There’s almost no sphere of connoisseurship without a certified taste expert
My training as a honey sommelier at the American Honey Tasting Society culminates with eight wineglasses filled with various honeys, lined up from light to dark. My instructor, Carla Marina Marchese, tells me that when we taste honey, we don’t do the ceremonial swirl – the wine expert’s ritual – before we sniff. Honey sommeliers smear. “Smear it on the sides of the glass like this,” she says, using a tiny plastic spoon. Once the honey is smeared, I can stick my nose in the glass to properly evaluate the aroma, then spoon a dollop onto my tongue.
The American Honey Tasting Society exists upstairs from Marchese’s Red Bee honey shop, in a beautiful, rustic barn in Weston, Connecticut, heated on this day by a wood-fired stove.
In 2000, Marchese left a career as an illustrator and product designer in New York, moved to Connecticut and took up beekeeping. She also began taking honey courses and eventually moved to the Italian beekeeping institute in Bologna for advanced certification. Four years ago, she became a member of the Italian National Register of Experts in the Sensory Analysis of Honey – the first American to be accepted.
Perhaps you are someone who thinks honey is just honey. Or tea is just tea. Or olive oil is just olive oil. Or water is just water. Or a cigar is just a cigar. Or mustard is just mustard. If so, you’re likely skeptical of a honey sommelier, a tea sommelier, an olive oil sommelier, a water sommelier, a cigar sommelier or a mustard sommelier. But over the past several years, there’s been a creeping wine-ification in every realm of gourmet endeavor.
Now, in our era of hyper-credentialism, there’s almost no sphere of connoisseurship without a knowledgeable, certified taste expert, someone who’s completed serious coursework and passed an exam.
Then I learn about the American Cheese Society’s T.A.S.T.E. Test, which launched in the summer of 2018. Passing this exam will confer the title of Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator (cheese sommeliers don’t call themselves sommeliers). Cheese feels like something I can handle. I’d recently spent time on assignment for The Washington Post in Bra, Italy, reporting from the Slow Food cheese event, tasting from among 300 cheesemakers from 50 countries. The founder of Slow Food declared the event to be “the beating heart of cheese” and those of us attending the “cheese intelligentsia.” Well, as a member of the cheese intelligentsia, surely I can pass the T.A.S.T.E. Test.
“You can’t study the day before and take this test,” says Jane Bauer, the certification manager for the American Cheese Society. The professionals taking this test need at least 4,000 hours of work experience in the cheese business. “There’s a difference between certification and certificates. A lot of people try to call things certifications, and they’re not.”
I ask Bauer if cheese is any more complex than wine. “Oh yes,” she says. “With cheese, every day is different. There’s a new vintage every day depending on what the animal ate the day before. Some cheesemakers have 365 vintages per year.”
“A sommelier means someone who holds the knowledge, and I’m definitely the one who holds the knowledge of mustard,” says Harry Lalousis, a mustard sommelier who works for Maille, a French producer of Dijon mustard. “I don’t say that I’m a mustard sommelier for fun. I don’t think there’s anyone who can ask me a question about mustard that I cannot answer.”
As far as Lalousis is aware, he’s the only mustard sommelier in the world. That’s not to say, however, that he is the first mustard sommelier in history. “We had a mustard sommelier in 1747 when we opened a store in Paris,” he says.
The world of cigars is easily as complex as whiskey or cheese or chocolate, but it faces an obvious challenge. “Our industry suffers from a stigma,” Armenteros says. “We don’t have any of the prestige of wine or Scotch, yet drinking those are just as dangerous.”
Indeed, what the rise of specialized taste education, the cult of sensory analysis, and the wine-ification of everything means is that taste is becoming more and more codified all the time. There are good tastes and bad tastes; not only that, there’s a growing caste of gatekeepers in every field who are keeping score on what tastes great, middling and flawed.