CORVALLIS -Ten judges with a trained sense of taste recently separated the skim from the cream among Oregon dairies during the 91st annual Oregon Dairy Industry Product Quality Test.

Held at an Oregon State University testing lab, the taste test differs from other contests in one important sense, said event coordinator Lisbeth Goddik, the dairy-processing specialist for the Oregon State University Extension Service.

"The winner can't publicize the win or mention it in promotional material," Goddik said. The point of the annual taste-off is not to honor one or two dairies, but to identify where improvements are needed. Each year, OSU and experts from Oregon Dairy Industries - a dairy processors trade group - follow up on the contest by helping the non-winning dairies improve their products.

"There is pride and honor involved," Goddik said. "The dairies also want to know how they compare to the other products on the market."

During three days in late February and early March, judges who are retired dairy foods experts or food scientists, evaluated and scored products from 18 Oregon dairies, and three based in Washington.

These Northwest dairies submitted samples of their skim, whole and two- percent milk; buttermilk; cheddar cheese; sour cream; cottage cheese; yogurt and butter.

Each was rated from one to 10 using an U.S. Department of Agriculture taste scale. Few dairy products scored lower than a 7.5. Most winning entrants scored a 9.5 or higher.

The event ended - as it traditionally does - with a grueling two-hour taste test of the vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice creams. This year, eight Oregon dairies competed in this final ultimate challenge to identify the good, the best, and the kind you spit out.

Most ice cream enthusiasts would have a hard time remembering when they ate bad ice cream, unless they tasted the stuff you sometimes find mummified into colored ice crystals in the back of your freezer. So you might ask, what could possibly be wrong with fresh ice cream?

"Icy; coarse body and texture," one judge said. He first allowed a spoonful of vanilla ice cream to melt in his mouth. He savored its flavor, then spit it into a stainless steel sink made for that purpose.

"Gummy. Tastes of whey," said another judge, who also used the sink.

"It lacks fine vanilla flavor," said a third.

The judges also found some ice cream too watery; had an off color or smell; lacked freshness or left a greasy feeling in the mouth, to name a few examples of undesirable qualities. "Buttermilk sensation" or "a burned quality" in chocolate ice cream, and "too little vanilla" were among other flavor problems that the judges identified.

Such matters of taste are crucial to Oregon's smaller, family-owned and independent or co-operative dairies, Goddik said. Processing fresh products without sensory defects - such as an off odor or color - translates into economic health for Oregon dairies. Quality flavor is more important now than ever because local dairies increasingly find themselves in competition with large out-of-state dairies that can afford to sell their products in Oregon at a volume discount. This can sometimes undercut smaller local dairy processors on price, making it harder for them to realize a profit.

Quality, therefore, is a premium that Oregon dairies strive to keep and enhance.

So far, it is working, said Floyd Bodyfelt, a retired OSU professor of food sciences who held the job Goddik now has for more than 30 years. "Oregon is recognized for having the freshest, best-flavored milk in the nation," he said.

Goddik said the true test of the Oregon dairy processor's prowess is strawberry ice cream. Strawberries have a delicate flavor that is strongest when a sun-ripened strawberry is plucked from the field.

However, strawberry ice cream involves mixing an essentially tart, subtle-flavored berry with large quantities of cream and sugar, then freezing it. Accomplishing this while also preserving a fresh, "straight-from-the-field" or "true" strawberry flavor and not ending up with a "jammy" strawberry ice cream is difficult. The judges' scores reflected this.

More relatively low scores in the 7.5-to- 8 range were awarded for the strawberry ice cream than for any other flavor.

Chocolate ice cream scored much higher. Dissention started early among the judging ranks over the first two entrants. Both were well received. However, was the lighter style of chocolate ice cream the better choice, or should top scores be awarded to another, darker, more intensely flavored chocolate ice cream?

Judges repeatedly dipped their spoons into the top two chocolate ice cream samples, just to make sure. They licked the spoons thoughtfully. Nobody spit. Finally, the top two samples were scored as a tie.

Chocolate ice cream is not as complicated to perfect as strawberry, but whether consumers will like the flavor is harder to predict, Bodyfelt said.

"Excellent chocolate ice cream is the easiest to make," Bodyfelt said. By adding some vanilla to round out the flavor profile, or cocoa powder to give it a bit more bite, an ice cream maker has more options available to improve the chocolate mixture during processing.

Whether the final chocolate ice cream flavor will find favor with consumers is harder to predict, Bodyfelt said.

"It's all really subjective."

Bodyfelt said the Oregon Dairy Industries and OSU learned this 30 years ago, when they conducted a consumer taste test to compare Oregon consumer preference for vanilla, strawberry and chocolate ice creams versus the choices of trained judges who were experts in making what the industry terms "sensory evaluations."

"Interestingly, for both vanilla and strawberry ice creams, the consumer panel and the trained judges were in complete agreement for flavor preference across the excellent, good, fair and poor categories. By distinct contrast, something like 80 percent of the consumer panel chose a rather plain chain grocery outlet chocolate ice cream that was selling for 99 cents a half-gallon," Bodyfelt said, with a slight shrug.

It is consumer opinion that ultimately decides which ice cream is best, Goddik said, and it is Oregon consumers who are the real winners of the contest, since it's hard to find any bad-tasting ice cream labeled "Made in Oregon."

"When you try any one of them on a hot summer day, they will all taste pretty good," Goddik said.

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Lisbeth Goddik, 541-737-8322