Photo credit Bob Montgomery
Last weekend, the culture crew attended the American Cheese Society conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, an annual gathering of makers, mongers, buyers, distributors—basically, anyone in the North American cheese industry.
It might sound boring, but the ACS conference is actually a total party. We cheese people gather to do things like nerd out over curds at cheese science lectures, indulge in cheese pairing classes, throw raging parties known to feature midnight karaoke, and, of course, honor American cheesemakers at an awards ceremony that’s basically the Oscars of the industry.
This year, Vermont’s Jasper Hill Farm took home both of the top two honors. Best of Show went to Harbison, their flagship bloomy-rind cheese wrapped in a layer of spruce bark, while Calderwood, a hay-coated Alpine-style cheese, took second. COWS Creamery, from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, snagged third place with its Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar.
I was lucky enough to get a taste of all the superstars. Harbison, which already has a cult following for its dramatically gooey center, was tasting exceptional, showcasing long and tantalizing flavors that bloomed with notes of buttered leeks, eggy custard, chicken broth, pork belly, and forest—all with that spoonable, satiny-smooth texture for which it is famous.
The runner-ups were just as invigorating. Jasper’s Calderwood—similar to their Alpha Tolman but with a coating of hay on the rind—tasted like roasted peanuts and butter with nostalgic aromas of autumn hayrides. That one might be tricky to get hold of, as it’s sold and distributed exclusively from Saxelby’s in New York.
The Canadian Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar, meanwhile, had an incredible texture, both flakey and melt-in-your mouth moist, with flavors that flooded the palate with grassy, herbaceous flavor.
Thirty-five years ago, when ACS hosted its first conference, there were only 89 entries. This year, the conference welcomed 1,954 entries from 259 companies. Each year, ACS awards a total of 364 medals, including 103 golds, to cheese and dairy products including yogurt and butter.
This year, they added a new, special designation called “Boss of Brunch” for the standout breakfast-y items that can’t compete with true cheese. It was awarded to a delectable rose and herb-infused butter from Cherry Valley Dairy in Washington. Imagine smothering that on a baguette with a sprinkle of pistachios and a drizzle of honey!
You’re probably wondering how exactly the ACS decides which cheeses to award. Here’s how it happens: Each cheese is evaluated by two judges, the technical judge and the aesthetic judge. The technical judge makes a scientific evaluation and docks points for defects, while the aesthetic judge gets the more subjective role of adding points for desirable qualities like flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel. These judges work together to give each cheese its composite score, which determines its placement in the competition.
The competition is followed by an awards ceremony, where all the winners are crowned before the conference attendees. This year, we decided to take this glamorous event to the next level by teaming up with Wisconsin Cheese to interview the winners live from the red carpet, streamed on our Facebook page. Together with my co-host Ben Kroeplin, Digital Content Manager at Wisconsin Cheese, we interviewed some of our favorite cheese celebrities. Click here to watch the action.
For the full list of winners, click here.