Cheese & Bourbon Tasting with Murray’s Cheese & Maker’s Mark in Louisville
On Monday, Murray’s is heading to Louisville to kick off our newest cheese counter opening in Kroger. We can’t wait! We’ve been working hard with Maker’s Mark to bring Louisvillians an exciting night filled with unique cheese & bourbon pairings at the lovely 21C Hotel. As an added bonus, Proof on Main will be serving up tasty bites for party goers. Cheese, bourbon, and delicious Southern snacks?! We’re in heaven.
Aaron Foster works in the Buying Department at Murray’s Cheese and is always on the hunt for the next delicious experience to share with our customers. This year Aaron attended the American Cheese Society conference to learn about what it takes to make the nation’s best cheese, and to taste a few dozen himself.
As a first-time American Cheese Society Conference attendee, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve worked in cheese for over 9 years, but somehow I’d never actually made it to the main event. The conference is a moving target, one year in Louisville, another in Chicago, the next in Seattle, and so on. Having resolved to finally attend, as a representative of Murray’s Cheese, I lucked out with this year’s destination: Montreal. Now, I hear you say… isn’t it called the American Cheese Society? Indeed, it is. This is the first year that the conference was held outside of the continental US. I’m guessing Canada gets a pass because of a parenthetical “north”, as in (North) American Cheese Society.
In any case, I was excited to travel to Montreal to meet some of the great minds of our industry, and to introduce myself to the cheese luminaries whose books I read and whose names have been synonymous with American dairy since before I was born. I arrived in Montreal late in the evening on my birthday, August 3rd, and joined the crew from the Cellars at Jasper Hill for dinner. Part of what is so amazing about the conference is that it pools together cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and enthusiasts, to share their views and insights with one another. Dining with the cheesemakers from the Cellars, I was able to explain how their cheeses are received by actual people, customers who buy Bayley Hazen Blue or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from our cheese counter. It’s almost silly to imagine, but cheesemakers rarely interact with the people who are eating their cheese most of the time. On the flip side, we as retailers and cheese consumers often don’t fully understand the challenges and work that happens at the farm.
The American Cheese Society conference is made up primarily of lectures, seminars and panel discussions which happen throughout the day. Some are very technical, geared towards cheesemaking minutiae. Others are historical or cultural, say – the history of monastic cheese in the US. And still others concern themselves with issues of regulation and safety. As a retailer and a diehard cheese-lover, I made sure to attend as many different seminars as possible.
I started with a lecture on starter cultures… the beneficial microorganisms added early in the cheesemaking process to help acidify the milk and develop flavor in the cheese. Suffice it to say the bulk of this talk was way over my head, but I took away two points – that cheesemaking is usually more science than art, and that even small variations or inconsistencies can make for wild variations in the end product. Cheesemakers need to keep extraordinarily detailed records of their process, and need to replicate that process to the T; a make at 92 degrees F might yield a cheese with perfect texture and depth of flavor, whereas a make at 88 F could result in a cheese that’s barely recognizable. I don’t envy cheesemakers – that’s a pretty narrow margin for error.
I attended another talk on food safety from farm to fork. From a food safety perspective, cheese is a relatively safe, although perishable, product. But from cow to cheese vat to aging room to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, a given piece of cheese passes through many hands. We all have a duty to take every precaution to ensure the safety and preserve the quality of the cheese.
My next seminar was a tasting workshop, on identifying flavor in cheese. It’s not as easy as you think! We practiced by tasting candy while holding our nose. What tasted only sour and sweet with our noses pinched was actually a very strong mint once we could smell again. This exercise was meant to demonstrate how much taste is actually a function of smell. We also smelled covered containers of six different scents, and had to guess what they were. I got three out of six (butter cookies, black pepper, onion powder), but missed a gimme like sauteed mushrooms. The point is that we unwittingly depend on visual cues to help categorize what we’re smelling and tasting, and to be more conscious of this when evaluating flavor in cheese.
But the best talk I attended was on the microbiology of cheese rinds, called Growing Mold Gracefully. Led by cheese rockstar Sister Noella Marcellino of Connecticut’s Abbey of Regina Laudis and Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, the panel treated the diversity and complexity of micro-biomes in cheese rinds. The rind of a cheese is an exceedingly complex conglomeration on molds and bacteria that exist in a delicate and unique symbiosis. Every cheese in every batch is different; and while cultures may be added to guide rind development, Rachel and Sister Noella agree that the influence of indigenous microrganisms is far more important. Rachel is using state of the art gene sequencing techniques to develop a taxonomy of organisms found in cheese rinds. She has already discovered that cheese rinds exhibit some species that have also been found in Arctic sea ice, Norwegian fjords, and Etruscan tombs!
The conference ends, as always, with a tense announcement of the winners of the cheese contest, punctuated by the Best in Show award. This year, there were 1,676 entries across 99 different cheese categories. I certainly don’t envy the judges for their tasting duties… the judge who tasted the least amount of cheese still tasted nearly 100 varieties. This year, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon took Best in Show. A lovely leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue, this seasonal beaut of a cheese will be available from Murray’s in a few short weeks. And finally, comes the Festival of Cheese – the attendees’ opportunity to taste the myriad entries, and to get a true lay of the land for the American cheese industry. I probably made it through 50 different cheeses before giving up… perhaps I’m not quite fit to be a judge yet.
All in all, the American Cheese Society conference was a fascinating and rewarding experience, enormously valuable to cheese professionals and enthusiasts alike. I won’t miss another one any time soon.
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.
There isn’t too much that can draw me out of my apartment at seven o’clock on a Saturday morning. Promises of coffee and the cheese adventure of a lifetime, however, made this Saturday a little different. I, and 34 like-minded cheese adorers, arrived to Murray’s bright and early, eager to journey to the second annual Vermont Cheesemaker’s Festival. We were beaming. The sun was, well, not. Likely on an errand, we hoped it’d return soon. Goodie bags, bagels, and coffees in hand, we set out into the northern morning.
It was around the point where 17 meets I-87 that I think we all began to notice our new terrain. The color palette had shifted dramatically: our urban grays changed in favor of new greens and blues, the topography likewise ruffled and varied. The consideration of our environment could not have been more appropriate as we pulled into our first stop, The Farmer’s Diner in Middlebury, VT. Tired of the commercial food scene, the diner purchases as much as possible from local farmers. They are currently spending an impressive 83 cents to the dollar on products from within 70 miles, all ingredients with only the most enviable pedigrees. Greeted with Raspberry Sangria by Chef Denise, we were honored to celebrate their mission. While she delivered us a four-course feast and we quieted our stomachs, we heard from the local and charismatic cheesemaker Steve Getz of Dancing Cow Farm in Bridport, VT. It was an excellent taste of what was to come.
With satisfied bellies and happy spirits, we rejoined at the bus. Driver, and whey-cation alumnus, Sylvester adeptly maneuvered us across a beautiful mountain range to our next stop, the Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery in Websterville, VT. Seemingly joined by fate, cheesemakers Allison Hooper and Bob Reese pioneered the company in 1984. Though it’s hard now to imagine Vermont without its artisanal cheeses and locavore ethics, the pair started as dairy mavericks. Allison was even so bold as to foresee Vermont as cheese’s Napa Valley. Today, their spirit is just as alive, and their approach to production has barely changed, except for maybe a little more cows’ milk and fancier gadgetry on site. Wearing lab coats, hairnets, and protective booties, we played cheesemakers for a day as we toured the drying room, laboratory, production spaces, and churning room. Even more impressed by the cheesemaker’s duties, we gathered again to taste the final products, the little gems that quietly explain why it’s all worth it.
After we checked in to the hotel, which boasted a pool, sauna, and all the luxuries due a proper cheese lover, we found ourselves at the festival’s kick-off cookout. Shelburne Vineyards hosted the night, and naturally, we were invited to tipple on the property’s wines and other local brews. A light drizzle and a local band made the soundscape as we lined up to get one of Marc Druart’s delicious burgers. As the Murray’s crew gathered to sit and eat on the grass, I realized that it was one of those iconic summer moments that I will treasure for the rest of my life. As the night closed, we made our way back to the hotel. Though we were all tired from a busy day well spent, I don’t think any of us could temper the excitement stirring for the coming day.
At last, the time had come. In spite of all of our anticipation, I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the beauty of Shelburne Farms. The 1400+ acre estate sits on the shores of Lake Champlain, with silhouettes of the Adirondacks finishing the landscape. The farm’s buildings and stables are veritable agricultural castles. Built in 1886 by Lila Vanderbilt Webb, and William Seward, the estate – now also an inn, nonprofit, and restaurant – maintain a presence of another time, where the relationship to the land is reciprocal and tender. Few communities that can mirror that sentiment like the producers of Vermont.
The festival’s arrangement was notably casual. We entered through a large tent housing old friends and new, tables running the spectrum from Cabot to the Vermont Cheese Council. One of the most surprising was a producer offering local ice cider (Eden Ice Cider Co.), made in the style of the famous and luxurious ice-wines. At least a few Murray’s employees escaped with a bottle or two. After the tent, the rest of the producers were set up in long great halls within the permanent structures of the farm. In total, there were 50 cheesemakers, 20 wineries and breweries, and 15 other artisanal producers, all of whom offering generous and wonderful samples. In case our palates needed a rest, there were a few seminars and demos to distract the mind, not to mention the entire estate grounds to explore. Any of us could have spent days at the festival, but alas all things must end. With goodie bags refilled, souls rejuvenated, and perhaps some career-paths drastically altered, we boarded the bus for the long return home, already looking forward to next year.