Virginia Is For Cheese Lovers (Part II)
Earlier this month I attended the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference in Richmond, VA. I wrote a post about my first two days at the Conference that you can read here. Due to some personal health issues, I had to take a break from working on the website for a little bit, but now I’m returned and ready to talk about the final two days I spent at the conference, learning about dairy farming and climate change, sober pairings, and of course – the awards and festival of cheese!
Friday, August 2nd
I began the day on Friday by heading into a wonderful session about Dairy Farming and mitigating Climate Change. As someone who works on the dairy production side of my job in addition to the creamery side, this was something I believe to be super important! What a lot of people don’t understand is that, when farms focus on regenerative practices, dairy cows are actually very good for the environment! A lot of what was covered was things I have learned in previous studies of these issues, but I was really excited to hear from the folks at Rogue Creamery about some of their own sustainability goals for next year. I definitely gathered many ideas about things I’d like to implement in my own farm someday – like pollinator-friendly gardens and “buffer zones” – spaces on their land that give extra protection to the natural wetlands and wildlife in the area. After that, it was time for lunch!
After lunch, I headed to the session I was most excited about in the entire conference: the Non-Drinkers Cheese Pairing Session. As someone who focuses a lot on sobriety in our industry and sober drinks for people to pair with cheese, this was THE session I was so crazy about getting to all week long. For the most part, I enjoyed it, but there were definitely some issues. I won’t get into it here, because it’s something that will get talked about in my sobriety piece (more on that in a minute), but I will say that the session was led by two people who, while very nice and friendly, still drank, and spent a lot of the time joking about drinking and talking about how you could meet them in the bar later that night. While I’m sure it was unintentional, for someone in recovery like me, it definitely sucked to be around that attitude in the one space that I thought would be “safe” for sober people. I still learned a lot, and I met some other sober people in the audience who I was really excited to connect with, so it wasn’t all bad, but I definitely have mixed feelings about the session overall.
Following that, Michelle Viera (@columbuscurdnerd) and I took a brief break from the conference to make a run to a local thrift shop, Rumors Boutique, which was super cute and where I found two of my favorite EVER thrift finds (which says a lot because a fun fact about me is that I worked in a thrift store for a year before I fell in love with cheese, so I have experienced a LOT of magical thrift finds in my life). After that little trip and some hotel room Queer Eye watching, it was time for the Awards Ceremony!
The Awards Ceremony was super interesting! I was super stoked to see my friends at Green Dirt Farm and Capriole Goat Cheese take home lots of awards, and I cheered super loud for everyone in the Southern Cheese Guild, as well as for Pure Luck Texas, a lovely cheesemaker from my home state! Murray’s Stockinghall Cheddar took home the Best in Show, and Wegman’s Professor’s Brie took home the second place. If I am being honest, I was a little surprised that both of the winners were “big name” stores, and my knee-jerk reaction to that, as someone who really prioritises small makers in the industry, wasn’t exactly excited about the fact. But, my knee-jerk reaction was wrong, because we should be excited about it! This is that that means some of the best cheeses in the country are now readily accessible to just about everyone – something that is so important. I also learned that both of the winning cheeses are more than just “big name” cheeses, but are in fact collaborations between the larger store brands and a smaller maker – specifically, Brian Schlatter of Old Chatham Creamery. Both cheeses are actually made at Old Chatham Creamery, and then aged by their respective retailers. This means wonderful, well-made, artisanal cheeses, being sold in places and at prices that lots of people can afford. I also think its a great way for great quality cheeses to reach people who may not feel comfortable walking into a cheese shop that may seem too “fancy” for them. I think most cheese people, myself included, were that customer at some point or another, and I think that making these kinds of cheeses more accessible to everybody can be nothing but good for all of us!
Following the Awards Ceremony I made a quick appearance at the Wisconsin Cheese reception, ate a 15 year old cheddar, and then retreated to my Airbnb for some much needed rest before the final day of the conference!
Saturday, August 3rd
The final day of ACS! I woke up feeling bittersweet – quite tired from the events of the week, but also not wanting the conference to end (and not wanting to make the 5 hour drive back to New Jersey that night).
After saying goodbye to my lovely little Airbnb, I headed to the convention center to start my day with a Washed Rind Cheese Tasting, where I learned that for Limburger, there is a very strong bias against the name – so much so, that when people tasted it with no label, they liked it and said they would buy it, but when tasting it knowing it was Limburger, over half of the people asked said they WOULDN’T bring poor Limburger home. Unlike all the other washed rind cheeses in our tasting, Limburger actually suffers from its name and reputation. Give little Limburger a chance people! You’re likely to be surprised!
Following the cheese tasting, I headed to the Brunch of Champions, where I also took some time before eating to meet up with someone and interview them about sobriety in the cheese industry and their experiences. That initial interview has now grown into a larger project I am working on, where so far I have half a dozen other sober cheese people to interview and hopefully I will be writing something that can talk about all of our experiences, and ways our industry can do better by people who don’t drink. It’s something I am incredibly excited about and will be spending a lot of thoughtful time working on in the coming months.
(And, if you are a sober cheese person too, please let me know! I also started a little Facebook group for us all, and I’d love to have you join!)
After the Brunch of Champions I went to hear Eric Meredith (@ericmeredith), winner of last year’s Daphne Zepos Teaching Award, present his Meta-Analysis of Affinage Research. I will admit, a lot of the presentation was over my head in terms of my own knowledge and understanding, but I still learned a lot and took lots of notes to look back 0n when I know a little more.
Then I headed into a session on Cheese Defects, learning about what is a safety issue versus just a quality issue, but also learning that you often can’t tell the difference from just observing the cheese, which is what makes it so important for all of us to always have food safety in mind when handling cheeses. All of us cheese people “know” these things, but it’s always good to get a reminder to be cognizant of our food handling practices. Having been both behind the counter, in the milking parlor, and in the cheese make room, I have had great opportunities to see food safety procedures in many different “steps” of the process, and all of the effort that is put in to maintaining safety in every step of the process, which is always reassuring, but it also has shown me just how easy it is for something to go wrong! One cow not being cleaned off properly during milking, one person tracking something in to a make room without realizing, one cheese left out just a liiiiiitle too long during shipping or distribution, one person behind a cheese counter forgetting to wash their hands when they should, and just like that, a customer could end up sick, or worse. It’s a good reminder for all of us, in every step of the process, to constantly be vigilant about food safety, so that we all uphold the highest standards of cleanliness and safety from the beginning of the milking to the end of the cut cheese sitting in someone’s fridge at home!
Next I headed into a smaller session where I had the wonderful opportunity to learn how cheeses are judged during the Judging and Competition portion of ACS. Something a lot of people may not realize is that cheeses in the ACS competition are not, in fact, competing against one another, but are instead judged according to standards of identity and quality for their respective categories (such as “soft ripened cheeses” or “farmstead cheeses”), of which there are over 120 subcategories. Judging is anonymous, and each cheese is judged by an Aesthetic Judge, responsible for adding points based on the “pros” of the cheese, like flavors and appearance, and a Technical Judge, responsible for removing points based on the “cons” of the cheese, like defects. The judges also fill their scoring sheets with constructive criticism, and the judging sheets are returned to the cheesemakers following the competition so that they have tips on how / where to improve their products! We were told before we began our mock-judging, that “the most important thing is respect for the maker, and wanting to help them improve”. Then, we got to try our hand at it! We got to act as Aesthetic Judges and judge two different cheeses based on Aroma, Flavor, Texture and Body, and Appearance / Rind Development. This was super informative for me as a maker, and it was also really fun because I was right on par with the real judges who were present! For one cheese, I gave the exact same score as the judge, and for the other, I was just 3 points lower than what he awarded, which was super exciting because I would love to be an actual judge at ACS someday in the future! It was a great final session to close out the conference, and from there I headed into the Big Event – the Festival of Cheese!
By the time I actually arrived to the Festival of Cheese, my palate was pretty much shot – I couldn’t taste much. I spent a good chunk of time hovering around the Farmstead table and trying as many as I could, and of course I made it a point to taste the winners of Best in Show, but beyond that I spent most of the Festival snacking on all of the specialty food tables around the border of the exhibit hall – crackers and olives and other fun treats!
After making the rounds, and snacking on as much as I could before losing the ability to taste anything whatsoever, I decided to call it a night, thinking I had a 5 hour drive home ahead of me (it turned into a 12 hour drive and I didn’t get home until 9 AM the next day and it was the worst!). It was super bittersweet saying goodbye to all my cheese friends who are far flung across the country, but it was a wonderful experience overall and I was so glad to be able to attend! I’m unsure whether I’ll be at ACS next year, but if you’ve never gone, I think it’s so so so worth it.
The wonderful thing about cheese is that there is always more to learn, always new cheese people to befriend, and always more cheese to taste (even if you have to wait a week for you palate to recover like I did!)