the finish. 

Don’t feel bad if you can’t quite put your finger on all the flavors and aromas you’re experiencing. Like anything, cheese tasting takes practice.

The best solution then, is to have more cheese. You’ll quickly find a new appreciation for the incredible range of tastes and flavors that every cheese brings to the table.


Tasting Notes of Common Cheeses

Looking for some guidance for common tasting notes? We’ve compiled this quick list of popular cheeses and their flavors. Trying out some of these cheeses can help calibrate your cheese tasting abilities. You’ll be a cheese pro in no time.

Gouda

Gouda often has caramel and butterscotch notes that taste like cooked sugar and intensify with age.

Alpine-style cheese 

Inspired by traditional cheeses from alps, Wisconsin cheese makers have adopted alpine-style and given it a unique dash of Wisconsin love. Alpine-style cheeses are famously nutty, with a flavor similar to toasted hazelnuts. You can also expect some grassy notes that taste like freshly cut grass.

Mozzarella

Recognized as the most popular cheese in America, mozzarella brings a milky and lactic smell, with flavors similar to cream or whole milk. All that milk means you’ll get a buttery mouthfeel (smooth and creamy, just like butter).

Parmesan

Made with a delicious complex flavor profile, parmesan is often sweet with flavors like caramel or toffee, and fruity like pineapple. Don’t be surprised if you swing between sweet and savory when tasting parmesan, buckle up and enjoy the smooth ride.

Limburger

Limburger is a Wisconsin classic has quite an assertive flavor; earthy with notes of fresh mushrooms. If you enjoy a strong cheese with a ton of character, limburger is for you. If limburgers aromatic smell intimidates you, don’t worry. This cheese’s bark is way worse than its bite—in fact you’ll be the one doing the biting.

Blue 

Blue is known for its piquant and sometimes earthy flavors, ranging from mild to strong. Texture wise you can expect a rich and creamy mouthfeel that your taste buds will thank you for.


Conclusion

Ready to use your new cheese tasting super powers in the real world? Of course you are. If you’re looking for some inspiration you can start on our cheese finder page and get lost in the dozens of cheese varieties made right here in Wisconsin. You can also choose from over 300 handcrafted recipes featuring Wisconsin cheese. Share your creation with us on Instagram or Facebook and become part of the largest cheese community in the world.

FAQs: Cheese Tasting

Why is cheese salty?

For many cheeses, salt is a crucial part of the cheese making process. Salt has the dual purpose of both protecting cheese from harmful bacteria growth, while also giving cheeses like parmesan their signature savory and salty flavor profile.

What do I serve with cheese?

When it comes to serving cheese, it’s hard to go wrong. Cheese is the classic partner to some cured meats and a warm baguette but can also fly solo with only some crackers and wine for company. If you’re looking for some more specific pairing suggestions to really wow your guests, or better yet, for your own enjoyment, take a look at our comprehensive guides to meat and cheese pairing and cheese and wine pairing.

What is umami?

Umami is the fifth flavor (besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter) that we’re capable of identifying. Umami describes the savory flavor that some cheeses and foods have. Some also describe it as “brothy or “meaty.” More specifically, scientists have recognized that foods with glutamate can trigger this flavor. In the cheese world, parmesan is known for having a distinctly strong umami. Give a try and let us know what you think.

How do you appreciate cheese?

The best thing about cheese is that you’re free to enjoy it however you like! Whether it’s part of a recipe, or the main course, cheese can be appreciated in whatever way you deem fit. Cheese tasting can be a great way to appreciate your favorite cheeses in an entirely new light, but don’t be intimidated. Cheese is yours to enjoy in whatever way you please.

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