ACS Cheese Judging

Judging was great, like usual. I am in awe of the way that every year has more entries and yet the process gets smoother and smother. Think of the logistics of receiving, organizing, logging, and tempering 1843 cheeses… it’s really pretty amazing. I’m indebted to all these folks for doing the behind-the-scenes work.*

Every year, people ask me for details about the judging so this post is hopefully going to answer those questions. There were 21 teams of judges this year, the most ever. Each team consisted of a technical judge and an aesthetic one. Technical judges are almost all dairy scientists with a few other well-recognized experts thrown in for good measure. Aesthetic judges are recognized as the prettiest people working in cheese so I was really happy to be chosen again. I still have it at 48 I guess… I credit all the butterfat.

See, here’s my most recent picture. It was taken yesterday (unlike my author photo!)

13900262_10154546073103714_8218162242522372307_n

Seriously though, the aesthetic judges are people who have worked in cheese for a while, shown some degree of expertise, and usually have more retail/distributor experience than scientific training.* The American Cheese Society judging system pairs these two types of judges in order to recognize the importance of technical rigor to cheesemaking, but also acknowledge that imperfect cheeses and unexpected flavors can create amazing cheese as well. The technical judge is the bad cop, starting at 50 and taking away points for defects. The aesthetic judge is the good cop, starting at zero and awarding up to 50 points. The scores are combined for a possible, but unlikely, total of 100.

We taste about 40-50 cheeses on day one and another 40-50 at the beginning of day two in order to get through all the categories. Later in that second day, we reconvene to taste the winners from every category and decide on our individual favorites. We rank those 1-3 and they receive weighted points which are then added up to decide the Best of Show. It’s gruelingly awesome! It’s an endurance of amazement! It teaches lactose tolerance!

DSC02381

A score of 100 is unlikely but this year we had a first in the history of ACS… a four way tie for 1st place in the “Open – soft-ripened cheeses – Made from cow’s milk” category. Since I got to try all four during the Best of Show process, I can attest that they were all amazing cheeses and it would have been hard to deduct or not award full points. Mountian Ash by Sweet Rowen Creamery, Ashley by MouCo Cheese, and Harbison and Moses Sleeper by Jasper Hill got the blue ribbon(s) and these are some of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in this country for sure. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to conceive of these being made in the USA. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in this cheese renaissance.

Other judges have their own methods, but when I am deciding on BoS I have a system.  First I go through the room tasting all 100-or-so cheeses taking notes on my favorites.  This usually eliminates all but about 20 cheeses.  Then I go through and taste all of those again deciding on the cheeses that I would feel good about voting for in my three BoS votes. This number varies from year-to-year.  Sometimes I have an obvious top three. Sometimes I consider about a dozen very seriously.  This year I settled in on a top seven or eight, any of which I would have been happy to see win the big title.

ee2bbdc0-13f2-4a5d-8e5f-4d2399d56ad9

(photo by Rachel Perez)

Mostly, I don’t know until the awards guide is released after the Awards Ceremony who I voted for. It’s a blind judging. However, as a monger, I regularly handle some cheeses that are very distinctive so a few times every judging I have to remind myself to judge the cheese, not the sometimes long history I have had with a cheese. I feel like I do that with integrity partly. I am so honored to be asked to judge this competition, I would do nothing less. All five cheeses** that placed in Best of Show were in my top tier so I felt pretty on par with most of the other judges, based on the result.

I love the purity of those two days before the conference starts. I know I have said this before, but the cheeses have to speak for themselves for likely the only time in their lives in that judging room. No sales pitches, no heart-warming origin stories, no brokers, no prices, no labels. I feel like it re-calibrates my cheese senses, especially being in a quiet room instead of a store and sitting next to a technical judge instead of a sales rep. Thanks ACS!

DSC02368

 

*I was going to link to the letter from John Antonelli, Judging Chair, but it’s not online yet.  I will link to this when it’s up because I don’t want to forget anyone or not acknowledge folks who were so far behind the scenes that I didn’t see them.

**Someone asked me so I looked it up, I was asked to judge at ACS for the first time after working 13 years in cheese.

***I will talk about them, and others, in my awards ceremony post.

Des Moines CheeseCon!

Whew! Another CheeseCon in the books. Des Moines turned out to be a nice little big town and it was great to see all the cheese folks again.  Thanks to everyone who came by my book signing.  We sold out of Cheesemonger in about 5 minutes and almost sold out of Cheddar!

454cabfa-251c-4b9a-bd86-99f35234c542

One of the many reasons I like to be a judge for the cheese competition is that I get to get to the conference town early. Within 15 minutes of arriving I was doing a judge’s training. However, less than 3 hours after getting off the airplane I was eating a loose meat sandwich and drinking an Iowa beer.

Des Moines was interesting. To someone who lives in a dense urban environment like San Francisco, downtown Des Moines just seemed abandoned most of the time. Yet, there is construction everywhere.* I hear it’s a growing city so I guess they are planning for an urban loft-living future but man, I couldn’t even find a corner store. How are you supposed to drink on the streets of a city without a corner store?

7856db66-24f0-4fd0-9083-1806edba9ffe

Don’t get me wrong, the river is beautiful and I loved the old buildings and all the public art. It will be interesting to come back in a few years and see how it’s changed. All the Iowans seemed super nice though and my cheddar class** – filled with locals (with a few notable exceptions) – was awesome and engaged. The Cheese Shop of Des Moines had the feel of a place where you just want to spend some time. C.J. and everyone there are doing a great job.

653a1722-4fe6-4090-87fa-839b81201e7d

The good feeling from the city carried over to the conference for me. This ACS really exemplified all the good things in the world of cheese, especially one of the things that historically makes our world special: cooperation.  From the French alps, to the refusal of Jesse Williams to patent his cheddar-making methods and factory, to the very founding of ACS forty-some years ago, this is one of our best traditions. I mean yeah, I work in a co-op so I look for cooperation, but writer Simran Sethi, who has attended numerous food trade events, brought this up with me at lunch, a little surprised at how much information is free at ACS and that people really share their knowledge, not just their contact information so you could hire them later.

So thanks to all the other attendees, and planners, and organizers for making our conference so special! I really do think most of us come back from this week as better cheese workers and better people.

 

c9d95e48-52dc-4c7e-b9cb-2d1bf2ee12cd-1

 

*I heard that our conference hotel was originally supposed to be that hole in the ground next to the convention center, but construction is behind schedule.

**You can’t make this up… master cheesemaker Willi Lehner called the Cheese Shop of Des Moines while I was speaking. In fact, if he had called ten minutes later, I would have been talking about his Bleu Mont Cheddar and he could have heard about himself on speakerphone. The cheese world is very small!

 

Food Quotes — Abbey

“I take my shirt off and hang it over a chair; the sweat-soaked armpits will dry within five minutes, leaving a time of salt along the seams. Hastily I assemble a couple of sandwiches: lettuce, left-over bacon from breakfast, sliced ham, peanut butter, salami, longhorn cheese, cashews, raisins horseradish, anything else that will fit comfortably between two slices of bread – and take the dewy pitcher of juice and hasten outside and through the storm of sunlight over the baking sandstone of the 33,000 acre terrace to the shade and the relative coolness of the ramada.

“The thermometer nailed to a post reads 110 degrees F, but in the shade, with a breeze and almost no humidity, such a temperature is comfortable, even pleasant. I sit down at the table, pull off my boots and socks, dig my toes into the gritty, cleansing sand. Fear no more the heat of the sun. This is comfort. More, this is bliss, pure smug animal satisfaction. I relax beneath the sheltering canopy of juniper boughs and gaze out squinting and blinking at a pink world being sunburned to death.”

Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire 1968

Food quotes — Mina

I’ve collected a lot of food quotes over the years.   I figured I’d start sharing them here.

This is from a novel I read on vacation:

“He knew a lot of people came to eat here, paid the high prices, because of what was implied by eating in the Paddle Café. Organic, local, farmers’ market. Nose-to-tail. Seasonal. All the hollow pro-words he used to give a fuck about. It was an underground movement when Boyd got into it. At one time he’d cared about it with the same fevered certainty that his minister father had for his faith. Past heresy, his father used to say, was the present orthodoxy: the food revolutionaries now found themselves unwilling high priests of a bland new consensus.”

Demise Mina, Blood Salt Water (An Alex Morrow Novel).

Des Moines is almost here

Wow, I can’t believe I will be getting on a plane for Des Moines in less than two weeks. I am really excited to go, not just for the American Cheese Society conference, but because I’ve never been to Des Moines and it seems like a fun town. I mean, look what they did to the YMCA Building for fun on a Saturday night:

I will be there early for judging, so I am actually doing a cheddar class at the awesome Cheese Shop of Des Moines on the Monday before the conference.  It was close to sold out when I talked to CJ a couple of weeks ago, but if you are in town, you should come. Lots of cheddar!  I will also be signing copies of my books at the conference on Friday from 11:30-Noon.

For you last minute folks, I am doing a talk at Pt Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company’s regular farm tour tomorrow (Friday July 15). Tickets with the book included are sold out, but there are still (cheaper) slots that give you all the other benefits and hopefully my talk will convince you to buy a copy or two. look at all you get for that! Cheese, beer, cows, Giacominis, and me!

Steve Ehlers, unsung hero of cheese.

This is my favorite picture of Steve Ehlers (far right), taken at the Burlington ACS. Maybe not the most flattering, but one which really captured the nature of the ACS back in those days. I like to call it “The pageantry of the ACS awards ceremony.”
1065179433_5c0d29ced2_b

Steve Ehlers was pretty much the first cheese person I met outside of California when I started going to cheese conferences. Many California folks from the slightly earlier generation of the American cheese renaissance helped me develop my practical knowledge, taste, and historical interest in cheese – people like Kathleen Shannon Finn, Andrea London, Ig Vella, Jennifer Bice, Mary Keehn, Judy and Charlie Creighton, Dan Strongin… But Steve was probably the first to show this interested but insecure Californian that he could be part of the cheese world on a larger level.

He welcomed me into the American Cheese Society. I don’t remember how we first met – probably when I volunteered to help prepare cheeses for judging at the first Louisville ACS – but I was feeling overwhelmed being at an event where everyone seemed to know each other and I was one of the youngest people there. Back in those days, the ACS conferences were only a couple hundred people and I wasn’t sure I could fit in with the group or, honestly if I wanted to.

Steve and I hit it off right away. We had common interests in the world outside of cheese, which always helps, but I don’t know if I have ever met a more friendly supportive person. Later I watched him do the same with plenty of other new cheese folks. He easily could have been too busy – running a shop, being on the ACS board – but he always made time for people. He really exemplified everything I love about the artisan cheese world: friendly, smart, willing to share practical knowledge and oral history, encouraging, disapproving of pretension, non-self aggrandizing, and always seeking out ways to help people in our community and cheesemakers having a hard time. These are the qualities that helped make me decide that I could find a home in the world of cheese. Steve is not the only person I can thank for that, but he’s on a short list.

The funniest moment I can remember with Steve, when I really learned he was one of my people, might not be funny to you. Steve and I shared an interest in history and the history of radical political movements of the ‘60s. His Facebook icon – not that he ever Facebooked (smart man) — was this iconic picture from the rebellion of Paris ’68.
21044_101197373247566_6989242_n

So we were hanging out at a Sheana Davis event during Fancy Food week in San Francisco and I introduced him to a local cheese sales rep. Upon learning Steve lived in Milwaukee, the rep said, “Oh, I have relatives in Wisconsin. My cousin is a weatherman in Madison.” Steve and I started laughing uncontrollably and the rep is probably still trying to figure out what was so funny, not knowing that when we hear Madison and weatherman together in a sentence, we both hear it with a capital W.

We always bonded over being some of the few people at ACS in cheese retail or distributing that stayed in the same job for more than 20 years. It’s a small club. Me, Juliana and Alma from the Pasta Shop, Helder from Zuercher, Patty and Steve from Larry’s Market and a few others… Going to Larry’s was something I did every time I went to Milwaukee. It’s a small but mighty place and it always feels like a home away from home.

I can only imagine what his family and closer friends must be going through because Steve was one of those people that just brightened up every room and every interaction. He is a real unsung hero of the American cheese renaissance. It’s actually really hard for me to imagine our community without him.

I am going to miss Steve a lot. And I know I am not the only one.

(For a more detailed obituary of Steve, please see Karen Herzog’s great tribute here)

Special Cheddar Class!!

I know you are used to getting me for free.  That’s cool and all — I wouldn’t be touring the SFPL if it wasn’t — but actual intensive cheese classes have their place.

My next local cheese event is at the Cheese School on April 19 and I am super excited about this.  We will taste a number of cheddars —  various ages, from nearby and far away — that show the breadth of styles of this seemingly ubiquitous cheese. These cheddars will represent the history of the America’s most popular cheese for 150 years and we get into why cheddar has changed so much, how it is thought of in different regions of the country, and why cheddar is a great way to look into the evolution of the US food system.

Oh and we are eating the cheddars with beer! Go to the Cheese School site and buy your ticket. April 19!

32703596_5e717f76aa_b