Tag Archives: american cheese society

ACS 2013: Best of Show

ACS 2013 is fading away now. We’ve all gone back to work. The rarefied atmosphere of Cheese Camp is something I think we all try to hold onto a little, but real life intrudes. But… I have a few more posts about ACS to make before I let it go away completely. I mean c’mon, I haven’t even talked about the award ceremony yet.
DSC00111

In an earlier workshop someone tried to hand me a California flag.* As a judge, who would be sitting in the judge’s area, I felt like I had to refuse but I have to admit it amused me that every time a California cheese won a ribbon, Californians yelled and waved their flags. Doing this in the heart of Wisconsin definitely struck a nerve because I was later pointedly informed by Wisconsinites that Canada took more ribbons than California.** I was also told that they would “take the high road” and not visibly display Wisconsin pride at the awards ceremony in Sacramento next year. We’ll see.
DSC00104

When I was judging for the Best of Show I did what I usually do. I narrowed it down to about eight cheeses and then gathered a piece of each, sat in a corner of the room, and tasted them off against each other. While entries are anonymous, they have codes on them so that we can place our votes. The cheese company code is always the first number. Imagine my shock when I realized that three of my top six cheeses were from the same company!

My clear #1, though, was Winnimere from Jasper Hill. It’s a seasonal cheese, but they made a special batch just for the competition. It was perfect. Perfectly ripe, grassy, beefy, mustardy, rich, oozy, and complex. This has long been a favorite of mine anyway and it was nice to see it arrive for judging tasting as good as it does in the store. Congrats Jasper Hill folks! This was a well-deserved win.
DSC00126

And no, you cannot have any until November-ish.

#2 in the Best of Show voting was Bear Hill from Grafton Village Cheese Company. Not just a Cheddar-maker anymore, Grafton has been working on sheep cheeses and different styles. I didn’t vote for Bear Hill but I had it (unofficially) ranked 4th or 5th in my head. 100% “Alpine Style” sheep milk cheese… we are getting some in, but again, not for a couple of months.
DSC00109

Tying for 3rd place were the two cheeses I ranked 2nd and 3rd.

Both of these were Willi Lehner cheeses. Willi had built amazing caves to age cheese but makes his cheese with other Master Cheesemakers like Kerry Henning and Chris Roelli. The Cheddar was, as always, amazing. One of the best traditional Cheddars made in the US: earthy, grassy, dank, fruity, and sharp. Bleu Mont Cheddar:
DSC00127

The Big Sky Grana surprised me. Sweeter than I would expect for that style but probably the best US-made hard Italian cheese I have ever had. The Cheddar is available, but the Grana was an experiment (like Willi’s 3rd cheese that I had in my top rankings, the Alpine Renegade) and also not available right now. Still there’s hope for all you folks who “only carry American cheese” but make an exception for Parmigiano Reggiano.*** This cheese is awesome:
DSC00131_2

Amazing cheeses people. Amazing…

(I mention the unavailability of these cheeses in the top 4 because, once again, I am teaching a cheese class on the judging. You’ll have to wait on three out of four of the Best of Show winners but the class will be great. You should totally sign up for it. We will talk about the judging process, discuss what judges look for, and taste a lot of 1st place cheeses.)

*Have any of you ever heard this pear thing? I don’t know if I am buying it.
**Let’s pause to remember than Canada is a country, not a state, for comparison purposes.
***cough, cough — cop-out — cough cough.***
****I’m just kidding you guys! I still love you.

ACS 2013: Fred Hull

DSC00103

Tomorrow I will post about the ACS 2013 Awards Ceremony, but I want to take today to remember Fred Hull. I wrote about Fred when I heard about his death earlier in the year. His presence was missed at the conference and especially in the judging room. I found myself expecting to see him every time a new volunteer approached my table. I always enjoy the judging, but it was a little bittersweet this year without his humor, warmth, and love for cheese.

Thank you David Grotenstein, for giving Fred such a lovely and fitting tribute before the Awards Ceremony. I’m sure it wasn’t easy but all of us who worked with Fred were in tears out there in the audience. You served his memory well.

R.I.P. Fred.

ACS 2013: Lifetime Achievement Award for Ricki Carroll

One of the most touching parts of the ACS conference was the Lifetime Achievement Award for Ricki Carroll. I cannot think of anyone who deserves it more. Ricki has dedicated her helping small producers, home cheesemakers and building the ACS. I know her to be an extrememly kind and generous person as well.

DSC00085

In fact, probably my favorite moment of any I have ever had at ACS was in Chicacgo. I had put together a panel on whether retail (or distributor) affinage was a good idea because it was at the moment when everyone wanted to build a “cave.” Juliana Uruburu, Helder Dos Santos, Carlos Souffront and I talked about handling and caring for cheese and in the Q&A session Ricki got up and said, “I have been waiting for this panel for twenty years.” I seriously almost cried with happiness.

Thanks for everything Ricki! This is a well deserved honor.

ACS 2013: The Curds

I am going back to work today, so I give you a pictorial of curds along the way at ACS. State law says you must eat curds with every meal in Wisconsin.

At the Old Fashioned:
curds at old fashioned

At Graze:
fried curds

At The Tipsy Cow:
curds at tipsy cow

In the form of poutine at Cooper’s Tavern:
poutine at coopers tavern

In their natural form at Clock Shadow Creamery
DSC00181_2

ACS 2013: The Judging

DSC00020

I spent my first two days in Wisconsin in the judging room of the Monona Terrace Convention Center. It was a day and a half before I realized that I could open a door on the other side of the room and walk out into an adorable Frank Lloyd Wright lobby and an incredible panorama view of the lake. And I do mean incredible. Water skiers were performing stunts and jumps. The view was so big that you could almost see the curvature of the earth, Wow.
DSC00038

My home county in California actually has a Frank Lloyd Wright Civic Center so this felt oddly home-like. I was told later that the Madison building was actually delayed for years due to haters, but that was a blessing in disguise since they were able to omit some Wright features like the unplanned, rain-caused fountains that destroyed part of the library and have cause numerous problems over the years back home.

I have written this before but I will say it again, the things I like the most about judging is the purity of it. Just me, my teammate technical judge, our triers, and our mouths. No packaging, no stories, no sales pitches, no loyalty and no having to assess whether a cheese will sell. Just pure cheese appreciation and love.
DSC00021

My partner this year was Russell Smith, an Australian cheese dude who spends much of his time teaching other food professionals how to taste and assess cheese (and other foods.) He is also involved with a deer milk cheese project in New Zealand which was supposed to be a secret, but isn’t anymore.
DSC00027

Yes, I did write “deer milk.”

We tasted a lot of cheese. About 100 cheeses in the evaluation round and then all category winners (81 this year) to determine Best of Show. This year set another record with nearly 1800 cheeses entered into the competition.

Every judge gets their share of flavored categories and we got ours: Flavored Butter and Open Cow Milk Cheese with Flavor Added. We also did Open Soft-Ripened Cow, Open* Molded Goat 0-30 days aged, Sheep (or mixed) Milk Blue. The thing that was most impressive this year was how consistently good most cheese was. In the goat category we had, for example, probably 19 of 21 entries were good cheeses that anyone would enjoy. Even the two that were notably not on par with the others didn’t need much work. In the past I almost found a lot more peaks and valleys in most of my categories, but not this year. In fact, I did not spit out even one cheese because I thought it might kill me! That has never happened before.

My take away is that American cheese is getting better and better.

A new thing this year was that the judges were not told who the winners were. Usually we all got to know at the end of the second day of judging. This was great except when we would run in to people we knew had won. Awkward! I still remember Cary and David from Rogue sitting next to me at a conference lunch the year they won Best in Show. They probably thought I was being a huge jerk as I ignored them the whole time and talked to strangers. I was so worried about letting something slip by accident that I didn’t even want to make conversation. It was a big relief this year to not know until everyone else did. There was even an envelope and dramatic pause just like the Academy Awards and everything.

But, that will have to wait for my entry on the Awards Ceremony…

DSC00031_2

Thanks to all my fellow judges and all the volunteers but especially the folks who did the major organizing: David, Todd, Stephanie, John G., Tom, Michelle, Rachel, and John A.

You can see previous judging entries here (this post will be on top but you can scroll down to see more if you are interested)

*As Mervyn’s used to say, “Open, open, open…”

ACS 2013

Oh, another ACS conference come and gone… While I am super happy to be home after 10 days in Wisconsin, I am already missing the camaraderie inherent in putting 1000 of the nation’s most cheese-obsessed people in one room for a week. It really is a special event.
DSC00169

I heard a lot of people refer to this year’s conference as the best ever so thanks first to the organizers: Jeanne Carpenter, Sara Hill, Bob Wills, and the whole ACS staff. Great Job. You make Wisconsin pleasant even with Scott Walker as Governor.
DSC00116_2

During the course of my trip I judged 100 cheeses, tasted another couple hundred, went to a bunch of presentations, visited six cheese plants and three stores, did a cheese/class reading, ate cheese curds in at least five different ways, and basically exhausted myself.

I’ll be doing my usual conference re-cap over the next few days so get ready. We will discuss judging, the roasted pig party, Madison, and a bunch of other cheesy things.
DSC00079

P.S. South Bay folks, don’t forget, I am doing a free reading and mini cheese tasting on Monday night at the Sunnyvale Public Library. Also, anyone near Butte, Montana, I am Skyping in to your library on Friday 8/16. Someday I’d love to come in person.

American Cheese Society Conference 2013

I was thinking about what I should write about this year’s American Cheese Society conference since I am leaving for Wisconsin in 6 days. But then I realized I wrote everything out last year!

I had almost forgotten about “Gordonzola’s humble suggestions for getting the most out of the cheese conference” but I just re-read it and it’s pretty good advice, all things considered. I mean, considering it’s coming from me. If you haven’t gone to the conference before, check it out!

IMG_1920

Also, If you are around Milwaukee 8/4 at noon, I will be doing a cheese talk at Gloriosos Italian Market. Follow the link for info. It’s Milwaukee’s “cheese event of the season” they say.

Sad week for the cheese community

There was very sad news in the cheese world this week with the passing of two important cheese people.

I did not know Dr. Pat Elliott very well so I will leave memorializing her to others. I do remember meeting her at my very first American Cheese Society conference though. I didn’t know anyone at the bar but she invited me to her table of cheese folks and made me feel welcome. Over the years we always said hello at various national cheese events, but reading her obituary makes me wish I had sought her out and made time to really talk to her. She will be missed.

Fred Hull was a different kind of cheese person. He wasn’t a cheese maker or distributor and he didn’t seem to work in cheese stores very often. I did not know what he did with himself when he wasn’t at the American Cheese Society, but I know that when I would arrive, Fred would have already been there for awhile, doing crucial behind the scenes tasks. If you didn’t work in the judging room, you may never have met him, but he was one of the handful of people who made the whole thing work. He was there to bring out the cheese, to replenish supplies, to make sure everyone had what they needed. He loved being around cheese so much that he would do things, unpaid, that others might complain about while getting a paycheck.

Indeed, Fred was someone who – every year – would help me rekindle my love for my job. As much as I love cheesemongering, there are times in any job where things get you down. The customer service nightmares, the invoice hassles, the cleaning of the drains… whatever. Fred’s enthusiasm for cheese couldn’t help but make you forget all those things. Every year I judged I would start saving little nibbles of the best cheeses so that when he walked by I could share them. I loved watching his reactions, hearing his voice when he would talk about the richness or the complexity or whatever he liked about the sample. I noticed that a lot of the other judges did the same thing. I think our moments with Fred were a treat for all of us. I know he was one of a few people who, just being around, helped me go back to my work refreshed and energized.

DSC01329

I am having a hard time believing that when I show up to Madison this year to judge. In his years volunteering at the conference he became an integral part of our community. He was not a fame seeker (unlike those of us with enough narcissism to write cheese books). He just seemed to love every minute of the time he got to spend around cheese. He soaked everything in, exuding back a pure joy of appreciation for the time he got to spend a whole week doing nothing but talking cheese, tasting cheese, and being in that rarefied community of cheese people that gather every year in a different state because, sure it’s our job, but also because we are a little obsessed.

I am not sure yet what should be done to honor Fred this year at the conference. But his love of cheese was something that needs to be remembered. Fred will be missed by all the cheese people who knew him.

Cheese Hunter / Episode Two: American Cheeses from Kevin Davidson on Vimeo.

Great Cheeses from ACS 2012: Part 2

As ACS gets further and further away, I want to round things up with a couple more posts. First off, here is part 2 awesome cheese that I tasted at the conference. I didn’t make it to every booth at Meet The Cheesemaker – and I’ve have mentioned a lot of other great cheeses in previous entries – but these are the other cheeses that caught my attention this year.
DSC01328

Baetje Farms They simply make some of the best goat cheese in the country. I had never heard of them before I judged the American Dairy Goat Association contest one year and their “St. Genevieve” took 2nd place overall. This year they took two blue ribbons, one for Couer de la Crème and one for Bloomsdale. Amazing cheese, if you can find it. They even have a website now, which they didn’t the last time I wrote about them. From Bloomsdale, Missouri.

Jacobs and Brichford — Arabella Generally, I avoid cheese companies that sound like lawyers, wineries,or bad indie rock bands but this cheese is really good. Basically it is a raw milk, washed rind, farmstead cheese that is basically a Taleggio. But a really awesome Taleggio! Pasture-based seasonal dairy. From Connersville, Indiana.

Rogue Creamery – Oregon Blue The Rogue boys hardly need my help or publicity. Heck, they’ve already won Best in Show a couple of times. I just want to pause and say again how awesome their cheeses are. This year the I actually considered the Oregon Blue for my top three and – generally – I consider that their least interesting cheese. I think I may undervalue that cheese because it is the only one we used to carry before David and Cary took over the company and it gets lost in the Rogue River/Crater Lake/Caveman/Flora Nella excitement. Let me state here and now, this is an awesome cheese too! From Central Point, Oregon.
IMG_2594

MouCo Cheese Company — Ashley
Since I previously mocked Sartori for their inernet spelling of BellaVitano consider MouCo mocked as well. You people are ruining literacy. Get off my lawn! That being said, I would buy this cheese in a second. This won a blue ribbon in the soft ripened cheese category over two of the best soft-ripened cheeses made in the US: Harbison and Green Hill. That should make anyone sit up and take notice. An ashed-rinded cow’s milk cheese that is oozy, rich, buttery, mushroomy, and just plain awesome. Plus on facebook they once posted a picture of a punk rocker working in the aging room so that gets extra bonus points. From Fort Collins, Colorado.

Laura Chenel – Melodie I guess I developed a weakness for ashed cheeses this year… Having tasted Melodie since its early (French-made) versions, I was super impressed with this cheese. It is better than it ever has been and now it’s made in California. I do not know of a better US-made goat brie in this 1 kilo format. Well-balanced tang, rich, great creamy texture. Yum. Made in Sonoma County, CA for the Rians Group, France.
DSC01326

La Moutonniere — Sheep Feta This ran away with the sheep feta category. Rich, nutty, milky-sweet, and a great balance of salt. I don’t know much about these folks except that they are a farmstead sheep dairy in Quebec. If you up in the Great White North, check ‘em out!
DSC01324

Beehive Cheese Company – Teahive Once upon a time these folks called me up asking for a quote for an episode of the Today Show where their Barely Buzzed was going to be featured. I don’t know if they have ever really forgiven me for responding with, “Finally, a cheese with stuff in it that doesn’t suck!”* Anyways, Teahive doesn’t suck either. In fact, since it is coated with Earl Grey and Bergamot Oil – combined with Barely Buzzed and its espresso rind – we have been selling the two of them together as a Utah speedball. As always with Beehive’s cheese, the sum is greater than its parts. In all seriousness, don’t be too high and mighty to enjoy a cheese with stuff. This cheese is awesome. From Uintah, Utah.
DSC00043

Sierra Nevada Cheese Co – Fresh Chevre Sierra Nevada makes the best Cream Cheese in the country and one of the few that is all natural. We have been carrying their bulk fresh chevre for years as well and it is nice to finally see it recognized for the high quality cheese that it is. “Best Chevre” is a bit of an on-any-given-day crapshoot as an award, but this is solidly good and previous under-recognized. From Willows, California.

Nordic Creamery – Goat ButterI tasted this during the Best of Show go-round and was wow’d. This may be the best goat butter I’ve ever had. From Westby, Wisconsin.

*I sent them a usable quote as well! That one was just more forgettable.
**Oh yeah, Karoun won again for their Labne. Simple cheeses never get their full due so let me say that this Labne — along with Bellwether Crescenza and Franklin’s Teleme — is one of the best cheeses made in this country that people just don’t pay enough attention to.

Great Cheeses from ACS 2012: Part 1

DSC01357

I am only mentioning cheeses that are new to me here because – as anyone there can attest – there were too many awesome cheeses for one person to blog about. My versions of these from past years are still pretty much valid, so check those out as well if you want.

Here is a list of things that got my attention at ACS 2012.

Ist runner up Best of Show
Valley Shepherd — Crema de Blue
DSC01332
Cleary this cheese was ripped apart by the judges in the best possible way.

I had never heard of this cheese or cheese company before the judging. I love it that a cheese like this can be recognized in a competition this big. It speaks well to the competition and shows how important a blind judging is to reward less well-known cheeses. Crema de Blue is – like the Flagsheep – a mixed milk cheese, sheep and cow. As the name would imply it is rich and creamy with a very well-balanced blue flavor, assertive, but not overpowering the milkiness of the cheese. I love natural rinded blues! Again, wish I could get my hands on this one.

2nd runner up Best of Show
Emmi Roth USA — Roth Grand Cru Surchoix
DSC01363

This is kind of a previous Best in Show winner. Under a slightly different name (“Roth Kase — Grand Cru Gruyère Surchoix”) this same basic cheese won it all in 1999. Since Emmi owns a company with actual name-controlled Gruyere in Switzerland (as well as Cypress Grove Chevre in California), they are moving away from calling their Wisconsin version by that name, which I do think is admirable. Whatever they called it, they make one of the most solid alpine-style cheeses in the country. They even imported those cheese flipping robots (which one is not allowed to photograph in their warehouse!) which are just about the coolest cheese thing ever.

Sequatchie Cove Farm — Dancing Fern
DSC01323

This is the one cheese I voted for in my personal top 3 which didn’t make the Best of Show/Runners up list. This is the best American version of a Reblochon that I have ever tasted. Reblochon is, for the most part, illegal in the US because it is made with raw milk and aged less than 60 days. The imported pasteurized versions just do not satisfy. While I often buy a larger format, legally-raw-milk version made in France, it is great to see one made closer to home… and from a farmstead, pasture-based dairy no less!

Made in Tennessee, this is just one of the amazing Southern cheeses that are super hard to get outside the South. I am so glad the ACS decided to go to Raleigh this year (even though it was the 2nd straight year on the East Coast) because it really let those of us who live far away get exposed to great cheese we may not know about otherwise. (And hey, I’ll be back in the South in October for the Southern Artisan Cheese Festival in Nashville! Tickets go on sale this week)

If you are local, we actually have some of this cheese in the store right now… but probably not for long.