Cheese in the Heartland

American Cheese Society Judging and Competition

Chicago, Illinois

The American Cheese Society is an organization dedicated to the domestic cheese industry.  Each summer the ACS hosts a conference, cheese judging, and cheese festival.  This year’s conference, marking the society’s 25th anniversary, was held at the Hilton Hotel in beautiful downtown Chicago.

When offered to be an aesthetic judge this year, I jumped at the opportunity.  When I received the list of other judges this year I was blown away – I mean how often do you get to spend 2 days in a room with many of your all-star cheese idols?  Folks like Janet Fletcher (SF Chronicle), Anne Saxelby (Saxelby’s, NYC), Kate Arding (former Cowgirl), David Lockwood (Neal’s Yard Dairy), Steve Jenkins (Fairway, NYC), and others are the life blood of the American Cheese movement.  Working alongside them is a pretty heady experience, for sure.

The judging is serious business, and this not-so-early riser had to be ready to go at 7 AM on Tuesday morning to board the bus to the Plumbers Union Hall where the judging would take place.  When we arrived a few minutes later we were greeted with 3 container sized portable walk-in coolers which housed more than 1100 cheeses and dairy products from the US and Canada.  In the main hall the tables were neatly arranged with name cards, paper plates and napkins, plastic spoons, and spittoons.  I was delighted to see my partner for the next 2 days would be Kate Arding.  Kate’s a legend in the Bay Area for her work at Neal’s Yard Dairy, Cowgirl Creamery, and the new Oxbow Market in Napa.  We’d met over the years, but I never had a chance to get to know her and her cheese philosophy.  Kate was there as a technical judge, and I was her aesthetic counterpart.  Her role was to find flaws and reduce the overall score, while I was there to find the perfections and build points on the score sheet.

After an initial training review from the judging committee chairs, we were off and running.  My list of cheese for the next 2 days included 15 goat feta, a few cows milk brie, nearly 2 dozen gouda, 20 smoked cows milk cheeses (wow!), and another dozen or so flavored goat cheeses.  And on the last day of the judging, the 80 1st place winners in all categories for the Best Of Show. That’s a solid 150 cheeses!  The tasting is blind, meaning you only know the category of the cheese – like say, D. AMERICAN MADE / INTERNATIONAL STYLE  Excluded: all Cheddars (E), all Italian Type (H) cheeses  DD: Dutch Style, All Milks (Gouda, Edam, etc.) – my favorite of all the categories I was assigned.  The cheese would appear in a plain white wrapper with the category number, then the producer number, and the number of the cheese itself, which looks something like this: DD 150 03.

The judging is a pretty simple process – sniff, taste, look, write – but also one that can be exceedingly difficult to find the subtleties amongst the masses. Each judge has a score sheet outlining the criteria of Aroma, Flavor, Texture/Body, Appearance/Rind with minimum and maximum score range, and room for our comments, suggestions or compliments.  We’re required to sign these forms and they’re given to the cheesemaker so they may know our thoughts and make changes to their cheese based on our comments if so compelled. Awards are given based on scores, with no curves.  In this manner you may have many 1st place winners in a category, or only one 3rd place winner if the cheeses didn’t score highly.

We started out by dutifully piercing the cheese with our Cheese Irons and pull a long cylindrical sample from the interior of the cheese. (Using a Cheese Iron is a traditional method for sampling cheese, and also a good way to keep the cheese in good condition for the Festival of Cheeses to be held a few days later)  The nose knows, and there was a lot of sniffing in the room.  Sometimes you might imagine the goats eating wild garlic or sweet herbs from the cheese aromas, but quite often it’s just the lactic smells of yogurt or buttermilk, so you really need to concentrate to find the nuances.  Tasting, on the other hand, is often not about nuances, as many of the cheeses in our categories had aggressive, well developed flavors.  Quite a few of our cheeses were flavored, and most of the second day was dedicated to getting through 20 smoked cheeses – not an easy task!  You take a look at the cheese, then squish the cheese around your mouth trying to distinguish the overall textural characteristics; hopefully something more compelling than just soft and gummy.  Finally, you look at the whole cheese to see if the rind is uniformly developed, the size and shape are pleasing, the wax is appealing, the overall packaging attractive.  Between cheeses we take a few breaks, eat lots of fruit (pineapple and grapes to clear the palate) and drink massive amounts of water.  As an aesthetic judge I’m advised to not detail faults in the cheese, but it some cases you do want to give a few suggestions on how to improve the cheese.  Fortunately many of the cheeses we tasted were really quite good, a reflection of how far the industry has come in the 25 year history of the ACS, so I gave at-a-boys for my favorites.  Occasionally we’d look up and see something interesting on another judging table and have a nibble, or be asked to help settle a dispute about whether this or that cheese was supposed to look that way or taste this way.

In late afternoon of the second day of the judging, all the 1st place cheeses were placed on the tables for the final tasting.  A throwdown for your digestive track and battered tastebuds – in short order we would be required to taste all these 80 cheeses – flavored, smoked, lowfat, extra aged, butter, yogurt, blue, fried bread cheese – you get the picture and pick our top 3.  No comments, just 1st, 2nd, and 3rd.   After a little more than an hour all 30 judges had made it around the tables and made their selections.  A team of ACS staff members tallied the scores, and soon we were gathered together, sworn to secrecy to not tell the results before the awards ceremony on Friday evening, and told the winners.  3rd place Cave Aged Marisa – a sheep milk cheese, kinda sweet and cheddary from Sid Cook’s Carr Valley Cheese Co. in Wisconsin (available at Cheese Plus), 2nd place – a pungent, full flavored Raw Milk Washed Rind known as Grayson from Meadow creek Dairy in Virginia  (available at Cheese Plus), and 1st place “Best of Show” was awarded to Sid Cook again  for his sweet and salty Aged Bandaged Goat Cheddar known as Snow White.

Behind the scenes dozens of volunteers had been been working for days. First receiving the cheeses, tagging them with the top secret codes, and then moving the cheeses in and out of the coolers for the judges.  When we boarded the bus to return to the hotel, these volunteers were busy packing all these cheeses away in the portable walk-ins.  A few days later we would see these 1150 cheeses again, back at the Hilton Grand Ballroom, stacked and cubed by even more volunteers, with name cards and ribbons appropriately displayed for the Festival of Cheeses.

The Festival of Cheeses is the grand display and tasting event that closes the conference.  A room filled with 1150 cheeses and nearly as many people tasting and writing notes about the cheeses.   The wine is flowing and old friends are hugging and catching up on each others lives. Beyond the socializing, the festival is a wonderful opportunity to taste unique cheeses from across the country.  Many of which the production is so small and territorial that this may be the only opportunity to see or taste these cheeses unless you’re lucky enough to live in Vermont, Minnesota, or Georgia.

For me, the week is over.  It’s been a long week, and in between the judging and the festival, I visited all the best cheese shops in Chicago and took an overnight road trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan to visit my most admired specialty food store, Zingerman’s Deli; have dinner at their Roadhouse restaurant (the best creamed corn and fried chicken this Texan had tasted in a long time), tour their cheese making facility, and even get my hands into a batch of fresh (and very hot) Mozzarella that was being made when I arrived.

Time to get back to my city by the bay, and source all these great new cheeses for the store.

-Ray Bair