“That’s my patch,” says Kathy Scheer, proudly pointing to one of two pieces of cheese embroidery, stitched in a yellow that really pops against her black chef’s coat. “If anybody gives me any grief I used to point to one. Now I point to them both,” she explained with a Cheshire grin.
To the layperson, those patches on her chest represent a profound knowledge of cheese few attain. They’re a modest nod to how Scheer, in the self-identified twilight of her working years, came to conquer the world of cheese.
This summer, Scheer passed the American Cheese Society’s bonkers test to become a Certified Cheese Sensory Evaluator (or CCSE), which involves challenges like smelling 10 glasses of milk and picking out hidden aromas.
“There are 45 [of us] in the world. I like to say ‘universe,’” laughs Scheer, breaking down the numbers.
Three of these CCSEs live in Minnesota, but Scheer is the only one who works in a public-facing capacity, let alone a grocery store. Yes, this means New Hope’s Hy-Vee is home to one of the most knowledgeable cheese professionals anywhere. (Minnesota’s other two CCSEs are cheese reps.)
Despite her success, Scheer only began working with cheese four years ago. After a career spent in general merchandise retail, her former employer was going out of business and she “[saw] the writing on the wall.” When a hiring manager at Hy-Vee offered her a position in the cheese shop, neither had any clue how high Scheer would soar.
In 2017, Scheer began the process of cheese mastery by signing up for the first of two tests, in which she would answer 150 questions like “How many ounces of fat are there in a one-pound cheese of 65 percent moisture content and 70 percent fat in dry matter?” (It’s 3.92 ounces, duh).
In exchange, she’d earn the coveted title of American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (or CCP)—which signifies a “mastery of cheese knowledge and best practices” bestowed unto fewer than 1,000 individuals since the society was founded in 1983.
The organization was conceived as a national grassroots coalition of professionals ranging from retailers and food writers to cheesemongers, distributors, and importers/exporters, and Scheer felt its certification would help her better serve shoppers. By communicating to customers in a more relatable way, and serving as a mouthpiece for the cheesemakers, she helps everyone succeed. This meant challenging herself to refine her language, knowledge, and approach to cheese.
Today she describes the test-prep process as “absolutely grueling.”
“Anything that could remotely touch cheese could be on it. It’s like, from animal husbandry and different breeds of cows and how much they can produce, to which cow does better in warm weather, to all the goat breeds, all the sheep breeds, the water buffalo, to cheesemaking,” recounts Scheer. “Then there’s cheese pairing, food safety laws, there’s import-export.... It just goes on and on.”
She’d studied for the test alone but had told everyone she was taking the exam, which made for an excruciating month of limbo while scores were tallied. Meanwhile, everyone kept asking if she’d succeeded.
“It’s a soul-searcher, because you have to think, if I didn’t pass how do I feel about that and how am I going to break it to all of these people who are pulling for me?” Scheer describes having spent a lifetime of pushing her way to the front, a feeling that fueled her through college, where she found herself the only woman in her upper-level classes, fighting for the top score. To rediscover this excitement mixed with a responsibility in cheese ultimately proved deeply motivating for her, even as the stakes rose.
When finally an email arrived congratulating Scheer for earning the CCP designation, she found herself celebrating in a room alone, surrounded by computers, shouting at the top of her lungs. “I was so relieved. I’m really proud of this. It’s almost like a fraternity. If you run into people who are CCPs, you are instantly like, ‘I know you know your stuff and that you have passion and intelligence and commitment,’ so that’s pretty interesting.”
Scheer didn’t stop there, though. This summer she pursued the society’s even more rigorous CCSE designation. It’s here she smelled all those glasses of milk—correctly, too. She also had to evaluate 12 cheeses from appearance, rind, and texture, to aroma and flavor, proving her ability to determine a cheese’s salability.
Once it became clear how much work went into earning her CCSE stripes, it begged the question: Why stay at Hy-Vee when more traditionally refined environments beckoned?
For Scheer, it was simple. “I’m at the end of my career, let’s face it. So I want to work for a good company, not a shady company, and Hy-Vee has an impeccable reputation.” She also loves the freedom Hy-Vee gives her to question the status quo, and management’s responsiveness to her ideas.
In keeping with this is Scheer’s dedication to American cheeses—and no, we’re not talking about Kraft singles, though she concedes “there’s a time and a place for that,” even in her lauded world of cheeses, like the Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery, which was the first American cheese to ever take home the title of World Champion. (Hot tip: Scheer received three wheels of the big winner last week.)
By running workshops from Hy-Vee, Scheer can steer attention to issues that might be lost on consumers. She recounts a recent Cheese 101 class in which she said to her students, “I happen to be promoting all American cheeses because, I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer, but I want you to be aware there’s a dairy crisis and let’s support our dairy however we can.”
This is her way of doing it, at an accessible level. It takes 10 pounds of milk to create a single pound of cheese, which means Scheer’s not only making a dent in our nation’s milk reserves, she’s also expanding palates and minds in the process.