By Linda Weiford, WSU News
Not as a contender, mind you, but as a judge.
Yager, a buyer/planner at Washington State University’s creamery, judged wheels, chunks and half-moons at the World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis. Clad in a white lab coat and hat, he was among 50 experts selected worldwide to evaluate cheese and butter entries from 22 countries.
The spring event marked the crown of Yager’s contributions since he became a certified cheese professional in 2012. First, he was asked to judge the national competition at Lambeau Field, legendary home of NFL football’s Green Bay Packers. This year, he was invited to select cheese medalists at the international level.
For three days, he meticulously examined, sniffed, felt, tasted and scored 60 types of aged cheddar, 25 samples of queso fresco – a fresh Hispanic cheese – and 50 varieties of butter.
“Judging cheese is similar to wine tasting in that we evaluate based on aroma, appearance, body, flavor and even mouthfeel,” said Yager.
Another similarity is that the judges spit. Digesting 2 ounces from each of the 120 samples would be too filling and would impair tasting, he explained: “Food tastes different when you are hungry than when you are full.”
Coming of age
Yager’s career in cheese began ripening in 1988 when, as a physics student at WSU, he took a job at the campus creamery. Until then, “I had always loved cheese but never thought about the fact that I loved it. It just was,” he said.
But when he saw the alchemy involved in making it and the enormous variety that can be produced, he not only loved cheese but was fascinated by it.
Rich, mild, nutty, tart; hard, creamy, crumbly; yellow, ivory, blue-veined: “That a product as basic as milk could be turned into so many flavorful and diverse types of cheese absolutely amazed me,” he said.
Cheese consultant Marc Bates, who managed the WSU creamery for 27 years, recalled Yager’s boundless curiosity after he was hired.
“He would ask me a question and I’d give him an answer, but that only led him to ask another question,” said Bates. “He always wanted to know the ‘how’ or the ‘why.’”
Yager discovered that cheeses are alive with organisms that affect flavor, complexity and texture, all of which change over time. He understood why aged cheddars taste sharper than young ones, how Swiss cheeses get their holes and why Camembert’s interior is so creamy.
“I no longer saw cheese as only a food. It was an ecosystem,” said Yager.
Armed with that insight, his job at the creamery became more than a paycheck; it became a passion.
“I guess you could say I’m passionate about cheese the way some people are passionate about wine, microbrews or show dogs,” he explained. “Fortunately, I was able to harness it into a profession.”
Two years ago, Yager distinguished himself as an expert by passing the certified cheese professional exam given by the American Cheese Society. With topics ranging from cheese nutrition, varieties and flavors to microorganisms, ripening and sanitation, “it was like taking the bar exam, except the subject was cheese instead of law,” he said.
And so, Yager wakes up each morning not as a physicist but as a certified cheese expert. His know-how encompasses selecting and buying ingredients, making cheese varieties that include Cougar Gold, Crimson Fire and Oreganato and, of course, sampling. He also trains students and gives group tours.
Similar to the Swiss Emmentaler that took top prize at the World Championship Cheese Contest that Yager helped judge, his boss, creamery manager Russ Salvadalena, regards the 26-year employee as top cheese.
“Nial was in the first group to pass the certification exam and then was invited to be a judge at two big competitions,” said Salvadalena. “It all validates what we already knew: Nial knows cheese. Our customers benefit and so do the students lucky enough to learn from him.”