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How to Navigate a Cheese Festival

illustration on how to navigate a cheese festival

You’ve made it to a cheese festival – along with hundreds of other devotees who are scrambling to sample curds from artisan producers across the country. First, take a deep breath: the labyrinth has grown. The 2011 American Cheese Society Competition, for example, boasted 1,676 cheeses and cultured dairy products, and it will showcase even more this year. Stay calm, and follow these tips from our experts to make the most of your time beneath the tents while avoiding palate fatigue. And remember, as master cheesemonger and author Steven Jenkins says, “If you’re not overwhelmed, it’s not a very good show.”

DO arrive early.

“You’ll have a better opportunity to talk to the producers before the midday rush,” says Tom Van Voorhees, cheese shop manager at Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon. “Better yet, if it’s local to you, drive by the day before and get the lay of the land.”

DO plan to stay awhile.

“You may find yourself spending 15 minutes at one table to try one cheese,” Van Voorhees says. Three-plus hours is ideal, allowing ample time to escape the crowds or attend classes or focused pairings and go on a tasting experience that’s much more intentional than just hitting this station and that station.

DON’T eat too much – or too little – beforehand.

Be hungry, not ravenous.

DO take an initial lap to orient yourself.

“Move rapidly, take your looks, and then revisit places you might be able to organize it a little better,” says Van Voorhees. “I’m literally the guy behind the table, watching the crazy people do their thing.”

DO be mindful of progression.

“If you start by tasting blue cheeses, then you won’t taste much else,” notes Max McCalman, fromager at Artisanal in New York City and a seasoned judge. Transition thusly: fresh, goat’s milk, and mixed-milk cheeses; Brie and Camembert; lightly aged sheep’s milk; alpine styles; cheddars; aged goudas; blues.

DON’T restrict yourself.

“If there are cheese types that aren’t your favorites, save at least some room for trying a few – you might surprise yourself,” says Jeanette Hurt, coauthor of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Cheeses of the World and a cheese correspondent for NPR.

DO seek out cheeses not readily available in your region.

“Some of the best artisan cheeses never leave their home state or province,” Hurt explains, so get your fill now.

DO take notes.

“I try to collect names and cards,” says Ari Weinzweig, cofounder of Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He also snaps photos with a camera phone.

DON’T escort the gang

“It’s like trying to keep a group together at an amusement park,” Van Voorhees warns. “But it’s great to share the experience with someone, too.”

DO bring snacks

“A Fresh baguette or neutral crackers will pick up some acids and fats left from the previous cheese so you can taste the next one more fairly,” McCalman says.

DON’T drink too much

“Wine and beer make great matches, but it’s important to keep your wits about you,” McCalman says. Our advice: moderation.

DON’T spit

“It’s a bit disgusting,” McCalman says. “There are very few bad cheeses.”

DO be considerate

“You don’t have to finish every piece of cheese you pick up,” Hurt says. “If you really don’t like something, deposit it discreetly in a napkin.” Adds Jenkins: “Be unfailingly polite. These fine people deserve it.”

DO stay comfortable.

Wear cushioned shoes and loose-fitting clothing “that you don’t mind getting trashed,” Jenkins says.

DON’T wear colognes or perfumes.

The scents will only hinder your tasting and annoy your peers.

DO carry cash

“It’s almost always farmers’ market style,” Van Voorhees says. “If you’re looking for an ATM or standing in a credit card line, you’re limiting yourself.”

DO flaunt your knowledge

“Wear any cheese-related ribbons or medals you have earned so that cheesemakers don’t take you for just another deadbeat cheese enthusiast,” Jenkins instructs. Likewise, engage cheesemakers in thoughtful discussion – that’s what they are there for.

DON’T rush

“These cheeses are meant to be savored and enjoyed, not gobbled up in a hurry,” Hurt says. “Wait for the finish,” McCalman adds. “Wait for the cheese to get out of your mouth before you judge it.”

DON’T be grumpy

“Your personal space is going to be violated,” Van Voorhees warns. “You’re brushing up with humanity; you’ve got to have a super-happy frame of mind. The cranky person stands out like a sore thumb – and all the vendors talk about him later.”

Amanda Rae Busch

Formerly senior editor of Berkshire Living magazine and a culture contributor since 2008, Amanda Rae Busch now lives in Aspen, Colorado, where she is a contributing editor to Aspen Sojourner, food columnist at the Aspen Times Weekly, and a frequent contributor to Aspen Luxury Life, Edible Aspen, Aspen Peak, Denver's 5280 Magazine blog, and more. Though she covers all food, Colorado artisanal cheese is her favorite topic. Follow her: @amandaraewashere

Jaqueline Rogers