For those that may not know, ACS is the acronym for The American Cheese Society which started as a grassroots organization for cheese appreciation and for home and farm cheesemakers. Starting in 1983 with 150 people, the organization now boasts thousands of members and is a self managing entity with a committed staff that works year round to better serve the cheese community. Every year they host a conference in an up and coming foodie city and this year happens to be Des Moines, Iowa.
The conference is a three day powerhouse of cheese information with sessions ranging from cheese and beer pairing to the science of taste or a session about leadership and culture within your company. Before the conference even starts though, there are three days of cheese judging that happen. Last year there were over 1700 cheeses entered in for the competition. It’s a big deal for a lot of these cheesemakers to get their cheese recognized as the one of the best in the country. The teams of judges are paired up based on technicality and aesthetics. One is usually a dairy scientist and one is a monger or someone in cheese that deals with it in more of an appreciative sort of way. The cheese is all blindly tasted so the judges don’t know what they are tasting. It’s a way to make sure that there aren’t certain biases within the judging. It all culminates with the awards ceremony on Friday night. It can be quite an event and there seems to be a healthy competition thats been brewing between California and Wisconsin the last couple of years.
My first experience with conference was when it was in Portland in 2006. I didn’t actually get to the conference but the cheese counter where I worked was quite busy with visitors the entire weekend. I remember looking up at one point while working and feeling like I was in a fishbowl because there were over a hundred people watching me cut cheese. I played host to some pretty amazing visitors like the Appleby’s from the UK. I wasn’t as much of a turophile then as I am now but I was still working where I belonged.
My first actual conference was in 2010 in Seattle. I got to enjoy every aspect of the conference and really came to understand why it is affectionately known as “cheese camp”. I met a ton of people and learned so much from all the sessions we attended. It was a fantastic experience.
I pretty much vowed from there that I would attend as many conferences as I could go to but sadly, the next couple years were on the other side of the country and a bit unaffordable for me.
The next conference I was able to go to was in Madison, WI in 2013. I went to take the Certified Cheese Professional test which I passed! It was the second year of the test and I felt pretty fortunate to be a part of it. It’s a cool way of letting people know about your commitment and knowledge concerning cheese. It’s a moniker I’m proud to represent.
I’m sure if I went through my mess of photo files I would find more pictures from these past conferences but the only one I could really find of Madison was this one of the Best in Show winner. None other than Winnimere from Jasper Hill Farms.
My next conference was Sacramento in 2014. I saw the conference in a much different light this time around because I was volunteering for the entire week. I couldn’t afford to go to the conference itself but I still wanted to be a part of the action so I signed up to work, and work I did. I volunteered for judging where I was a runner for a team of judges and I got to help stage the top 100 for the Best in Show judging. I volunteered to proctor the CCP exam and make sure that everyone got to where they needed to be. I volunteered for cheesemonger shifts where I helped the official cheesemongers get things together for the numerous tastings. I was also a table captain for The Festival of Cheese which is the grand coup d’etat. It’s an event that’s open to the public where people can taste all the cheeses that were up for judging. It’s a great way to see the enormous amounts of cheese that we have available to us in the US. It’s quite overwhelming, actually. It’s a feat to get all the tables ready to go.
All of that volunteering helped me secure my spot as one of the Official Cheesemongers for the next year in Providence, RI. Because it’s an intense amount of work and there isn’t time to enjoy any of the sessions, one of the perks of being an official monger is that the next years’ conference is free. Last year really secured some strong friendships and connections to the cheese world that continue to buoy me to this day. It was an experience that I will never forget and I would encourage anyone that wants to bust their butt and have fun with cheese to apply.
I leave for the conference tomorrow night. I’m going early to volunteer my time before I enjoy the conference fully. I find volunteering satisfying and it puts me in a place to create relationships with people I never would have expected. I plan to blog about my experience this year as much as possible so I hope that everyone follows along including on Facebook and Instagram. Depending on how busy I am, I may only get to really post on those formats for most of it. I’m really excited for this year and I hope you will join me for the ride!