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In Wisconsin, a lot of training goes into being a cheese tester

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In Wisconsin, cheese is king. So when the chance came up to become a cheese taster, 250 people applied for five open jobs. Their goal is to help cheese-makers create a creamier cheddar or a more melty mozzarella. Maayan Silver from member station WUWM in Milwaukee has this report.

MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: In a state where cheese is a big business, getting the taste just right is a serious undertaking. Training for professional cheese tasters teaches them how to identify flavors and speak the same lingo. So instead of fancy crackers, grapes and prosciutto, laid out in front of the five taste testers there are vials of liquids with labels like buttery and rancid, sample cups with foam to measure textures, and spit cups.

BRANDON PROCHASKA: This'll be your guys' first quiz (laughter). Tell me what you thought, basic taste-wise.

SILVER: Brandon Prochaska, the leader of this training at UW Madison's Center for Dairy Research, has each student pluck a cube of colby from a tray. The conversation here immediately gets pretty science-y (ph).

BRIAN HANSON: You can get diacetyl in beer sometimes, and this was closer to like what I feel like I taste in beer when there's, like, a butteriness to it.

PROCHASKA: OK.

SILVER: That's Brian Hanson, one of UW's new tasters. Teacher Prochaska says the goal during these sessions is to get the real human reaction to eating cheese in a methodical and systematic way. The panelists identify a cheese's traits, like creamy or bitter, and rate their intensity.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAB MACHINE RUNNING)

SILVER: That data can be used by graduate students, cheese producers and pizza-makers.

PROCHASKA: So we're thinking of a lot of different practical applications - things like, how do we extend the shelf life of a product? How do we make something have an even better flavor? Or maybe there's a new technology coming out that's not quite, you know, replicating the flavor people expect.

SILVER: So armed with a notebook and a color wheel, taste tester Kelly Kluck learns how to identify flavors - maybe not so hard for an aficionado who has a few wine-tasting certifications.

KELLY KLUCK: The thing that's great about this - I feel like I've taken a hobby, and I'm actually getting paid to do it now.

SILVER: When Prochaska sends chunks of full-fat mozzarella around the table, they talk about what it tastes like.

PROCHASKA: Again, just kind of vinegary, citrusy kind of note besides the...

KLUCK: Lemongrass-y (ph).

PROCHASKA: Lemongrass-y? Yeah.

SILVER: And at the university, there's a protocol for everything - when to chew, when to hold and release your nose to block or pick up aromas from the cheese. It's not exactly what taster Carolyn Haswell expected.

CAROLYN HASWELL: I actually signed up because I loved pizza. I love making pizza. And it's like, oh, I know all the types of pizza around the country. And then I come here, and it's like, it's experimental cheese. Enjoy.

SILVER: When they do taste pizzas, no eating the crust - just the cheese, please.

PROCHASKA: This one's still a bit warm. I'll let you know when it's ready to taste.

SILVER: One pan comes out of the oven, then another and another. They even use a ruler to test the stretchiness of the mozzarella. It's an efficient way to put the cheese that could end up on your next delivery order through the science lab.

For NPR News, I'm Maayan Silver in Madison. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maayan Silver is an intern with WUWM's Lake Effect program. She is a practicing criminal defense attorney, NPR listener and student of journalism and radio production.