Lindsay and I were thrilled to receive an invitation to be judges at the Grand Champion round of the 2014 World-Wide Mustard Competition, held this year on the campus of Kendall College in Chicago. The competition is run by the National Mustard Museum in Middleton, Wisconsin, and directed by amiable museum curator Barry Levenson (a.k.a. Mr. Mustard) and his wife, Patti Levenson (Mrs. Mustard). You can read all about Barry and Patti’s background, as well as everything else you ever wanted to know about mustard and the museum, on the NMM’s fantastic blog and website.
Due to a work conflict, Lindsay couldn’t go, so I represented the ETW team. As I quickly realized upon entering, mustard judging is serious business (especially obvious when Barry led us in singing the Poupon U fight song – Wisconsin version, of course). While the first two rounds of judging (held last month in Middleton) sorted through the winners in each of sixteen different mustard categories, our task was much more difficult: rank each of the sixteen category champions from best to worst, thereby establishing the overall winner. Barry described this as akin to judging the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show: comparing a garlic mustard and mustard barbecue sauce is as tough as comparing a poodle to a greyhound. Yet we must do it! Barry and Patti encouraged me to conduct multiple rounds of tasting each of the sixteen entrants, ranking them by how well they exemplified each category (read the full list and descriptions here), as well as basic questions we always ask ourselves: would we use this on our food? Does it make our food better? Does it showcase the mustard well?
I was presented with a plate of each of the sixteen mustards, identified only by their entry number and their category (no other labels, manufacturers, or information provided). I opted for a three-tier judging system. First, I took a sample of each for initial impressions and thoughts. They ranged from mild and incredibly hot, from mustard-centric to more balanced flavors, from grainy to silky smooth. I then went through a second round, separating them into categories: top, middle, and bottom. Finally, I went through them again to separate out the rankings, coming up with a final mustard ranking, from grand champion (1) to bottom (16). Just to confirm my choices, I then opted for another round of tasting in order to be sure I made no mistakes.
While I can’t reveal my final rankings, I can provide some of my general thoughts on how I proceeded. Many of the mustards were fiery hot, and I while I always appreciate the boldness of heat in condiments, one must balance that heat against showcasing the flavor. This is true for even milder mustards: if I felt it was bland, or lacked real mustard flavor, I ranked these lower than mustards that utilized their flavors in complex and satisfying ways. Finally, many readers will be familiar with our love of Category 16: “Mustard-Based BBQ Sauces.” Our original BBQ love will always be South Carolina mustard sauce, so I knew beforehand it would take a lot to impress me in this category!
The three judges seated at my table took the opportunity to compare our rankings once we were finished, and occasionally there was significant divergence, but four or five of the mustard were near the top in all our sheets. Perhaps these mustards are in the running for the top awards! We won’t know until May, when the winners of the Grand Championship will be for available for tasting and sale at the NMM’s “Salute! to the Winners” event on May 3 and 4 from 10am to 5pm. Come by and see if you agree with the judges, and if the other judges agreed with me!