Justin Larsen and Ben Hall stood before a table lined with gallon, half-gallon, pint and eight-ounce cartons.
The judges came to the World Dairy Expo Championship Dairy Product Contest at Madison Area Technical College this week to find the best skim chocolate milk in the country. But the first few tastings didn’t measure up to trophy status.
“That’s harsh,” said Larsen, who works for Select Milk in Coopersville, Michigan. “I would say it’s flat.”
“It’s sweet, but with little to no chocolate,” added Hall, who works at Dean Foods in Belvidere, Illinois.
And they had 16 more samples to go in the category.
Cheese and butter judging concluded Tuesday, so Wednesday was all about Grade A products that included a variety of milk products: sour creams, dips, yogurt and cottage cheese. Thursday, the contest shifts to Babcock Hall at UW-Madison, where 14 categories with 270 entries including ice cream, sherbet, frozen yogurt and gelato will be evaluated.
The three-day contest, with 1,489 entries in 79 categories and 55 judges, was founded in 2003 when there were just 100 entries but has seen growth each year, with 1,200 entries in 2016.
“There’s nothing like this at all, and you have companies realizing the significance and uniqueness of this contest,” said Bradley Legreid, executive director of the Wisconsin Dairy Product Association, a partner with World Dairy Expo in the contest. “I’ve heard of companies tripling and quadrupling their sales just because of the contest.”
Unlike the World and U.S. championship cheese contests, held on alternating years in Madison and Green Bay respectively, the annual Dairy Product Contest goes beyond cheese.
On Tuesday, a classroom in the MATC culinary department was filled with tables and judges. Some sipped whole white milk out of plastic cups, while others used clear plastic spoons to sample yogurt, 21 entries of full-fat cottage cheese in both large and small curd, and plain sour cream.
Gary Pieper from CHR Hansen in Davis, Illinois, and Dana Lillard of Dean Foods in Rockford, Illinois, had 16 containers of french onion dip.
They pointed to one container that they said was among the best, then tasted another they deemed sub-par. They jotted down scores and comments on sheets attached to a clipboard.
“It’s soft but not weak,” Pieper said. “It’s higher in garlic than it should be. It’s lacking flavor altogether.”
“There’s just a weird taste there,” Lillard said. “I don’t like it.”
Back at the skim chocolate milk table, Larsen and Hall continued to sip and spit, cleansing their palates with bottled water between samples.
Larsen, an Alabama native and Mississippi State graduate, has been in the dairy industry for 15 years, won the milk category in the collegiate contest in 2004 and is in his seventh year of judging at the Championship Dairy Product Contest in Madison.
With chocolate milk, Larsen said he’s looking for cocoa flavor, sweetness, body and texture along with micro and bacterial defects that could affect the flavor.
“It can be very difficult,” Larsen said. “A lot of it is how does it taste, and how would it taste to consumers? I wouldn’t miss this contest for anything. I enjoy it that much.”