Cheese Tasting 101

How To Host A Cheese Tasting Like The Pros

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Nearly everyone loves cheese, and if pressed to answer, most people would say they love it because it’s delicious. While there’s nothing controversial about that statement, have you ever thought about why cheese tastes so good? It’s an interesting question; what makes cheese delicious to you might be very different from what makes it delicious to your best friend, your neighbor, or your mother-in-law. And until you learn to really taste it, you may never know the difference.

Cheese tasting is first and foremost a lot of fun, no matter how much (or how little) you already know about cheese. But the best reason to learn more about it is simple: It’s a great way to get to know your own palate better, which in turn will help you figure out what you like. Once you start picking up on specific nuances that appeal to you most—and can identify why they appeal to you—it opens up all kinds of delightful culinary doors. You’ll be able to pinpoint cheeses you might like and what to serve them with based on a quick glance at the label. It’s not quite a superpower, but if you ask us, it’s pretty close.

Another reason to get into cheese tasting is that it brings you closer to history—so close you can literally taste it. Cheesemaking is a truly ancient craft; a cheese maker’s expertise comes from years and years of practice, and the techniques they use have been developed over centuries (if not millennia) of experimentation. By tasting cheese slowly and deliberately, you're not only giving yourself a chance to appreciate the individual qualities of a given cheese, you’re also getting closer to the discipline of cheesemaking and all the work that goes into each bite. Here’s everything you need to know to host a fabulous cheese tasting at home.

Step 1: Prepare the Cheese Tasting

Hosting an excellent cheese tasting is all in the preparation. First things first: You need cheese! To give yourself and your guests the best chance at appreciating each selection, stick to just three or four cheeses. Any more could overwhelm your palates; any fewer just won’t be as much fun.

If you’re not sure where to start, choose a theme to help narrow down your options. Tasting multiple versions of the same cheese lets you explore subtle variations within a particular style. For more variety, you could select cheeses from the same region, cheeses made from the same kind of milk (cow, sheep, goat), or cheeses made with the same general technique (all washed-rind cheeses, for example). You could also pick cheeses that have literally nothing in common with each other besides the fact that they’re cheese—it all depends on what you’re most interested in learning.

Once you’ve made your selections, all that’s left to do is prepare the actual tasting setup. You can go as elaborate or as simple as you like—as long as you include these three key items:

  • Note-taking tools: Nothing fancy; pens and paper work great. However, many cheese makers and cheese retailers make their own supplies for guided tastings that you may find helpful. To make your own tasting sheets, start with the name of the cheese, the producer, and the milk type, then leave space for notes on aroma, texture, flavor, and pairings (if you’re including them).
  • Palate cleansers and water: One- or two-bite snacks that have little flavor of their own, for cleansing your palate between cheeses. Good options include plain bread, unsalted crackers, and water; some people also like lemon wedges for this purpose.
  • Cheese accompaniments: Bread, crackers, fresh fruit, preserves, honey, olives, pickles, wine, beer—anything you’d like to serve with the cheese after the tasting. (For specific tips, check out our blog post about building the perfect cheeseboard.)

Next, prepare the cheese itself. Arrange your cheeses by flavor from mildest to strongest so you don’t overwhelm your palate right off the bat. Next, be sure to let your cheeses come all the way to room temperature before you begin the tasting. Depending on the size of the wedges and the ambient temperature in your house, this will take at least an hour and possibly up to two. This step is incredibly important: Cold cheese doesn’t give off as much fragrance or flavor, so don’t skimp on the warm-up time.

Finally, write down details about each cheese, like its name, the cheesemaker’s name, its style and region of origin, the type of milk it’s made from, and if possible, the type of rennet. Recording this information will help remind you of which cheeses you tasted when you review your notes later, and it gets you used to writing everything down.

Photo Credit: Hayley Pingree
Photo Credit: Hayley Pingree

Step 2: Taste the Cheese (the Right Way)

When you’re ready to get into the cheese, remember to look, touch, and smell —all before you taste. What kind of rind does each cheese have? What color is it? What color is the “paste,” or interior of the cheese? Are these colors uniform, or varied? Next, inspect the cheese by touch. Don't be scared to really play with your food here—picking cheese up and giving it a poke or a squeeze is a great way to get more information about its texture. Plus, the heat from your fingers will bring out more of its natural aroma, which is important for the smell test.

Smelling a cheese before you taste it gives you lots of useful and interesting information because your sense of smell and your sense of taste are inextricably linked. Start by cutting into or breaking off a piece of cheese to release the aromas in the paste. Investigate the intensity of the cheese’s aroma: If you hold the cheese at arm’s length and move it towards your nose, how long does it take for you to smell it? What specific notes do you smell? Try to keep an open mind while sniffing around: It’s totally normal for a bloomy-rind, soft-ripened cheese like brie or camembert to give off a hint of ammonia, especially around the rind.

Finally, take a bite! Let the cheese sit in your mouth, savoring the experience, and concentrate on what you’re tasting. It may help to focus on simple flavors first—salty, sweet, bitter, sour, umami—then move on to more complex notes. Each cheese will have its own unique flavor profile, but generally, these are the flavor categories that cheese professionals try to identify:

  • Milky (also called “lactic”)
  • Grassy
  • Fruity
  • Floral
  • Nutty
  • Earthy
  • Animalic (a funky or “barnyard-y” flavor)

As you’re looking, squeezing, poking, smelling, and tasting, be sure to write down all your observations. If you smell or taste a fruity note, can you identify the type of fruit? What about floral notes—can you discern the specific flower you’re sensing? This is when it can really help to discuss with your fellow tasters: Everyone’s senses are a little bit different, and bouncing your ideas off each other can help identify exactly what you’re tasting in each cheese.

Step 3: Have Fun!

With the very serious business of cheese tasting and note-taking complete, it’s time to bring out your accompaniments and have fun. (Not that cheese tasting isn’t fun—it’s just a little more focused than a cheeseboard party.) As you taste each cheese with different accompaniments, discuss your findings from the tasting with your guests. Everyone’s palate and preferences are unique; a lively discussion will enhance the entire experience and add to your understanding of what you liked and why. Plus, you can use your newfound tasting notes to explore which accompaniments go best with which cheeses and why. Add some beverages into the mix for another round and voilà: You’ve just hosted a real-deal cheese tasting. We have a feeling it won’t be your last.

Photo Credit: Hayley Pingree
Photo Credit: Hayley Pingree

Step 4: Plan More Cheese Tasting Experiences

If hosting your first cheese tasting inspires you to keep exploring the wide and wonderful world of cheese—and it almost certainly will—Marin French Cheese Company is here to accompany you on your journey. Our handmade, soft-ripened cheeses would be excellent selections for a themed tasting at home. Or, if you’re feeling even more adventurous, come visit our cheese shop in Petaluma. We would love to have you in for a tasting or a picnic on our picturesque grounds. And if you’re planning an at-home tasting, our Cheese Pairing Tool can help you choose the perfect cheeses and pairings for a truly unforgettable experience.

Tasting plate photos courtesy of Hayley Pingree at The Napa Table.