More Than Just Saying 'Cheese,' Hundreds Sit Test To Become Official Experts

Jul 27, 2016

Across the country artisan and specialty cheese is big business, with annual sales approaching $4 billion. And as American palates become ever more adventurous, cheese makers and sellers say they need a higher level of expertise.

So Wednesday roughly 200 so-called cheese mongers from around the country will gather in Des Moines to sit for a three-hour exam. If they pass, they become Certified Cheese Professionals.

One of those cheese mongers is Mark Virgili who says, “Cheese is very much a living, breathing thing.”

Whole Foods cheese monger Mark Vergili.

As he slices a 21-pound wheel of alpine-style Swiss, the West Des Moines Whole Foods cheese specialist describes the process of flavor development. It doesn’t stop after a cheese is made; acids, fats and sugars continue to break down, creating new smells.

“The enzymes are kind of acting on the cheese, they’re kind of digging in there,” he says. “They’re feeding off of all this kind of stuff, and there's all this natural micro flora that’s actually working to create all these flavors and smells from cheese.”

Virgili has been studying for the Certified Cheese Professional Exam since January, but he’s still a little nervous about the test.

He says the CCP certification would make him more marketable.

“It’s been very intense," he says. "And they can ask you just a wide range of things. From cheese making, to milk composition, to breed of animals with cheese, to know cheese varieties and types. And even from importation laws, to distribution. So it covers the whole gamut.”

LaMancha milking goats at Reichert's Dairy Air in Knoxville, IA.
Credit Sarah Boden / Iowa Public Radio

The Certified Cheese Professional Exam was first offered in 2012 by American Cheese Society, at the group’s annual conference. This year’s gathering is in Des Moines, roughly 1,200 will be attending. Even though certification is only in its fifth year, it’s quickly gaining acceptance.

“So the culinary atmosphere is really one of curiosity,” says Mark McCutchan, director of delicatessen and charcuterie for the supermarket company Hy-Vee.  “Food has become the new entertainment. People want to try things that are different, that are new.”

The West Des Moines-based grocery chain has six cheese mongers scheduled to take the CCP exam, as part of the company’s goal to meet growing customer trends.

“People ask questions about where their foods comes from," he says. "How’s it’s sourced. How the livestock are treated. They want to know about the farmer and the family, the process.”

About an hour south of Des Moines is Riechert’s Dairy Air, a picturesque mirco-dairy where goats literally chase butterflies.  There I meet Wendy Johnson, one of only three people in all of Iowa who has passed the CCP exam.

Baby goats at Reichert's Dairy Air.
Credit Sarah Boden / Iowa Public Radio

Home to nearly 20 goats, the Riechert’s primarily breeds LaMancha goats. LaMancha milk is known for having a relatively high fat percentage.

“Each goat, their milk is separated and it’s sent to a facility in the state, and they analyze the composition of the milk,” Johnson says. “So a few of our goats actually have a higher butterfat than the other goats.”

Johnson hands me a hairnet and shows me around the dairy’s cheese making facility. We discuss why American palates seem to be increasingly sophisticated, she thinks it may have to do with people traveling more.

“We want to come back to the states, we want to find those cheeses that we had in different countries," she says. "There are even producers here in the U.S., they want to see cheese from California. They just want to recreate that experience that they had.”

Back in Des Moines cheese mongers are likely doing some final exam prep.

Reviewing questions like, Why is blue cheese pierced with needles?  And, what’s the lactation schedule for sheep?

Of course, if the cheese mongers don't pass there is always next year.