At 10 a.m., a parade of cheeses on tiered wire carts rolls down twisting aisles, past numbered booths. It’s Day 1 of SIAL Canada’s International Cheese Competition, and as 13 judges neatly align these chariots in a row along the center of their designated judging area, the familiar scent of earthy, sweet cream—and a little bit of funk—wafts through the air. Grouped two by two, the judges take their seats outfitted with cutting boards, Opinel knives, cheese triers, and other tasting essentials. Stacks of scoresheets sit on a table near a stage flanked with a step and repeat emblazoned with SIAL cheese logos. Gurth Pretty takes his post near the stage and enthusiastically trumpets instructions through a microphone in French. The games have begun.
Pretty, owner of Lakeview Cheese Galore and a cheese industry maestro, is the co-author of The Definitive Canadian Wine & Cheese Cookbook, and has been a SIAL Canada cheese ambassador since 2014. He’s judged competitions in Canada and abroad for 11 years and launched SIAL Canada’s International Cheese Competition in 2019 to bring exhibitors a new experience at the show. This year’s is the second competition with Pretty as jury chair. While entries span the globe, the 2022 jurors are all Quebeçois, with industry expertise ranging from former mongering and making, to cheese consulting.
The goals of this battle are to crown a grand champion from nearly 150 entries from 10 countries in 20 categories, and provide constructive feedback that makers can use to hone recipes and refine their processes. The prep work is tedious: unwrapping every entry so cheeses are stripped of identifiable brands and markings, rewrapping the cheeses in clear wrap, labeling each cheese with a letter and number, and ensuring that each is appropriately brought to room temperature, which can take up to two hours(!) for some. The pre-judging process spans multiple days, so it is imperative cheeses arrive on time, typically two days before judging begins. After the competition is over, wheels are handed back to exhibitors for tasting at the show. Pretty ensures that this process runs like clockwork.
For perspective, a large scale, food-focused trade show of this nature is about the size of one-and-a-half football fields packed with around 1200 exhibitors booths grouped by country and product. It can be overwhelming. But this year, it’s also encouraging to see the smiling faces of exhibitors, still behind masks, eagerly welcoming attendees to walk up and start conversations. For some, this is the first trade show they’ve attended since the world shut down in 2020, and the joy is palpable.
The 2022 International Cheese Competition is open to trade show attendees, which isn’t too common when it comes to cheese awards. It’s on the show floor nestled among booths for the Maine Cheese Guild, Vermont Cheese Council, Dairy Farmers of Canada, and the Cheeses of Quebec, and though it’s roped off, passersby can look on as judges sniff and taste wedges and wheels. Folks take photos and even chat with the judges, asking questions about the cheeses and watching intently. However, score cards are kept under lock and key. Those sheets are reserved for judges and entrants only and after the competition, Pretty will email the scores to participants.
“There are two lines of thinking from cheesemakers regarding competitions,” says Pretty. “Some makers don’t see a benefit to entering competitions because they say ‘my customers are the judges, for they come back to buy regularly’. But others appreciate the feedback from other cheese professionals, and of course they want the prestige of winning. However, I always tell makers to choose these competitions wisely. What’s the point in entering a competition if there is no media coverage? Not all competitions are the same!”
Pretty runs a tight ship, ensuring no judge is milling about without cheese to inspect on their table. The judges thoughtfully work their way through each style, scoring appearance, aroma, flavor, and texture. Between nibbles of cheese and long inhales, judges take bites of celery, grapes, and apples to clear their palates. They deduct points for flaws in each category, tally those numbers, and subtract the “flaw points” from 100, yielding a final score. Judges spend a great deal of time and consideration with each cheese, inspecting every aspect in detail. And partnering up establishes a collaborative environment. They’re often seen discussing and questioning each other—conversations that Pretty excitedly observes and occasionally joins when asked. “It’s really reinforcing a sense of community, which is what makes these competitions work so well,” he notes.
Morning quickly becomes mid-afternoon, and once judging has wrapped, three SIAL staff members, along with Pretty, enter scores. They cross reference, double check, circle, underline, stack, and staple their way through the days’ entries, preparing for category winner announcements at 5 p.m. sharp.
A crowd gathers at 4:45 p.m. Observers chat in anticipation, shifting their weight from side to side as they eye Pretty at his post on the stage. He’s intently entering numbers in a spreadsheet on his computer. Once finished, he carefully lines up medals, and reaches for his mic.
Time to announce the category winners:
A second batch of carts snakes its way through mazes of booths, pushed by excited jurors ready for another round of judging. Goudas, raclettes, cheese curds, and grilling cheeses, among others, are on the docket today, and the judges waste no time in slicing open Cryovaced cheeses to taste. Pretty paces about the arena, cross checking his notes.
“These judges evaluate the cheese blindly. All labels are removed or hidden. The judges only know the category it’s been entered in,” he says. “They don’t know the maker, the milk type, nothing.” Zero-ing the playing field is imperative because it eliminates preconceptions of cheeses. Pretty also explains that he always reminds judges to score the cheese against itself and not to compare it to others. However, one keen judge has eyed a difference in two large vats of feta placed before her. She says these cheeses were made with different milks, and she knows this because goat and sheep milk yields a brighter, whiter color compared to the creamier, yellow-tinged cow’s milk version of feta.
And if you’re wondering whether certain cheeses perform better than others, Pretty shares that one contentious year, a ricotta was named grand champion at a competition he was judging. “It was quite controversial within the cheesemaking world and even amongst the judges. They wondered how a fresh cheese could possibly win. But we allow that category to be judged, so they should get a fair shot like the others. It was a very, very good cheese!”
As morning draws to a close, the carts of cheese are replaced by tables lining the corridor of the judging space. White tablecloths are draped over them, and the winning cheeses from each category are placed in a row and unwrapped. The judges are seated at their posts and wait while Pretty rattles instructions. A crowd has gathered. On cue, the judges rise from their seats and practically run to the table in an excited frenzy. They are free to nibble without restraint and will each vote for their absolute, number one, head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest favorite. Some judges opt to taste directly at the table, hunched over with their tasting tools in hand, while others make a small plate to take back to their seats for a solo experience. They jot notes on paper plates, contemplate, chat with each other, and return to the cheese table for seconds. This final dance is finished within 45 minutes.
Judges write their winning number on a small piece of paper, then drop it in a bucket to be announced one at a time by Pretty. After some final nudging, the last few judges drop in their votes. By this time, the crowd has doubled.
Pretty stands on the stage and reads each number aloud over the mic while placing the votes in corresponding groups on the table in front of him. Before he reads the last vote, the judges slap their tables in a drumroll… the winner is:
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from Cows Creamery! The judges all nod their heads in approval. After a flurry of photos and thank yous, the onlookers and judges mosey away while Pretty noticeably breathes a sigh of joy. “Cheese has always been a part of my life. I remember being a very young boy living in Montreal and getting so excited when my parents would bring home a 5 lb. slab of pizza mozzarella. I’d eat that cheese for weeks! Snacking, grilled cheese sandwiches—It’s one of my early childhood memories. My grandparents introduced me to European cheese. Appreciating cheese began at a young age that has become my passion and profession.” And when it comes to impact in the cheese community, he’s made a world of difference.