Sandy Toney is the Vice President of Corporate Quality and Development at Masters Gallery Foods in Plymouth. She began her career with Masters in 1989.
“After a while in quality, I decided I wanted to move on to the grading,” Toney said. “At that point the gentleman who took me under his wing was going to retire, so I started in the grading department, and I just, I loved it.”
Grading means tasting cheese from dairy producers every day.
“You’re evaluating the product to see if you can run it in your facility, basically,” Toney said.
On an average day, a cheese grader at Masters could taste everything from shredded cheese to melted cheese on a pizza product to evaluate its quality. The job is a cheese lover’s dream.
Toney eventually moved on to a management position, but her skills still come in handy every two years at one of the cheese industry’s biggest events, the United States Cheese Championship. It’s a bi-annual event where cheese producers from across the country compete to be labeled the best cheese in the United States. Sandy has been a cheese competition judge since 2007.
“I think a good cheese judge has to have an open mind. They have to have extreme knowledge of the cheese making. They have to be able to make a decision,” Toney said.
The 2017 U.S. Cheese Championship had more than 2000 entries. That’s why the competition brings in experts like Toney. Her years of cheese grading experience allow her to taste dozens of cheeses and differentiate between them. Judges usually examine the cheese sample, smell it, then briefly taste it to judge the flavor. A judge can be given a single category with dozens of samples.
“If you’re a good judge, you can do 60, 70 samples and you can pick the winner out of those, easily,” Toney said.
So what makes a championship cheese?
“It’s good. It cleans up in your mouth. You have no off flavors, it melts perfectly. There’s no bitterness,” Toney said. “Then at the end I want it to clean up. And that’s the key, where you don’t have any aftertaste in your mouth. The key to every cheese is balance and cleaning up once you spit the product out.”
Regular judges at cheese competitions wear white hats as they walk around the competition floor. A select group of distinguished chief judges get to wear red hats. In 2014, Toney joined that group.
“One day I got a phone call and they asked me if I would join the ‘red hats.’ It was an honor. It was exciting,” Toney said. “How do you say no to that?”
Toney is the first woman to ever wear a red hat. She serves as an assistant chief judge for both the U.S. and World Cheese Championships. She advises the other judges and makes sure the competition runs smoothly. Toney is proud to play her part in one of the cheese industry’s biggest events.
“When they hold up the championship cheese and the feeling that it expels from these people to walk up there and win out of 2,303 samples, they’re the best,” Toney said. “It’s a great feeling, and it’s fun.”