America’s Best Cheeses ~ 2006
The American Cheese Society Awards
CAPSULE REPORT: If your idea of a dream vacation is four days learning about cheese, meeting the country’s top cheesemakers, and being offered more great cheese than you could possibly eat in a year, the annual American Cheese Society Conference and Judging is a place to consider. You’ll need to join the ACS—which as a “cheese enthusiast,” you are welcome to do. Here, an account of the 2006 conference and competition.
For half a week in mid-July, downtown Portland, Oregon turned into a veritable Who’s Who in American Cheese—the industry, not the slices. From Wednesday, July 19th through Sunday the 23rd, cheesemakers gathered to show their best, and food scientists, distributors and retailers, educators journalists and general cheese enthusiasts convened to see it. The hallowed halls of curd, the Hilton Portland and Executive Tower, were buzzing as only an event of 450 cheese-lovers could. Although the weather was uncooperative, reaching 104°F, the air conditioning held fast and there was no inadvertent “fondue.”
The annual conference began with a cruise up the Willamette River before the hard work of showing and judging began. The theme of this year’s conference was Exploring Cheese Frontiers, and for four days people focused on nothing but artisan cheese.
In addition to tasting cheeses galore, the conference features a robust educational program, with sessions that cover topics important to cheesemakers like world cheese standards, certification, specialty cheesemaking techniques, cheese and wine/beer pairings, and business issues. If there was room for anything else after a day of tasting cheese, participants could dine on local specialties including fresh salmon and Oregon Pinot Noir.
The conference featured educational seminars from cheesemaking to the art of maturing cheese to issues affecting the industry. The seminars, in addition to the cheese judging, is what attracts the enthusiastic participants. In one session, a version of the popular Iron Chef television show, three top chefs were challenged to create dishes showcasing the not-so-secret ingredient, cheese, in 60 minutes. The Iron Cheese Chefs included Terrance Brennan, chef/owner of Picholine and Artisanal in New York City, Tony Mantuano, chef/partner of Spiaggia in Chicago and hometown favorite Caprial Pence of Portland’s Caprial’s Bistro.
The highlight of the annual event is the national cheese competition where more than 700 cheeses compete in categories. This year, 941 cheeses were entered by 157 producers from 28 states and two Canadian provinces,, topping 2005’s record of 749 cheeses. There were cheeses made from the milk of cows, goats, sheep, and water buffalo; cheeses infused with chocolate and chipotle peppers; cheeses made by single cheesemakers who own no animals but purchase milk to make a few dozen wheels a week; and cheeses made by huge companies who sell millions of pounds a year. There was more cheese than one could think was possible to consume, even in three days.
But after three days of tasting, at a two-hour awards ceremony, 274 winners were crowned, taking first, second and third place ribbons plus a “Best of Show.” On July 22, at the The Festival of Cheese, more than 600 of the cheeses were available for tasting, along with Oregon beer and wine—although no one is known to have gotten anywhere close to tasting all of them.
If you want to attend next July’s competition, in Burlington, Vermont, to see if they top 1000 cheeses, you need to join the American Cheese Society. But, don’t dawdle—this year’s event was sold out.