Monthly Archives: August 2009

First place for Harley Farms

As I do every year that Dee from Harley Farms can’t attend the cheese conference, I drive down to Pescadero, hand over their ribbons, then go buy an ollalieberry pie at Duarte’s Tavern. Production stops and we have a mini awards ceremony with all the workers.

(Thanks to Laurie!) This year’s picture is the best ever:

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Look at me acting like I had something to do with it! Congrats Harley Farms on first place for fresh chevre!*

*for the record, I did not judge that category

ACS 2009: The panels

Sure I was helping my girlfriend move in and dealing with my tooth that needed a root canal, but it’s been hard for me to write up this year’s cheese conference, harder than in years past. In fact, think I will give up after my next post about my favorite cheeses.

Some years I have given detailed description and analysis of panels I attended and the thoughts they provoked. Unfortunately that didn’t happen this year. I mean, I went to panels*… they just didn’t provoke any thoughts.

I don’t want to call anyone out here in public – and I have great hope for next year and the future – but I am declaring a zero tolerance campaign against the panel infomercial. I think we should walk out on anyone who is there to self-promote rather than share information. It’s not like I even have to organize, people voted with their feet at every panel I attended leaving most rooms more than half empty by the end. You could tell how many people left by how cold it got. It might be a Texas 105 outside, but inside the Hilton it was chilly enough to wear my sweatshirt. I didn’t feel comfortable enough to ask anyone I was sitting with to huddle together for warmth.

A good rule… if a panelist doesn’t mention at least 1-2 things that they are currently having problems with, or at least a couple of things that threatened to derail their goals, the panelist is not there to cooperate, they are there to puff up their business. Nothing wrong with that at a consumer event I guess, but at a trade event with a history of helpfulness and honesty, this should not be tolerated. At the very least moderators should be required to ask tough questions and not just let people do their half hour, power-point prepared, Home Shopping Network spiel unchallenged.

Some will argue that it doesn’t really matter… that the educational programming is just window-dressing for the schmoozing, networking, and the publicity for “artisan” cheese anyway. But I will honestly say that I have learned a lot in the decade that I have been going to the conferences and it would make me sad to write off the panels. And honestly, it makes it much harder to justify my workplace paying for my attendance.

Next year is in Seattle, one of my favorite cities, and my book will be out by then so I will definitely attend. After that… we’ll see.

*clearly I couldn’t go to every panel even if I wanted to so this isn’t a blanket dismissal of everything at the conference. I heard some panelists stood out in their expertise and honesty** even as a lot of other folks confirmed my feelings that other panelists were boring self-promoters.

**I was going to list the folks that people mentioned in these parentheses, but I think I won’t. I will inevitably forget someone. I’m already regretting trying to list everyone in the acknowledgement section of my book. Oh well. Too late now. Sorry in advance if I missed you.

ACS 2009 — Best of Show

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Anyone who follows cheese probably already knows this but this years American Cheese Society winner – and one of my all-time favorite cheeses – was Rogue River Blue from the Rogue Creamery in Central Point Oregon. It’s a seasonal, raw milk, blue wrapped in brandy-soaked grape leaves. It’s intense, creamy, and sweet. It’s one of the best cheeses – not just in the USA – but anywhere.

Cary and David, owners of Rogue Creamery. Congratulations!
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Here’s the Rogue River Blue on the judging table. Sorry for the non-artisitc picture. I didn’t know it had won at that point:
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One of the funny things about judging is that the winners aren’t announced for a few days so we have to keep it a secret. When Cary sat down next to me at a lunch I was terrified I’d say something by accident. “Dud-duh-duh, nice weather, eh?”

2nd Place went to Cowgirl Creamery for Red Hawk, a past Best of Show winner. Awesome washed-rind at the height of ripeness. They may hate me for posting this, but look at the excited Cowgirls!
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3rd place was a tie with Sid Cook’s Cave-aged Mellage and Consider Bardwell’s Ruppert (ha! I mentioned their cheeses last year too. They actually have their own website now)

Congrats everyone!

ACS 2009 – Judging

The purest thing about the American Cheese Society conference is the cheese judging. The rest of the conference may have some great moments, some educational presentations, lots of time for the schmoozy-schmooze, and many opportunities to take incriminating photos at the hotel bar, but it’s all a little downhill after spending two solid days doing little else that touching, tasting, and evaluating cheeses made in the Americas.

Here’s my aesthetic judging table still life:
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I’m sure that some folks who don’t win may not agree with me about the judging. That’s ok. What people need to remember is that this (or any) judging is not about evaluating the best cheese that a customer takes home for a party or eats on a cheese plate. No, the competition and judging is about which cheese in the room is best on those days we try them.

I won’t name names — all the retailers reading probably already know –- but some (not many, but some) ACS winners have been shocking because none of us have ever tasted those cheeses the way they tasted at the competition. Certainly we never got to taste them that way after the awards are given because demand is so high that if anything, they are rushed to stores with less aging or in greater numbers than before. Still, I’m sure that all those cheeses deserved to win based on what the judges had to work with.

(BTW, That is not true of this year’s winner which I have long thought is one of the country’s best 2 or 3 cheeses. But I’ll give them a separate post. They deserve it.)

The judging at the ACS works like this: a technical judge, usually a dairy scientist or professional cheese grader, is paired with an aesthetic judge, a cheese professional of some sort, but without a science background. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting with 50 points and subtracting for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding points for attributes up to 50. The two scores are combined for a total score. The top score (if it’s over 90 points) wins the subcategory and is eligible for Best of Show. This year there were over 1300 entries and 88 first place winners.

Here are some judges in action, not posing! In fact, Emiliano (of Liberty Heights Fresh in Salt Lake City, Utah) looked like he was gonna kick my ass when the picture-taking startled him.
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Over two days I judged exactly 100 cheeses before the Best of Show decision. I have to say that overall the quality was higher than when I judged a couple of years ago. I only spat-for-my-life a couple of times! Amusingly enough, the worst cheese I got was one that I regularly carry. It has a distinctive wrapper that I recognized even if the cheese company and name were removed. (The technical judges never know these things.) Cheesemakers are not allowed to plug their cheeses to try them before sending in so the poor guy didn’t know he sent us one that something horrible had happened to… it had been sitting in its own whey like a neglected child sitting in a soiled diaper. It had an inch of discoloration all around but even the good-looking bit was bitter and rancid. The technical judge said it had “whey taint” which sounds a lot dirtier than it really is.

When the first place winners are figured out we return to the room –as individuals, not teams — to try all of them, deciding on our top three which are them awarded points weighted by our individual rankings. They were – as much as possible – arranged in rows from mild to strong, but there is no way to taste 88 different dairy products in a row without breaking for a palette cleanse. I don’t even know how much time it took from when they let us loose on the cheese until the scores were announced… but it was at least an hour.

They looked like this, labeled only by category and secret code #:
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I did a once through and narrowed it down to about 8 cheeses. I was pretty sure about my #1 from the beginning, and #2 shortly thereafter, but I considered all the others for my #3. I slowly eliminated them until I had 4 left. I agonized over my 3rd place vote, I gotta tell ya. I tasted the last two cheeses against each other and went with the sheep one. I love sweet, salty cheeses. It’s kind of a weakness.

Anyways, I sat around for awhile while others finished and the votes were tallied. I ate a lot of fruit during this time. While I am confidant in my ability to pick cheese for sale in our store, for our customers, I have to admit that I wondered whether I would be the only one voting for the cheeses I voted for. I had no way of knowing what anyone else was considering. Judges were — almost 100% — obeying the spirit of the competition not to discuss any of this with each other. Would I find out that I had odd cheese fetishes or an outlying palate?

I have to admit I was shocked when the winners were announced. A tie was announced for third place. It was the two cheeses that I agonized over for my third vote. 2nd place? My vote for 2nd. 1st place? My vote for 1st. I immediately went out to buy a lottery ticket. Surprisingly, I didn’t win. I guess I only had the luck of the cheeses.

Healthcare in the USA

This blog is for cheese and while that is political at times, I do most of my more political ranting elsewhere (usually in the walk-in cooler at work, if truth be told). But since John Mackey brought the subject up, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention something about the current historic moment we are in and the real possibility that we will lose it without any real change in the way healthcare works in this country. And make no mistake, the way healthcare works in this country is a crime.

Here’s my friend Bee Lavender’s article from the UK Guardian: American healthcare is in truth already rationed

I could list tons of similar examples from people I know, but Bee does a better job than I would. Obviously as a worker co-op my workplace prioritizes healthcare — free healthcare (with some deductibles and limits of course) for workers over 25 hours/week including domestic partners/spouses/dependents and a fair amount of alternative treatment options. It is our biggest expense outside of wages and it is growing the fastest but I doubt we will ever question the amount of money we put into it. This also means — in real terms — that many of us make less money than we would otherwise in actual wages and profit sharing. In the lack of constant worry and fear of massive debt though, it is, like Bee’s article, a glimpse into a better way. One that people will not give up easily once they have it. Since it is not yet possible for everyone to work in a worker cooperative, something major needs to be done. Now.

Everyone has a right to safe and appropriate healthcare. Period. The state of healthcare in this country –including the fact that it is the leading cause of bankruptcy — is a national embarrassment, as is most of the current “debate”.

Next year: Seattle

Ok, still no time for any real writing, so here is the promo video for next year’s ACS. Lots of cheese worker in-jokes for sure. “Who is David Gremmels,” indeed….

Back from Texas

It’ll be a few days before I can make a real update. I told you I was no liveblogger.

However, tomorrow I get to drive down the coast and give Dee Harley her first and second place ribbons from this year’s competition. Hopefully Duarte’s Tavern won’t be too busy for lunch. Ollalieberry pie and artichoke soup makes a great meal.

at the cheese conference…

Am in Austin. It is 100-and-something degrees. Bought a 12-pack of Shiner Bock. Will let you know how it goes.