I just returned from the American Cheese Society (ACS) annual conference and awards ceremony in Raleigh, North Carolina. Each year the ACS stages a conference in a different city in North America, next year it will be held in Madison, Wisconsin.
The American Cheese Society was founded approximately 25 years ago, and its purpose is to support the cheese industry, cheesemakers, distributors, and educators.
The conference had educational seminars throughout the week, and on Friday night they have the awards ceremony, an “Oscar” type show where the winners are announced. This year they had 1,711 cheeses entered by 254 different companies in the competition, all hoping to win a ribbon. The cheeses, and a few butters, are broken into nearly 100 classes (i.e. washed rind, blue mold, mixed milk, etc), and judged by a panel of experts. There are ribbons awarded for the top three cheeses in each class.
Every cheesemaker that enters a cheese in this prestigious event is hoping to win a ribbon, and winning Best of the Show is the ultimate dream. By winning a ribbon the life of many of the cheesemakers changes instantly. Their cheese becomes an “award winning” cheese and the demand from retailers and distributors is felt the next day.
I sat at the awards ceremony with Bruce Workman, a Master Cheesemaker with Edelweiss Creamery in Monticello, Wisconsin, and I am not sure that was such a good idea. Workman had entered eight cheeses in this year’s competition and each time the class of cheese he was in was announced the squirming began. He had no winners in the first four classes he entered, but on the fifth try his Muenster won a red ribbon (2nd place). He had to sweat out a few more classes, but won another red ribbon for his Havarti. It was fun to see the smile on his face when he won. There were other very good cheesemakers who I know that were not so fortunate.
Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wisconsin, was the overall winner with 14 ribbons, with BelGioioso Cheese in Green Bay a close second. The cheesemakers from Wisconsin were the overall winners as far as the most numbers of ribbons won, and that has been the case for the past 20+ years.
This year the Second Runner up in the Best of the Show was Grand Cru Surchoix, an extra aged Gruyere made in Monroe, Wisconsin, by Emmi Roth. The Runner Up was Crema de Blue; a cave-aged blue made by Valley Shepherd Creamery in New Jersey.
The cheese that won Best of Show was Flagsheep, a mixed cow and sheep’s milk bandaged cheddar from Beecher’s Handmade Cheese in Washington. There was a “champagne toast” for all the winners after the ceremony, and it was great to see the happy winners, some whose lives will change as a result of the awards won. It was also great to see so many Wisconsin cheesemakers that we deal with win the recognition they so richly deserve.
A complete list of winners can be found at http://www.cheesesociety.org/competition/2012-winners/.
The conference finished with a bang on Saturday night with the Festival of Cheese, where all 1,711 cheeses are on display and available for sampling. I set my sights on just the blue ribbon and Best of Show cheeses; come on, how much more cheese can a person eat? The public can buy tickets for this event, so people from the Raleigh area were able to come enjoy the fantastic cheeses on display. I hope that many of you will come to Madison next August and see and taste for yourself, it is well worth the effort.
Michael C. Thomas is co-owner of Schoolhouse Artisan Cheese with his wife Janice. With locations in Ellison Bay and Egg Harbor, they aim to bring the best of Wisconsin artisan cheeses to Door County, and with “The Cheese Insider” Michael hopes to bring all things cheese to readers of the Pulse.