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Tasters put raw milk to the test

There was a whole lotta spittin' going on at the Merced County Fairgrounds on Thursday.

The people doing the spitting weren't tobacco-chewers or toddlers with bad table manners. They were milk experts doing taste tests on almost 700 samples of raw milk.

The Merced County Fair's quality control contest for grade A dairies was held Thursday, and about 20 judges were tasting, and spitting, the milk samples. Like wine, the milk was swirled around in the judges' mouths, then spit out to make way for the next sample.

"This one has nice body," said John "The Professor" Bruhn. Known as the "expert" taster at this competition, Bruhn, along with the rest of the judges, tasted raw milk taken from dairies earlier in the day. Dairies from Merced, Madera, Stanislaus, San Joaquin and Sacramento Counties were eligible to compete in the taste test.

Bruhn, a retired professor at University of California, Davis, has been taste-testing milk for 38 years. "The competition was set up to improve the flavor quality of raw milk," Bruhn said.

The milk samples that came in Thursday were warmed up to at least 60 degrees, and the judges didn't know which dairy the samples came from. The milk was judged on flavor, and judges looked for any type of bad taste in the milk, including milk that had a taste of feed, salt or 12 other unfavorable flavors.

The milk taste test has been done at the fair for 50 years, according to Diane Booth Conway, a spokeswoman for the fair. Booth Conway said that the first testing was done in Newman at the Foremost Dairy plant, and then moved to the fairgrounds. During the first few years, only about 30 dairies competed - now that number is up to about 700 dairies.

Joe Petersen, a field representative for California Dairies Inc., a butter and milk powder manufacturer, was one of the judges Thursday. He said that a half-pint of milk is pulled from every dairy that enters and the results of the taste-testing given to the dairy producers after the competition.

"We have found dairymen who didn't know that their milk had a bad taste," Petersen observed.

Petersen has been taste-testing milk samples since 1977 and admitted that raw milk is an acquired taste. He thinks testing does more than just give dairymen an idea of how their milk tastes. "We are helping protect the public's idea of what milk should be. We don't want any bad products going out," Petersen explained.

Milk is the No. 1 agricultural commodity in Merced County, far surpassing the nearest competitor. In 2006, milk was worth more than $621 million. Chickens were second, worth about $286 million.

"Milk is so important to this county, and our fair still has ag roots," said Booth Conway, adding that compared to 50 years ago, milk taste has come a long way.

Bruhn agreed, saying that it's rare to find a really bad tasting milk now, compared to years past. "Nowadays, it's almost boring to test these samples - the milk is almost consistently good."

Merced County: Got milk.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or