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Say cheese! WSU alumni turns cheese from paycheck to passion. | People

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Say cheese! WSU alumni turns cheese from paycheck to passion.
Say cheese! WSU alumni turns cheese from paycheck to passion.

Say cheese! After becoming one of the first certified professional cheese experts in the country, WSU alumni Nial Yager has been selected as a judge in the World Cup of cheese.

Yager was just one of 50 selected worldwide to evaluate cheese and butter entries from 22 countries at the World Champion Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin.

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, body, flavor and even mouthfeel,” said Yager.

Another similarity, the judges spit the samples out after judgint. Digesting two ounces from each of the 120 samples would be too filling and would impair tasting.

“Food tastes different when you are hungry than when you are full,” he explained.”

Yager's career in cheese began in 1988 as a physics student when he took a job at the campus creamery. He says he fell in love after he saw the alchemy involved in making the cheese and the enormous variety that can be produced. He discovered that cheeses are alive with organisms that affect flavor, complexity and texture and that they can change over time.

“I no longer saw cheese as only a food,” Yager said. “It was an ecosystem.”

Armed with that insight, cheese became more than just a paycheck for Yager – it became a passion.

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,” Yager said.

Now Yager spends his days not only as a physicist but as a certified cheese expert. His know-how encompasses selecting and buying ingredients, and making cheese varieties that include Cougar Gold, Crimson Fire and Oreganato from the WSU Creamery. He also trains students and gives group tours and tastings.


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