Cheese Tasting

From palate cleansers to sensorial analysis, everything you need to know about cheese tasting is linked here.

Testing cheese for taste

101 guide – Cheese Tasting | Chapter one

What is Cheese Tasting?

Tasting Cheese

Taste is one of our five senses, one whose importance dates back millions of years, when our mouth evolved to provide a fast response to our brain on whether we should or should not eat the food in front of us.    Taste was often what helped us distinguish between safe and harmful foods, with toxic and poisonous plants giving off a more bitter and unpleasant taste as opposed to the sweeter taste of harmless plants, which were perhaps higher in nutrients, essential for survival.  Engaging our mouths and taste buds is one of the first stages in the process of eating food, before we ingest it.

taste of Cheese testing

How do we taste cheese?

The tastes that we perceive are a two-phase chemical reaction that involves both our mouth and throat (taste) as well as our nose (smell).  Our sensation of taste starts with the smells around us that stimulate nerves in a small area located high in the nose.  The odours stimulate the brain and affect the actual flavour of the foods we eat.

Our sensation of taste continues once the cheese is in our mouths: humans use two senses – taste (with the mouth) and smell (with the nose).  We are born with about 10,000 taste buds that are located on our tongue, the roof of the mouth, as well as in our throats; they are the little bumps (known as papillae), which are covered in microscopic hairs, called microvilli.  These send messages to the brain about the taste of a food and if it is sweet, sour, bitter, salty or umami.  

Saliva plays an important role in transporting the tastes we perceive into our taste buds. Each taste bud has about 10-50 cells are responsible for starting the action of taste.

What is the Taste of Cheese?

Through our taste buds, we can detect five flavours, which, when we were hunter/gatherers, enabled us to make instant decisions on whether we should continue eating a specific, usually raw, food.   Although life has evolved and food is very different, the instant response remains. In terms of tasting cheese, or indeed any food, we call these mouth flavours the Simple Flavours:

the taste of cheese flavor

Five Simple Cheese Flavours

Sweet: Humans are naturally drawn to sweet tasting foods. Sensing sugars such as fructose, sucrose, glucose, lactose, maltose and others, foods with this flavour group are usually good to eat. The fast release sources of energy are popular with just about all living things, from animals to bacteria.

Savoury (sometimes called Umami): This category was added to the western understanding of taste in the late 1900s, although the Japanese identified it much earlier, in the first decade of the 20th century.  It approximates to fat and protein, which provide slow-release sources of energy, and are the building blocks of the body.   This simple flavour generally tastes good.

Salty: Perhaps the simplest of flavours, we are generally receptive to these.  This is not surprising since salt is a critical element for the functioning of the body’s muscles and nervous system.

Bitter:  As mentioned earlier, bitterness is an indication of foods to be avoided, such as inedible plants, those that are under-ripe and poisons.  There are, however, pleasant bitters, such as bitter beer, tonic water and some cheeses (especially blues).

Acid, or sour:  Sour tastes indicate that cheeses have a high level of acidity and are therefore likely to be younger in age.  Sour foods also stimulate the digestive system; think about how your mouth may water after eating a young goat’s cheese: this is your body releasing the first enzymes into your saliva, ready to break down food. Like bitterness, excessive sourness can be undesirable in a food and can indicate that a cheese has spoiled.  

How does Cheese Taste

Taste and smell are closely linked in how we taste our food. Whilst they are separate senses, with their own receptor organs and systems, they are very much linked.

 Just as chemicals in food stimulate the cells in taste buds, specialised cells in the nose pickup airborne odour molecules. These can be transmitted at the point of the cheese entering the mouth, or released as chemicals, or “volatiles”, that are lifted out of foods with moisture.  As the cheese is chewed, saliva is added, which in turn releases more of the available complex flavours.

Complex, or “Nose” Cheese Flavours

Because this largely happens just before or at the same time as taste, the two senses are often entwined.  The brain combines these two into a single experience which we call taste.  

 The close relationship between these two senses is apparent and clearly demonstrated when you have a cold; you will not properly enjoy the taste of your cheese because your nose is blocked and you can’t smell. What is being affected here is your sensory perception of the food because your brain is lacking the smells which interact with the taste to create the full ‘picture’ of taste that you are used to experiencing.

Complex flavours distinguish the more interesting types of cheese from ordinary, middle-of-the-road varieties.  Complexity can, therefore (but not necessarily), be an indicator of quality.  Complexity is also mercurial, and may be experienced differently by different people, and may well be different between two cheeses made on different days.  Our personal capacity to taste is called our palate and everyone’s palate is different. There are 10,000 complex flavours, of which we humans with our personal experience know many but far from all.

the taste of cheese

The Third Receptor for Tasting Cheese

Taste is more than just a combination of taste (gustatory) and smell (olfactory) as was originally believed. There is a third receptor, connected to the experience of taste, that processes the tactile sensations using the trigeminal nerve, which covers the front of the head and inside the mouth, nose, ears, and eyes.  It senses by touch and whilst not technically a taste or flavour, this receptor helps to complete the picture and is crucial to understanding what is often termed ‘mouthfeel’ in tasting notes. 

Common trigeminal responses when tasting cheese include astringency in hard, cow’s milk cheeses; puckering sensations in blue cheeses and metallic flavours in highly metabolised cheese.

101 guide – Cheese Tasting | Chapter two

Cheese Tasting in the Cheese Industry?

The Cheesemaker and Affineur’s Role in Taste

Taste and flavour are created through the metabolism of milk solids in compounds that trigger the senses.  This metabolism occurs through the cheesemaking process, due to the actions of enzymes and bacteria. Some of these are present in the milk and some are added by the cheesemaker. Decisions taken during the make, post-make and aging of a cheese will impact the routes these metabolic pathways take and the ultimate tastes and flavour outcomes of the cheese. 

In recognising any negative, or undesirable flavours in their cheeses, a skilled cheesemaker will be able to balance these by incorporating other flavours.  In many cheese recipes, acid and bitter are used to great positive effect. Abondance, for example, is defined by its bitter finish, and many traditional Cheddars incorporate farmyard and agricultural flavours in their palate. This balancing is the measure of the cheesemaker’s skill in shaping and combining flavours.

If you make, or are an affineur of cheese, it is important to understand the different types of taste and the range of flavours available to your customers.  Understanding taste and what your customers enjoy and will come back for more of, is key to creating a successful cheese. 

What does Taste mean to Cheese Retailers?

For cheese mongers, learning how to taste cheese using the Academy’s Structured Approach To Tasting, will arm anyone in the business of selling cheese with an expanded vocabulary to describe the flavours of cheeses.  If a cheese has dairy flavours, are they lactic, like yoghurt, or more buttery like ice-cream for example. 

These advanced descriptors will help when it comes to understanding, demonstrating knowledge and, ultimately, satisfying a customer’s preference.  Increased opportunities to up-sell products, such as specific wines or chutneys that complement a cheese, based on flavour profiles, will only add to the customer’s satisfaction and likely repeat purchase.

Cheese and chocolate pairing

What Chefs and Sommeliers Need to Know About Taste

Familiarising yourself with all the different types of tastes we can perceive is an essential first step in cooking delicious food and curating exciting menus.  In the hospitality business, Academy Alumni will be able to build creative menus by exploiting complex, possibly leftfield, flavour combinations.  With advanced flavour skills, the ability to design dishes and recipes will give a competitive edge to any restaurateur.

Furthermore, in recognising the levels of acidity or bitterness in a cheese, identifying any complex flavours apparent, and understanding the mouthfeel, sommeliers will be able to make drink recommendations to complement their diner’s choice of cheese, or any dish for that matter.  For instance, the combination of an astringent wine with a fatty cheese, ie. opposing foods of sensory perception, will help create a more balanced mouth feel.

101 guide – Cheese Tasting | Chapter three

What does Cheese Tasting mean to Consumers?

Purchasing cheese

How many times have you been tempted by a cheese in a supermarket, or specialist cheesemongers and not been sure whether it’s going to be one you like?  Good quality, artisanal cheeses command a premium price, so it’s important to have an idea of the style and likely flavour profile of the cheese before purchase. By following a systematic approach, recording your tastings and building up a knowledge-bank of cheeses will help you choose with intelligence and confidence.

Describing the taste of cheese

And then we come onto the actual tasting of the cheese; whilst you are tucking in, are you able to identify the flavour nuances between a young cheddar, for instance, and one that’s been aged.  Can you describe those flavours and make recommendations, referencing the provenance of the cheese and its influence on those flavours and are you able to serve a drink that will complement those specific aromatics?

What Does Cheese Taste Like

Everyone is able to detect aromatics, or flavours, to a certain level.  The ability to articulate those flavours is not so easy, requiring a framework to follow and a lot of practice.  With literally thousands of cheeses available to consumers, many offered for sale with no accompanying descriptors, it can be difficult to assess and describe what it is you are actually eating and pair your accompaniments to make those flavours sing. 

Inspecting Cheese before Tasting

In following the basic rules of this structured approach, such as making sure the cheese has come to room temperature, inspecting the cheese for signs of over-ripeness, and being able to choose a cheese based on previous experiences, you will, ultimately, increase your enjoyment and appreciation for good cheese.

cheese tasting event

101 guide – Cheese Tasting | Chapter four

Learning to Taste Cheese with the Academy of Cheese

Four-pronged Attack

The Academy summarises the process of Tasting in four phases, starting at the first impression the moment the cheese touches your tongue, delivering those Simple Flavours, and ending with the Fourth phase, after the cheese has been swallowed. The flavours that develop after swallowing and are sometimes referred to as the “length” and are complex flavours that remain after the cheese has been swallowed.

A Structured Approach

To provide a framework to the tasting and consequent holistic assessment of a cheese, on a specific day, the Academy has written the Structured Approach to Tasting Cheese (SATC). It is used to record details about each individual cheese, considering, but not limited to, look, texture, smell and taste. The principals of the SATC are:

  1. to hone tasting skills and develop a greater appreciation of cheese
  2. to provide a common language for the cheese community
  3. the opportunity to develop a personal cheese library (as an aid to identify quality, the cheesemaker, the condition or even the cheese itself if this is not known)
Cheese flavour wheel

Cheese Flavour Trees

Simple flavours rarely manifest themselves alone.  Salt may be table salt, sea salt or olive salt.  Sweet may be a fruit sweetness, or a milky sweetness.  To help recognise these subtleties, the Academy has developed the Simple Flavours Tree.

The Academy breaks down the Simple flavours into sub-flavours, to aid the detailed assessment and facilitate the language used to discuss the cheese.  For instance, if the cheese is sweet, is it milky-sweet? Or if it’s more fruit-Sweet, is it tropical fruit or berry fruit?   This then enables the taster to build their skills in describing what they are tasting.

Learning to identify complex flavours in cheese is a key tool in assessing cheeses and is aided by using the Academy’s Complex Flavours Tree.  Examples of these flavours are:

  • Fruits and nuts
  • Herbs and Spices
  • Flowers
  • Wood and hedgerows
  • Farmyard
  • Vegetation, eg. Grass and hay
  • Mould
  • Mineral & chemical

Using the Structured Approach to Tasting Cheese and the associated Flavour Trees will enable one to develop skills in describing and, ultimately, making conclusions on the maturity and quality of a cheese. 

At Level Three, the Academy of Cheese Make Post-Make Aging Wheel uses the Make Post-Make model in combination with the Metabolic Cascade to predict likely tastes and flavours in a cheese to provide a tool for assessing cheese.

Tasting Sheets specific to each Level of certification are provided by the Academy as a way of recording your assessments.  These are not absolute statements of fact and will vary from one person to the next.  Whilst Simple Flavours are common to us all – we all know the flavour of salt, sweet, acid, bitter and savoury, the detection of Complex Flavours are more subjective and influenced by personal experience. more You may never have tasted capsicum or fenugreek. You may only know curry spices in general, and have little knowledge of the difference between allspice, nigella seed and curry powder. Inevitably this means your descriptions will be different from other people’s. These will vary, according to which Level you are at.

101 guide – Cheese Tasting | Chapter five

How is Cheese Tasting taught at Levels One, Two and Three?

All Levels of certification follow the Academy’s Structured Approach to Tasting, providing the baseline for all tastings.

Regardless of the Level being studied, students are taught to conduct a Pre-Taste Assessment, which looks at the visual, textural and aromatic indications from the cheese.  This simple, yet vital step, helps to identify the cheese, and set an expectation of its age and flavour profile, through a set of factual observations.  These will include:

  • The rind (or absence of)
  • The paste
  • Texture
  • Consistency       
  • Colour  
  • Blueing
  • Smell
Cheese Pre-Taste Assessment

Level one – Identifying Simple Flavours

At Level One, delegates will be able to recognise simple flavours and whilst they should start to identify some complex flavours, assessment is only based around the simple flavours.  The Structured Approach to Tasting is used as an introductory tool to help delegates understand their own palate and be structured in their assessment.

cheese palate flavour

Level two – Recognising Complex Flavours

By Level Two, it is expected that the palate will have developed and the delegates will have learnt how to recognise baskets of complex flavours that match to certain Make Post-make classes and cheese types.  They will be able to comment on the complexity, length and identify the age and/or ripeness of a cheese. 

At this level, we start to talk about Mouthfeel and Balance as part of the overall assessment of a cheese and introduce the element of Time to the Tasting Sheets, demonstrating how most cheeses will offer up different strengths of flavour at different times, referred to as a taste, or flavour journey.

Mouthfeel is both difficult to describe and essential to both assessing and taking pleasure in cheese.  Essentially, it is exactly what it says it it…how it feels in your mouth.  Mousse-like, pappy, grainy are all ways of describing mouthfeel.

Balance assesses how the flavours in a cheese present collectively and is perhaps the most difficult measure to learn. The Academy likes to analogise Balance on the same lines as a piece of music: some cheeses are soloists, with a single flavour throughout, whilst others are bands dominated by simple flavours and then there are some very complex cheeses that are the orchestras – with many flavours developing and receding, complementing and combining with each other to give the whole a consistent and engaging theme.

cheese tasting affineur

Level three – The Science of Tasting

By Level Three, with Simple and Complex Flavours easily referenced, attention leans toward the four scientific areas linked to how and what we taste. 

  1. Through an understanding of how the receptors in our mouth and nose interact with each other to translate into taste and flavours, we learn how to optimise our taste sensitivity and taste more objectively. 
  2. Taking this a step further, in understanding that the aromatic compounds within cheeses are created by complex enzymes, we explore the impact of the milk’s microflora and the environment in which the cheese is matured in.  We take the ingredients of the cheese and learn how their chemical compounds create a cascade of metabolic processes, with flavour-producing pathways, all influenced by the cheesemakers and affineurs.
  3. The third area looks at how taste and flavour are assessed within the industry and how different cheeses have varying degrees of expected standards and how these are applied. The Academy of Cheese Make Post-make Aging wheel is introduced at this Level as a tool for profiling cheese.
  4. The final section brings it all together:  the understanding of personal tasting capacity, the chemistry of flavour in cheesemaking, and methods of assessing and communicating about cheese to create a common approach to profiling cheese.

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