Tag Archives: cheese

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!)


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!


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.


(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!



*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.

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.”

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.

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)

ACS 2015

I almost didn’t go to the American Cheese Society conference this year. I often skip the East coast years of the rotation due to time and expense. Plus, this year my awesome co-worker Megan had won a trip to Vermont and would be there officially repping the store.


But then I realized two things. One, I have a book coming out in October so it would probably be a good idea to remind people I’m alive, especially since I went blog-absent for about a year and limited my social media while I finished working on it. The second reason was less tangible and more personal: I just miss the conference so much the times I don’t go.

So I worked it out. I flew across county to be there for two days. Unlike years past I have no reports from the judging room, no farm trip stories, and very few pictures. But I am still glad I went. It’s just totally rejuvenating to see so many great people all in one place, in a cheese-rich environment.

Meet the Cheesemakers is a particularly cheese-rich environment. Here’s a beauty from Plymouth Artisan Cheese to whet your appetite:

It’s also amazing to see so many people putting in so much work to make it happen. I worry about trying to list people because, when you do, you always leave people out. Since this was my first year in a long time that I was just an attendee, I was reminded as an “outsider” how much effort it takes to put on the event that can look seamless if you aren’t in the conference rooms before and after an event. Thanks to everyone involved.

As for the conference, I went to a great panel on “The Science of Artisan Cheese.”* It was so encouraging to see the linkages being created between traditional cheesemakers in different countries and the microbial science community. Most of the actual facts relayed were depressing: the FDA using ridiculously outdated testing, non-pathogenic bacteria being treated as an indicator of pathogenic bacteria, one-size (and that size is BIG)-fits-all rules. But the amount of people in the room, and the quality of knowledge of the presenters AND the audience… we have to acknowledge that we have come a long way in a very short time. Some folks left discouraged, but I left energized.

Let’s talk about non-pathogenic bacteria. (Thanks Michael Kalish for writing this)

Cheese-wise, I didn’t even get a shot at tasting the Best in Show (first time ever!). But I loved the LaClare Cave-Aged Chandoka (aged by Standard Market) which was runner-up and I have raved about the 3rd place Harbison by Jasper Hill Farm many times before.

I had a few other favorite new-to-me cheeses as well. I’ll post about them in the upcoming days.

See you all in Des Moines in 2016.

*In just one of the amazing ways in which the cheese society has grown, I used to feel obligated to sum up all my panels for cheese people and interested folks who couldn’t attend. Back in 2002 or whatever, resources were fewer. Now they are all re-capped on the ACS website. Just awesome.

Corn Porn

We went out for a fancy meal earlier this week. I wasn’t really thinking cheese when we left the house — I don’t generally order the cheese plate at local restaurants since I get enough cheese at work. However, a side dish we ordered made me realize I had to share this.

This is the roasted corn side dish at The Commissary. Best use of Idiazabal ever.
IMG_20150713_182738 (1)

I mean just look at that! Roasted corn on the cob, Idiazabal cheese, Marcona almonds… total corn pr0n! (Thanks to Lenny for telling us to order it.)

Cheddar is done

cheddar cover

cheddar cover

Hi everyone. Did you miss me?

I had to put a lot of other writing (and other things) aside to finish and edit my new book but now that it’s all in the publisher’s hands, I can return to this blog. There is fun and freedom in writing a couple hundred words unconnected to another 60-70,000.

I plan to post here regularly again so feel free to subscribe to the blog or to my revamped newsletter. I know that looking at the previous few entries doesn’t inspire confidence – is there anything more sad and lonely than a non-updated blog? But you know how it goes… with a full-time job, family, and writing a book, something had to give for awhile.

I am really excited about the book. It started as an idea (thanks Laurie) that to understand cheese in America, you have to understand cheddar. Cheddar was America’s most popular cheese for 150 years, it was the first non-regionally-specific factory cheese, it begat the popularity of processed cheese (and later, cheese food), it affected – and was affected by – America’s food safety fears, and, really, almost everyone loves some form of it.

In fact, you should go pre-order it right now.

I’m working on events, readings, cheddar tastings, and all that stuff but since it doesn’t officially come out until October, I am also looking to just have some good old cheese talk here. It’s good to see you all again.

Alpine Cheese-O-Rama

I bragged the other day on facebook about us having the best Alpine section in the city. Since then people have been asking me about what we have so I thought I would just convert my internal department notes into a blog post. I know most people reading this aren’t close enough to shop here – so this isn’t really a commercial – I am just in love with these cheeses and the holidays are the only time I can buy all this at once and be reasonably sure we can sell it all. In fact some of these are going quick.

So, Here we go (in alphabetical order):

Almkase 1 yr
This is the best deal in the Alp section. Amazing flavor – a bit more oniony that the Cousin but similar texture – for the price. This is the best cheese I tasted in Austria and it is co-op milk and co-op made.

Beaufort 18 Month -- Rodolphe Meunier

Better than the one we had last month even though it is not Alpage. This is selected by Rodolphe Meunier and is Summer milk (i.e. grass-fed) just not from the highest elevation of the Alps. About a year and a half old. Complex, buttery, nutty and grassy.

This is from Austria and is mild, grassy, milky and nutty. Mostly it’s a good price. Almost as cheap as our standard 4-6 month Comte but more buttery.

Chiriboga Blue (Blauschimmelkase)
Probably my favorite blue in the whole world. Some disdain this blue as being too mild, but they are just overcompensating for something because this is a perfectly balanced, perfectly textured, sweet, grassy, fruity blue. Seriously, you need to try this unless you think Cabrales is a good blue or something.

Comte 28 Month – Jean D’alos
This is the best Comte we’ve ever had. We tried a 3 year aged Meunier Comte at the Food Show a couple of years back but were never able to get it in. This one is right up there if not quite as aged and is the oldest Comte we have ever sold. All the buttery, nutty, grassy notes with a little more power than the Essex Street. Summer milk.

Comte -- Essex Street
We are almost out of this Comte for the year and it is usually the best we carry. All Comte has one of the best name-controls in the world: the amount of land for each cow is specified, it is required to be made at village co-ops, etc. Tasting notes like the above but subtract a year in age.
(Technically not Essex St Comte, but you get the idea)

Le Cousin
This cheese is so underrated. Made in Switzerland, aged in France – thus underlining the meaningless of borders in the Alps – this has all the flavor of a well-aged Gruyere but the texture is semi soft. Oniony, grassy, nutty, and moist!

Edelweiss Emmental (the only cheese in this section not actually from Alps)
I don’t know how he gets away with calling this Emmental – It’s made in Wisconsin – but Bruce Workman makes this cheese just like they do in Switzerland. 200 lbs wheels… copper vats… yes. There has been no distributor for this cheese in the Bay for years so we haven’t had this in awhile but it is far better than most Emmentals at this price. Oh yeah, Bruce is committed to grass-based dairy, even help for a grass-based co-op in Wisconsin.

Raw milk, bark-wrapped, like a firmer Vacherin Mont D’or. Firmer so that it can be a legal cheese here in the US. This is the actual inspiration for Winnimere, btw, not Vacherin Mont D’or. If bacon references weren’t so clichéd I would say that we used to refer to this cheese as “a walk through the bacon forest in fall.”

Hoch Ybrig
This cheese was once so hard to get I had a waiting list to call every time we got it. Aged by Rolf Beeler, it’s only 6 months old but has huge flavor. Beefy, nutty, big and a touch pungent. Very complex and awesome.

L’etivaz Alpage
Remember the L’etivaz story? Fed up with the commercialization of Gruyere this village dropped out of the Gruyere consortium… in the 1930s! This is an Alpage wheel aged about 2.5 years. Holy crap, we have never had one this aged before. This is a little more bitey than the Beufort, Spicherhalde, or extra-aged Comte. (Will be gone by the end of this weekend.) This truly may be the best Alpine cheese we have ever had.

True Alpage production is very rare, really hand-made, and amazing in its complexity of taste. This is an 11 or 12th generation cheese made by one family that is the best example of this we currently can get. Only 80 wheels made all year, how lucky are we to be able to get one 10,000 miles away in San Francisco? This is one of my favorite cheeses of all time.

Name means “Shooting Star.” This is from Evelyn Wild at Kaskuche Isny in the Bavarian Alps this is an unusual cheese with a heavy wash (including local wine and herbs). Big mushroomy flavor, not much of this available in the USA.

Vacherin Fribourgois
Most Vacherin Fribourgois is nasty by the time it gets sold in the states so I special ordered this. More French Tomme (lighly cooked, lightly pressed) than Gruyere, this is super rare, once extinct cheese that should be buttery, grassy, and beef soup-y. This cheese was once extinct, but was brought back by a traditional cheesemaker about 20 years ago.

We also have a few others that are more well-known and that we have year-round: Bodensee, Comte (4-6 month aged), Challerhocker, Gruyere 1655, Krauterschatz, Maxx Extra, and a little Tete de Moine. Plus the American Alp-style cheese: Tarentaise Reserve (ACS 2014 winner! The only wheel in the Bay Area?), Alpha Tolman and Pleasant Ride Extra Reserve (almost out). Oh, and in a week or so we are having Tomme de Abondance on our damn sample table.

And geez, have you folks tried Kinsman Ridge this year? These batches right now are amazing: the best ever. I’d buy these over the best Tomme de Savoie any day.


Almost time for ACS

I will be in Sacto on Saturday morning — judging curds of all things — so it seems like it’s time to re-post my “Humble suggestions for getting the most out of the cheese conference”. So, here ya go!

I’ve lost track of how many ACS conferences I have attended. I pretty sure I have attended every one not on the East Coast since 1999. Almost universally, they have been awesome experiences that have taught me innumerable things about cheese and introduced me to people I otherwise might never have met.

Back when I first started going, there were only about 300 people attending the conferences but still, I didn’t know anyone except for a handful of California cheesemakers. While I am sometimes good about faking it, I am actually kind of shy by nature, so I am humbly going to attempt to produce a guide that I would have found useful back in the day… (click link to read the whole thing)

Also I will be doing a cheese event at the Co-op ($20 includes a $5 off coupon and cheese and wine!) on Saturday evening, signing books at the conference on Friday morning 8/1 (which can be very lonely and sad if no one comes to say hi, hint hint), and moderating a panel later in that afternoon. See you there.