Their eyes squinting in the red-lighted room, their lips pursed in a combination of concentration and displeasure, a dozen taste students swish a dollop of cheese-flavored powder inside their mouths.
Instructor Maria Ridgley breaks their rapt silence, asking for descriptions: "Salty," one student says. "Bitter," another ventures. There's a long pause as each student ponders whether to state the obvious.
Finally, someone pipes up: "Baby vomit."
"Good," Ms. Ridgely nods. The flavor experts at McCormick & Co. Inc. agree that this particular cheese should be described as "goaty, sharp, bitter" and having just a hint of "baby throw-up or baby formula."
Everybody laughs. It's another small victory, another small step toward their graduation into fully qualified tasters for the country's biggest spice company.
The students, all employees of McCormick's industrial division (which makes ingredients for restaurants and other food companies), are in the home stretch of their 14-month-long course on taste testing, or "sensory evaluation," as the company calls it.
The course, which is open to all divisionemployees, is very popular. This year, there are 24 secretaries, maintenance mechanics, product developers and research chemists enrolled. And there's a waiting list for the next course.
If the students pass their final exam next month they will be qualified to serve on McCormick panels evaluating everything from the flavors of artificial vanillas developed in the research laboratories upstairs, to the "heat" of imported peppercorns.
The instructors expect everyone to pass next month's final exam, but that doesn't mean the test will be easy. The students will have to prove their savoring skills in blind-taste tests in the red-lighted room. (The red light prevents tasters from being biased by the color of the samples.)
They might be asked to distinguish real from artificial vanilla, for example. And they'll be asked to describe the contents of little plastic cups of seasoned powders and liquids.
They'll have to show they're familiar with McCormick's computer evaluation system. For each sample, they'll point a light pen at a computer screen containing of a list of adjectives. As they point at a word they think describes the sample, and an image of a ruler appears, asking them to rank the sample's "yeastiness," for example, from 1 to 15.
The students will also have to show they've become conversant in the strange -- almost poetic -- language of flavor and aroma description.
For example, confronted with the problem of how to describe the feeling of white pepper in the mouth, McCormick's professional tasters say it has a little bite (a short spurt of hotness on the tip of the tongue) and more heat (the long burning sensation in the back of the throat and roof of the mouth). It also has notes of "hay, earth, cardboard, a little bit of plastic, and horse manure."
"The nice phrase for that is 'barnyard,' " says Nancy Clifford, who runs the sensory evaluation operations.
The words sound unappetizing, but they describe a taste almost everyone likes.
Consumers may not realize it, but they wouldn't like nacho chips that didn't have a whiff of "barnyard," or a hint of "baby formula" cheese, Ms. Clifford says.
As soon this class graduates, the instructors will start planning another course. They are constantly recruiting new panelists because of the pressing demand for taste testers, Ms. Clifford says.
Each day, Ms. Clifford and the eight other sensory evaluation workers cook up samples for six or seven taste panels.
The panels, with between six and 36 members, evaluate products such as new chip seasonings, or taste old recipes that McCormick's researchers are trying to improve.
That means nearly every one of this building's 170 employees -- who run the research arm of McCormick's industrial division -- serves on a taste panel every working day.
And that's just a smidgen of the tasting going on every day at Sparks-based McCormick. Other taste-training classes are held in nearby buildings to teach production workers how to make sure each batch of seasonings tastes the same, for example, and in the offices that house the consumer research kitchens to test a new sauce for chickens, she says.
The tasters are needed because there is no other way to test McCormick's products, Ms. Clifford says.
"McCormick sells flavor. . . and in the end we have to know how a product tastes. Machines can't tell us that," she explains.
And although regular eaters are drafted for some taste tests, McCormick finds uneducated palates can't tell the researchers all they need to know, either.
That's why the company teaches its employees how to "read" food with their tongues and noses.
Although employees don't get paid extra for the service on panels, they say they like helping decide the fate of new products. Their tasting skills help them in their jobs, and in their leisure hours too.