Many of you out there may have been gearing up for the Emmy awards this past weekend. The red carpet, the glamour, the production numbers – sure, it’s flashy enough. Around these parts, though, there was considerably more anticipation for a slightly more workaday awards ceremony: the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition. Held this year in Seattle, Washington, this annual event is an unparalleled opportunity for cheese professionals (and more than a few enthusiastic amateurs) to congregate, celebrate, and consume all things cheese. It lasts five days, and nearly every moment is stuffed with cheesy goodness.
A number of seminars and panels are available for attendees each year, and the most difficult part of going to the conference is probably selecting from all of the fantastic & fascinating choices in each time slot. The list of panelists is full of names familiar to the cheese enthusiast – industry giants like Mateo Kehler (Cellars at Jasper Hill), Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove Chèvre), & Steve Jenkins (author, Cheese Primer); European liaisons such as Hervé Mons, Roland Barthélémy, & Raef Hodgson; and a host of others: cheesemakers, retailers, scientists, authors, even an entire panel devoted to artisan cured meats. Endlessly fascinating, continually stimulating, and very nearly overwhelming.
Behind closed doors, however, is where the real monumental task is taking place: the tasting & judging. This year, the judges had to contend with a record-setting number of entries: over 1,400 different cheeses were sent by their makers to be critiqued, and hopefully to be recognized as among the best. From all over the United States (as well as a few Canadian and Mexican entries) cheeses in this competition run the gamut. Sorted by style for the judging and awards, there are entrants from producers of every size in every conceivable style: classics like Cheddar, Gouda & Brie; American Originals like Brick, Dry Jack, & Liederkranz; as well as butters, yogurts, chèvres, and every other cheese style under the sun.
At the end of the day, though, there has to be a winner. The top three spots are chosen by the judges from the blue ribbon winners in each individual category. This year, we were thrilled to see three world-class American cheesemakers (and good friends of ours) ascend to the stage to collect their accolades. Jeremy Stephenson of Spring Brook Farm collected 2nd Runner-Up honors for his Tarentaise, a superlative alpine-style 100% Jersey cow’s milk cheese from a farm & education center in Reading, VT. Fellow Vermonters Allison Hooper & Adeline Druart earned 1st Runner-Up for their Bonne Bouche, from the pioneering Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery. And the climax of the entire weekend – the coveted Best in Show ribbon – went to Wisconsin original Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company. This is actually the third time this incredible cheese has won this award; no other cheese has won more than once. It was a nearly poetic moment, as cheesemaker Mike Gingrich and his wife Carol are about to enter semi-retirement, passing the torch to heir apparent (and cheesemaker since 2007) Andy Hatch. It’s downright heartwarming to see Pleasant Ridge (a cheese a lot of us would consider a national treasure) in such good hands for the next generation.
We’ve got the top three winners in the store, as well as a slew of other fantastic cheeses that were recognized in their individual categories. We’ll taste my own personal favorites of these in a class I’m leading on September 14th, as well as a very special treat: Andy has sent us a couple of wheels of his blue-ribbon batch of extra-aged Pleasant Ridge, a batch that he’s been guiding to perfection for over a year. Believe it or not, it’s in very high demand after taking home the gold, so get it while you can. And look forward to next year’s winning cheeses – they might be in a cheese case near you right now.