For cheeseheads, Gina Accorsi might have the perfect job. As one of Cabot Creamery’s cheese graders — yes, “graders” as in evaluators, not “graters” like the kitchen device — it’s her job to know everything about cheese and whether it meets Cabot’s high standards.
The job isn’t just lounging around eating dairy products at all hours (though yes, graders can sample hundreds of cheeses in a day). For Accorsi and her team of three other experienced graders, some who have decades of experience, a successful day at work relies on chemistry, consistency, lab analytics, and the occasional use of heavy machinery. Visiting farms, working in aging facilities, and examining cheeses onsite, Cabot’s graders get to know the brand’s 800 farm families across New England and New York. Graders like Accorsi get a taste of the hard work produced by this dairy farmer co-op and Certified B Corp, and help maintain the level of quality that Cabot cheeses are known for. As she puts it: “Dairy is a labor of love; there is a lot of pride in our product.”
We asked Accorsi about how she landed such a delicious job, what can doom a subpar cheese, and what drives her passion at work. “The cheese is talking,” says Accorsi, “but we have to listen very closely!” Here’s everything you wanted to know about what cheese grading is all about.
Have you always been a fan of cheese?
Yes! Growing up, my parents absolutely passed a love of food and cooking down to me. For me, cheese has always been and always will be a part of most meals. I never get tired of it, and since joining the Cabot family, my family is definitely enjoying cheese now more than ever.
How did your career and life lead you to Cabot?
I got my Master’s degree in mineralogy in 2013. During grad school, I worked in Colorado for a mineral-exploration company. Although the experience was amazing, being close to my family and experiencing the seasons [was] huge for me. At a job fair near Burlington, I had a fantastic conversation with a Cabot employee about Vermont beer and cheese pairings. A certified B-corp and a farm-family-owned cooperative bringing together hundreds of farms all over New England was something I could get behind, and in 2016, I was hired! Although my geology background wasn’t exactly the food or dairy-science path, I was confident my passion for cheese and for science, and my love of the co-op would be enough.
What’s the training process like? Is there a cheese “boot camp,” so to speak?
I was immediately immersed in cheese grading once I started, but the training process is definitely one that takes time. Cabot has many employees who have spent their entire lives doing dairy — 40, 50, 60 years of insight and expertise. I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to learn from these hardworking, passionate people. The grader who retired when I came onboard had been grading cheese for 45-plus years. The grader I train with now has 25-plus years of experience. Like a good cheese, you can’t rush it.
Is there a difference between cheese graders and cheese tasters?
Most of the people within our co-op are tasting Cabot’s cheeses on a regular basis. Cheese grading involves traveling all over the state to various aging facilities, spending hours every day in cold temps sampling cheese of all different ages, shapes, and sizes.
We are not in a lab setting, … and we lug several big heavy tools around with us, including a cheese trier [editor’s note: a trier is a metal device inserted deep into a block of cheese to extract samples from its core]. Sometimes we operate pallet jacks and forklifts. We don’t eat anything that day until we are completely done grading, so we maintain a clean palate. I spend a lot of time sniffing cheese. It gets really up close and personal.
We also play with cheese — playdough-style at times — to see how it breaks to determine the best application, [like] slicing deli loaf-style, cracker cut, shredded, etc. It is a super interesting and fun science; at home, rarely do we pay such close attention to our slice of cheese before slapping it into the grilled cheese. But if you pay very close attention, the cheese can tell us so much!
How do you determine consistency among the same styles of cheese?
When I grade a young white cheddar cheese for the first time, sometimes it feels like the possibilities for it are endless. It could be aged out one, two, three, four, or even five-plus years. Over the course of its life, depending on the cheese, we may look at it as many as five or six times!
We have established flavor profiles for each of our different types of cheese, and we sort cheese into various categories based on flavor and usability. For example, our Seriously Sharp cheese has a complex blend of flavors going on, versus the more astutely acidic Extra Sharp cheese. We can control the way our cheese ages to a certain extent, but cheese also tends to have a mind of its own in some ways, too, and our job is to predict what path it will take based on recognizing and picking up on subtle hints and indicators. The three of us graders have to be in sync with each other’s palates.
What are some of the factors where a cheese wouldn’t meet Cabot’s high standards?
If we can taste extremely low salt, the body won’t hold up. Excessively high pH can (or butterfat can) lead to unclean or off flavors. Some cheeses are better cut young, and others need more time. If I wouldn’t share it with my family, I am not going to let it go into a package.
Can cheese be as complex as wine or coffee?
Absolutely. Growing up, my dad made wine; I have always loved learning about wine and developing a palate for different grapes. Terroir is no joke — when you consider all the different types of cheeses made, that’s one factor in and of itself. Then you figure all of the different types of animal’s milk used to make cheese, and that each of those animals lives at a different altitude, grazing on various substrates, based on their local geology and ecosystem. It’s overwhelming to think about.
Why is Cabot’s home in Vermont conducive to such great cheese?
There are books written about this: People in Vermont and throughout the Northeast and New York (where our farmers all live) have always loved dairy. Farming is a way of life for many here, and the knowledge carried on by families and people who love the land and preserve that pastoral, agricultural lifestyle play a significant role [in quality].
Good cheese isn’t possible without good milk. Making sure cows are healthy, happy, well-fed, and appreciated is a big part of it. Our farmer owners … throughout New England take so much pride in caring for their animals and the farms, so that their fresh milk makes the best cheddar possible.
What’s your favorite cheese?
I love Cabot’s Alpine cheese, and I have officially also hooked all of my friends and family, too. I never have less than a three bar reserve in my fridge at all times. I use it for grilled cheese, with maple baked beans and spinach, with maple baked crackers and dates as a snack, or just by itself. Growing up, we’d usually have a big hunk of American cheese in the fridge. My mom always called it “chunk cheese” — she would cut off a small wedge for my brother and I as a snack occasionally. Alpine has become my adult version of chunk cheese, here in my own home in Milton, Vermont, for my husband, dog, and me. Plus, Alpine [cheese] also has crunchy tyrosine crystals in it sometimes. What can I say, the mineralogist in me will always love the intersection of crystal chemistry and cheese!