ACS: PARTY TIME

It’s not often that so many of us are able to travel from every part of the country to be together like this, so when it happens we enjoy every moment. We enjoy the learning and growing, we enjoy the camaraderie and hard work that goes in to pulling something like this off, and we enjoy a great party. I should really say great PARTIES because there is a party (or two, or three!) every night of the conference, hosted by some of the best names in the business. Cheese people love to get down.

Tuesday night: La Quercia

Sadly I didn’t take too many pictures this night. My brain may have been a bit on the slow side due to hours in a cooler and a mad rush to cut 100 cheeses for the Best in Show judging. I did thoroughly enjoy myself though. La Quercia is set on a gorgeous lot with corn fields a plenty. They did mini tours of the plant, live music from a local band, and plenty of food. There were a lot of people making their way in to town and this was the first place a lot of people went so there were lots of welcome hugs to go around.

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Elizabeth Chubbeck from Murray’s cheese and Laure DuBouloz from Mons enjoying the corn on the cob.

I would say the corn on the cob was the most popular thing at the party because the line was pretty long for most of the night. There were different options but the one that seemed the most popular was the one slathered in Frisian Farms Sneek cheese and Mo’Rub, some fantastic Iowan products.

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Wednesday: Meet the Cheesemaker

This event is always great because it’s rare that we get the opportunity to taste through cheeses from companies that may not ship to our side of the country. Once again, I failed to take too many pictures but I did take some of one of the newer cheesemakers making waves in the US. I have been following Boxcarr Handmade Cheese on Instagram for a while now and I was super excited to finally get the chance to taste all their goodies. I love the format of their cheese since every style comes in a pudgy, square. I have to admit that I am very interested in the cheese coming out of the South in general right now.


I did get the pleasure of bringing home a chunk of their Campo and usually I’m not in to smoked cheeses in the slightest, but the smoke on this is light enough that the milk still shines through. The texture was perfect, dense but pliant, and the rind has just the right amount of stickiness. It would be a perfect cheese to take camping. I did try all of their cheese at the event but I’m hard pressed to think of any exact tasting notes since I’ve eaten a ridiculous amount of cheese since then, but I know I remember loving every single one. Cottonseed won third place in the soft ripened mix milk category and Rocket’s Robiola won second place in the American Originals open category. Not bad for their first round of entering for competition. I’m excited to see how they evolve and I can’t wait to taste more!

Thursday: Opening Ceremony at Maytag Farms

Maytag Farms has been producing fine blue cheese since 1941 in Newton, IA. Sadly, they had a voluntary recall of their products in January so there wasn’t a chance to tour the factory but they still opened up the farm for a fantastic party. I felt it was important to visit the farm because we need to show the companies that have been doing this forever that we support them and will continue to support them through any struggles. These companies are the ones that paved the way for the popularity of American artisan cheese today. We honestly couldn’t have asked for a better night. It wasn’t blazingly hot, we had a beautiful sunset, and we got to dunk a bunch of cheesemakers in a dunk tank! And there was so much amazing food and drink!

We also ended the night with a rowdy bit of karaoke. Nothing ends a night better than loudly singing along to karaoke jams.

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Another time where I didn’t take as many pictures as I should have. You’ll just have to make due with these adorable French girls.

Friday: Awards ceremony and Trivia night

To many at the conference, the awards ceremony is one of the most important things that happens all week. The work that goes in to this night and the importance to the cheesemakers of this night is immeasurable. It is lovingly referred to as “The Oscars of Cheese”. It’s a pretty straight forward event, really. Winners are called out by category and  the cheese that placed first in each category is up for Best in Show. It can be an emotional and fun event for all in the audience.

Some of the pictures are a little blurry but things move pretty quickly and I’m still learning how to use my camera.

Standard Market held their party this night also but but I didn’t get the chance to swing by. I stayed after the awards longer than I expected.

Next stop; Iowa Taproom for a game of trivia sponsored by Culture cheese magazine. All of the questions were fantastically cheesy and the second round got the better of my team but there really was no losing in that game. The beer flowed freely, I had a pork loin sandwich that is apparently native to Iowa, and the place was packed with knowledgable cheese people.

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Chris Roelli gave an impassioned cheers after his cheese won Best in Show.

Next stop; The Boska party. This is the party widely known as one of the wilder parties of the week. This one seemed a bit tame compared to some I’ve been to in the past but people still got hot and sweaty on the dance floor. It was some necessary release for some of these cheesemakers.

Saturday night: Festival of Cheese 

The Festival of cheese is basically the big ending to the entire conference. Tickets are available to the public and it’s such a great way to share all of this cheese with everyone. It takes all day to prepare for it (with some people even working through the week before hand to prepare) but the end pay off is pretty great.

The set up and preparation.

 

During the big event!

There are multiple vendors with other things that one might need to enjoy a roomful of cheese. Meat, crackers, beer, and wine. There’s really nothing else like it. This year we tried something new and put the Cheese Sale at the same time as the Festival to hopefully get people to buy cheese on their way out. It’s a great fundraising tool and also a good way to get rid of all the excess cheese we have lying around. The best deal, buying a bag and filling it for around $60. It’s an insane amount of cheese!

Sunday Morning: DZTA Run for Cheese 5k:

Yep, some of us woke up early to participate in a 5k. I didn’t run, I was just there to volunteer and take pictures. It was another fundraising event for the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award and a new thing to happen at the conference. DSC_0513

So there we have it, a complete rundown of what happens at conference. It’s a marathon and we all find our ways of getting through it. By the end, we are all exhausted and ready to go home but at the same time sad that the time together is over. It’s a bonding experience like none other. Now it’s time to count down to Denver 2017!

ACS: The Sessions

While the ACS conference is a great way to spend some time in a huge group of like minded cheese nerds, one of the best parts is the access to information that is everywhere.  From tasting sessions to history lessons, the information is wildly dynamic and reaches a scope that everyone in the industry should find useful. It can be difficult because there are often concurrent sessions that you have to make the choice as to which one is more pertinent to your life/job/interest. I’m just going to talk about the ones I went to.

 

The Opening Session:

This is always a keynote speech during breakfast that kicks off the conference and sets the tone for the weekend. This year was no exception. Ari Weinzweig is widely known in the cheese world because he owns the empire that is Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, MI. This deli/cheese shop (now with a bakery, roastery, cheese making facility, catering, mail order, leadership training, etc. Basically, they do it all) is widely known to be one of the most unique stores in the country and a lot if it has to do with the fact that Ari is an innovative business man and does things a bit differently. Ari recently released his newest book called “The Power of Beliefs at Work” and it addresses how a positive belief system can change the atmosphere and end outcome in a place of business. Ari is a dynamic speaker and he is very keyed in to what people need in their businesses and in their lives. We had group exercises that we talked about what we believed or moreso, what we believed about ourselves and our businesses. It was an interesting exercise and one that I actually feel impacted me in a way I wasn’t expecting. We all have a set of beliefs based on things that have occurred in our lives and sometimes those beliefs need to be shaken up and looked at again to make sure they are best serving us. This is what a lot of this was talking about and I’m honestly pretty interested in reading the book to learn more.

“All of us are in the same gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” Oscar Wilde

Session 1: Better Butter

Tasting sessions are everywhere during the conference and I usually don’t partake in them because I don’t drink. There are many that are pairing sessions with local cheeses and beers/wines. They sell out quickly and often have a lengthy line for people trying to get in.I’m more than happy to leave a place in line for those that are more interested in these sorts of tastings. I will say though, the butter tasting was the first thing I signed up for.

The session was run by Bob Bradley, PhD, from the Center for Dairy Research and Elaine Khosrova, author of Butter: A Rich History, due for release in November. It was an interesting take on the different ways of making butter. Elaine shared with us her travels of butter making from around the world. Small batch, cultured butters being churned by hand and cultured naturally whereas Bob showed us how industrial butter is produced and what producers are looking to make on a large scale basis. Then, we tasted butter. It was a blind tasting so we didn’t know what we were sinking our teeth in to but the butters from the milk of sheep or goat were pretty obvious from the outset. It was immensely satisfying and even more so when I was able to pinpoint one of my favorite butters on the plate.

I actually scooped up the leftovers of my favorites in a cup because I couldn’t bear for them to be wasted. I was seen walking around the conference with a cup of butter and I’m not sorry.

Cheese 201:

Yes, even at nerdy cheese events we get even nerdier. Zoe Brickley works for the Cellars of Jasper Hill in Vermont, who are a major source of scientific information in the cheese world. They have a microbiologist on staff and are committed to researching every aspect of microbiology in dairy and in the cheese making process. So much of that information can go over most people’s heads, so this session was an addition to one she did last year where she broke down some of that scientific information in a way that was accessible to those of us that that are a bit more scientifically dense. This is not information that a customer would ever ask you about but the desire for more information is needed and desired by those of us in the industry. The Cellars are also on the front lines in any squabbles with the FDA because they have the science and ability to bring to light any unnecessary actions from the government agency. As nerdy cheese people, we want to know more also. It was a heady and intense session but thats why we were all there.

 

Improving Profits by Analyzing Data: Understanding All the Rules and When to Break Them:

Hosted by Hunter Fikes from DiBruno Bros in Philly, this session was all about how to maintain a cheese selection that appeals to consumers yet drives the passions of the mongers while still making a profit. It’s a finely tuned balancing act that all cheese buyers play because if given the choice, most would buy artisanally crafted and small batch cheeses but we all know that most consumers balk at the price tag. Finding that balance can be tricky because sometimes our perceptions of what is selling is much different then what the numbers tell us. Using the data at our disposal, and some carefully crafted tricks, can make it easier for retailers to curate their selection in a way that makes those three cross sections find the perfect balance. Though I knew a lot of this information and have been using the practice for years, it stood as a great reminder to the industry that though we need the passion and drive in our mongers, we also need to be making money and giving consumers what they want.

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General Session: FDA update

Lunch time saw a huge group of people in the room due to the fact that it was the annual update from the FDA. If you may not know, the cheese industry has taken some hits from the government agency and we, as an industry, are doing our best to work with them and help educate them to what we do. The artisanal cheese industry is still pretty new in the United States so the need to have this conversation is necessary. We all want the same thing, healthy and safe food for everyone. It can be frustrating when talking about microbes with a government agency because where we see flavor and biodiversity, they see sickness and danger.

The biggest take away from this was that the FDA is pausing testing of non-toxigenic e-coli in cheese, including raw milk cheese. This is huge because we’ve had issues getting imported cheese in the country (like Roquefort) due to this testing and some small companies have scrapped making their beloved seasonal cheese due to the possibility of the FDA coming in and deeming the product unsafe and destroying months worth of work. They determined that this testing did not prove that harmful e-coli would be present in testing the non-harmful strains. If you’d like to delve in to the specifics of the update, you can find them here. It was a quiet and somewhat tense lunch, though there were moments and outbursts of clapping and cheering, but the air afterwards felt light and wonderful. It is clear that all of our hard work in educating the FDA and the general public is working.

Creative Financing

This was a panel talk from some people on the front lines of making things happen and how they gained (or are gaining) the capitol to build the enterprises of their dreams. Oliver Dameron and Sarah Dvorak from Mission Cheese in SF, Seana Doughty from Bleating Heart Cheese in Tomales, CA, and Elias Cairo from Olympia Provisions in Portland, OR, sat down for a very frank discussion about how to raise money and continue to get money for growth in an industry that isn’t know for profitability. From crowd funding, to grants, and risky ventures in between, they really laid it on the line as to what you need to have to get the  capitol to create the businesses you see today. It’s not easy and most of the time you have to put everything and then some on the line to be able to get something off the ground. So many of us dream of starting something for ourselves but the realities of the situation can be very scary and overwhelming. It was an amazing conversation about the side of things that people don’t often think about.

All Cultures Great and Small

Tom Perry was the DZTA recipient last year and this year he presented his session after months of travel and research. DZTA is the Daphne Zepos Teaching Award and it is a grant that is given to people to learn and to educate others on the history, culture, and techniques in making, aging, or selling of cheese. Tom is the third recipient and his presentation was all about the cultures that cheese makers use to craft and flavor their cheese. Nearly all of these cultures come from abroad and he posed the question about how terroir (the taste of place) in the US is affected by using microbes created elsewhere and what it would look like to start creating our own microbes here. Studying abroad and seeing what they do poses so many questions for us here at home. How will we create a terroir based solely on microbes harvested from our own areas? Where/how do we even begin to do this? What would this look like and better yet, what would this TASTE like? Once again, another heady and nerdy subject, but one that I’m excited to see explored.

 

Closing Keynote with Sandor Katz:

This year we had the pleasure of bringing Sandor Katz to give our first ever closing keynote. Sandor is widely known in the food world due to his books and lectures about fermentation. He considers himself a Fermentation Revivalist. We’ve seen so much growth and popularity in the realm of fermentation in the last few years. Kim Chi, sauerkraut, kombucha, and the old classics, beer, wine, and cheese are more popular than ever before. Sandor has helped spurn this along with his book Wild Fermentation. I feel like Sandor was a great way to end everything. We talk a lot about cleanliness and sanitation throughout conference, which is extremely important, but it was nice to see such a focus on microbes and how they benefit and are instrumental to our industry. Learning how to harness those microbes and make them work for us is exciting, crazy, and wonderful. Sandor helped remind us of that.

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This is by no means an exhaustive list of the sessions that happen at this sort of conference. There were at least 3-4 concurrent sessions going the entire time. I also took Saturday morning off from conference so I could go and enjoy Des Moines farmer’s market, which was just as wonderful as everyone said it would be. I was a little bummed I was leaving the next day so I couldn’t stock up on lots of goodies.

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If you are at all interested in the full line up of sessions offered this last year, head over to the American Cheese Society website for all the info. They also offer webinars and updates around all things cheese.

Conference, to me, is the time where we all get to come together and share in this slice of thing that we love. It’s not a sales event, though sales meetings do happen. It’s more about camaraderie and education. I’m fortunate that I get to meet so many people and learn so much every year I’m a part of this world.

My focus on the ACS conference is far from over though. Next up: PARTY TIME. Cheese people know how and love to party. I also still need to talk about the Festival of Cheese! And the awards ceremony! And the DZTA run! So much happens in the course of a week!

ACS:PORK TOUR.

I’m not ashamed to admit that one of the reasons I was excited about the ACS conference being in Iowa was that I knew there was going to be a lot of pork. Pork is hands down my favorite meat and most of the pork being raised in the US (particularly the heritage breeds) is done in this area. When I saw the Pork Tour on the list of things to do, I had to sign up.

Wednesdays are often when people are still coming in but because it’s the day of the Certified Cheese Professional exam, there still tends to be quite a few people already in town. ACS has taken to doing regional tours that focus on particular culinary delights of the area. Of course, pork was going to be on the menu. We were promised a little farm time, a little factory time, and a little party time. It delivered on all accounts!

We started off at Crooked Gap Farms , a small family pig farm in Knoxville, IA. Ethan and Rebecca moved on to the farm in 2008 and worked tirelessly to build themselves from the ground up. Starting on 40 untouched acres, they built everything on the farm including their house. Having never farmed, there were plenty of difficulties but Ethan and Rebecca carried on and now, with their 5 children, they have a beautiful, and very active farm. Pigs, cattle, sheep, chickens, and even rabbits fill the grounds. Rebecca has quite a gorgeous garden also. This is the kind of place we all imagine when we buy food in the stores. A family farm producing the highest quality foods for their family and ours. Since it is a small farm they really only are able to provide food to certain places and one of those places is The Cheese Shop of Des Moines, which I will talk about later in this post. I honestly took so many pictures at the farm. It’s so much easier for you to see what they are doing versus me just talking about it.

Not gonna lie, it was a great way to start the day. Fresh air, lots of animals, and it was before the Iowa sun could really get to us. I grew up in town and had friends that lived on farms and I always loved visiting. I feel it’s harder for farm kids to get bored because there is just so much to do and all the land to run around on. Not to say that farm kids don’t get in to plenty of trouble, it’s just that priorities are different when you have to wake up with the sun to tend the animals. These kids were clearly very actively involved in everything they could be on the farm. The littlest one was much better at maneuvering through the unstable terrain than I though he just learned how to walk.

Next stop, La Quercia. I’ve been in the business of specialty foods long enough to have seen the rise of American made cured meat products. Finding these sorts of products used to be very difficult but now, in large part due to La Quercia’s success, there are many options for American made meat products. Often times, locally sourced and made to boot.

Kathy and Herb Eckhouse started La Quercia after living in Parma, Italy where they saw that attention to quality produced the most delicious foods. It’s a no brainer then that they would start a business in Iowa where pigs outnumber people by at least 7 times. They source locally and are advocates for sustainable farming practices. They’ve won numerous awards for their delicious products but also for being ambassadors of the land. They take great care of their employees by paying them well and giving great benefits. Getting to tour their facility was a highlight for me since I have always loved and sold their products. Their Speck is absolutely delicious though I don’t normally like smoked products. I love that they come up with products to use pieces that may not be sellable in normal avenues but are still good, quality meat. Take the N’duja for example, it’s comprised of the shaved pieces of the proscuitto and speck when getting the legs ready for consumer sale. They can be awkward pieces but they can be chopped up with some spices for another delicious option. Once again though, the pictures speak louder than words could possibly ever. Take a gander at some pork.

There are many rooms involved with curing proscuitto. Cold and windy, dry and warm, they all have their place in making sure the hams turn out perfectly. It’s pretty amazing the difference in smells from each room. There is a definite change from a fresh meat smell to a cured meat smell and it happens quicker than you would expect.

I love that Herb and Kathy have made the commitment to staying where the animals are raised to make great products right there. Not many would expect such a business in seemingly nowhere Iowa. It’s important for the community and it gives them stronger relationships with the farmers they source their products from.

Our final stop of the day was a block party at The Cheese Shop of Des Moines. Nestled in a tiny strip mall right off the freeway, you would never expect the culinary wonders coming out of that place. We started the block party with a tasting and education portion with my buddy Aimee from Red Table Meats and I was glad that everyone on the tour was getting a chance to try their great stuff.

I didn’t take any pictures of the block party but I did snap some pics of the Cheese shop. CJ has really created something special in Des Moines. His selection is impeccable and his mongers are truly top notch. They didn’t get to fully enjoy the conference but they were there volunteering as much as they could be and I did see some of them out at the parties when not working. When the American Cheese Society conference shows up in your town, you can bet the cheese shop is going to be packed to the gills nearly the entire time. They took it like champs and enjoyed the chance to bond with fellow cheese people. It seems like the rest of Des Moines knows what they have there because they were pretty busy when I showed up there before the mass of conference started. Here’s my snaps of the shop.

It was a long day but I enjoyed every second of the tour. It was such a pleasure to get a snapshot of the Des Moines food scene. Please, do yourselves a favor and visit these establishments if you find yourself in the Des Moines area.

ACS: Judging and Competition.

To me, judging is one of the hardest jobs of the American Cheese Society conference. It may not be as physically taxing as say, a cooler captain, but it can not be understated how difficult it can be on your brain and taste buds. There is a whole lot of cheese to get through and only two days to do it!

DSC_0180This is what the racks look like when they come out and the cooler captain is in charge of making sure that the racks are in order with the right cheeses and in the right category. Depending on the category, there can be 20 or more cheeses that need to be tasted for judging. There are often multiple pieces for each entry and only one piece needs to be tasted but it’s just easier to keep them all together because their life extends well beyond judging.

Judges are separated in to teams. One aesthetic and one technical. This is an important thing to note because both are looking for different things and if we had multiple teams of aesthetic judges there would very different outcomes than what we see today. Aesthetic judges tend to be cheesemongers, shop owners, or general cheese enthusiasts and the technical judges are those that are often dairy scientists, working at the center for Dairy Research, or a university with an active agriculture program. The judges go through trainings to calibrate their palates so everyone is on the same page but the amount of tasting fatigue experienced can be hard to remedy when tasting so many cheeses. It is also difficult recognizing some of your favorite cheeses come through and being perfectly honest and frank about their flavor profiles or inconsistencies in the batches they have selected for judging. One of the things that people don’t realize or know is that every cheese gets feedback. Positive and constructive criticism. Sometimes it can be difficult to say anything constructive because it can seem like the cheese is perfect (and there were even a few this year that took home a perfect score, which is unheard of) and sometimes it can be hard to say something positive because you’ve either exhausted your words for the day or the simple fact remains that in a numbers game like this, there are bound to be some real duds.

Just imagine, also, that you’ve already tasted through a bevy of cheese and then have to prepare your tastebuds for the ultimate tasting, the Best in Show category. The blue ribbons in each category are pulled to the side and set up for a round table tasting of epic proportions. This year we prepared 105 cheeses for Best in Show tasting. It’s an amazing ordeal and I always feel so proud to be able to be a part of this particular tasting.

From here, the results are tallied and sent off to the printer to prepare for the Friday night awards ceremony. The J&C committees jobs, including my time as a cooler captain, are done but the cheese is passed on to the next set of volunteers for the Festival of Cheese.

To see life from the other side of the curtain, check out my friend Gordon Edgar’s post on being a judge. There is some great info on how they can judge all those cheeses.

 

The next installment though, regional tours. I went on a PORK TOUR!

ACS: The Conference Begins! (For Some of us at Least)

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This is how every conference begins. A huge empty room that is soon to be filled to the brim with volunteers and cheese! The Judging and Competition committee shows up almost a week before the conference actually starts because the amount of work that needs to happen can be quite overwhelming. From receiving all 1843 cheeses, to reorganizing the cooler trucks for anonymous judging, there is a need for many volunteers to pull of the massive endeavor a conference like this involves.

This year we went to one day receiving to try to ease the amount of work that everyone has to do but it’s an intense and complicated procedure.

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All of these boxes need to be processed quickly and efficiently. The cheese needs to be checked for quality, and that was especially important this year since receiving was done on a day that reached almost 100 degrees. The boxes get unpacked, the cheese gets the once over for quality and then separated in to its anonymous category,  and then placed in the cooler trucks for the Cooler Captains to take inventory and to make sure all the cheese is accounted for. The Cooler Captains then rearrange and set up the racks for pulling for judging. It is important that the cheese gets pulled out in a timely manner so it is perfectly tempered when the judges sink their teeth in.

It’s not the most glamorous job, but the importance cannot be understated. The amount of work the cheesemakers put in to perfecting their cheese and selecting the batches they feel represent the flavors that best reflect their hard work need to taken care of with delicate care. Nothing can be lost or damaged.

This is literally the beginning of all the work that needs to happen throughout the week. Next up, Judging and Competition.