American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese

If you love cheese, add the American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese to your bucket list. Here’s a peek at the 2018 Pittsburgh edition, Forged in Cheese, plus some insights into what it takes to be a cheese judge (#goals). 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

2007 was a life-changing year for me, not because it was the year I graduated from college, but because it was the year I discovered a love of cheese. I spent my final semester in Aix-en-Provence, France, living with a stunning, Bohemian French woman. She asked me, in her beautifully accented English, “do you like goat cheese?” 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

I had no idea, but there was only one way to find out. The answer was an overwhelming yes, as was my answer to “do you like comté?” For every cheese related question, my answer became a resounding “YES!” When my editor at TABLE Magazine asked me if I wanted to attend the American Cheese Society’s Festival of Cheese, my answer was also a resounding, “YES!”  

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Prairie Farms Cheese Division (Iowa) Swiss Block in the American Made International Style Cheese Category

About the American Cheese Society (ie: How am I not a member already?)

The American Cheese Society was founded in 1983 by Dr. Frank Kosikowski of Cornell University as a national grassroots organization for cheese appreciation and for home and farm cheesemaking. The first annual meeting was held in the summer of 1983 at Cornell, with 150 attendees made up of small-scale and home cheesemakers, retailers, academics and cheese enthusiasts.  A slate of officers was elected and a Constitution and Bylaws were adopted at that first meeting, laying the foundation for future growth.

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Team Sartori: Sartori Montamoré Cheddar

The early years were marked by slow growth as the fledgling, all-volunteer organization coalesced through the dedicated efforts of a small circle of leaders from cheesemaking, academia and retail. The Competition began in 1985 at the Third Annual conference.  30 cheesemakers entered 89 cheeses in 7 categories.  A mini Festival of Cheese was also held that year.

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

From humble beginnings and guided by a vision that American cheese could mean more than sliced singles, and that a community of cheese could be created, hundreds of dedicated and passionate individuals have united to create a vibrant and flourishing Society poised to continue to push the limits in the next quarter century.

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
A whale of a cheese tale: Rupert Reserve from Consider Bardwell Farm; American Made International Style Cow’s milk cheese

Learning from a “Cheese Whiz”

For the Pittsburgh edition of the ACS’s Competition & Judging, “Forged in Cheese,” 259 companies entered 1,954 cheese varieties to be judged and evaluated. As a media guest, I had the opportunity to join David, a cofounder of Neal’s Yard Dairy, and Rich Rogers, the ACS Vice Chair, to learn more about the judging and evaluation process, and to appreciate just how much intention goes into making and eating cheese. 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

Technical Judging 

The judging process consists of various cheese categories, ie: Cheddars or Soft-Ripened Cheese, and an Aesthetic and Technical evaluation. Technical judges, usually from academic backgrounds (dairy sciences, chemistry, food sciences, etc), start with a score of 50 points and deduct points for flaws in the categories of Aroma, Flavor, Texture & Body, and Appearance/Rind Development. These are the men and women who throw out terms like “Brothy” or complain if the sweetness of the milk’s flavor isn’t present in the final product. They address mouthfeel and whether a cheddar leaves a powdery residue in your throat after eating it. 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Bleu Thunder from Loveras Market in the Blue Mold Cheeses Category

Aesthetic Judging

Aesthetic judges are often retailers and mongers. Their task is a more positive one- they start with at a minimum score and add points for the positive qualities of the cheese. It’s worth noting the Technical and Aesthetic Judges might review the same feature negatively and positively, respectively. It’s also worth noting, the Aesthetic Judges are often the marketers, retails and mongers, ie: the folks who will sell your cheese, so who are you going to listen to the most? The one buttering you up?

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

The core value of the judging process is to give the cheesemaker feedback to make the cheese the best it can be. The judges spend about seven minutes per cheese, which may seem like a long time until you realize the judges are expected to commit to a score, as well as write a helpful review of the cheese.  

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Flower Chevre from Sage Farm Goat Dairy in the “Flavored Cheese” category

“Norming”

Before the judging and evaluation portion of the American Cheese Society, the judges gather for “norming.” Although most of the judges are already familiar with their own biases, this process creates a baseline. All of the judges try the same cheese or product to determine if they have a bias toward bitterness or salt, for example, so they can keep this in mind when judging. 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

Pro Tip: Calibrating Your Sense of Smell

The first step in the judging process, for both the Technical and Aesthetic Judges, is to judge the aroma. Our instructor, David, taught us this trick when you need to “calibrate” your sense of smell: smell the crook of your elbow. He also suggested drinking carbonated/soda water during the judging process to help clear your mouth and throat of any residue. If the fat in a cheese is not at the right temperature, it can often linger in the mouth as well, so the carbonation helps to cleanse the palate. 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Coeur du Chevre, Organic Fresh Goat Cheese from Montchevre-Betin Inc, Wisconsin.

The Festival of Cheese: An Awe Inspiring Mountain of 1,900+ Artisan Cheeses

After all the judging, there is the eating! The Festival of Cheese is so expansive, I couldn’t even probably photograph it. Just imagine a convention center room filled with tables, each brimming with artistically presented cheeses, fruits, crackers and… random stuff like fruity pebbles?!

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

Pro Tips: Attacking the Festival of Cheese

  1. Hit the “Best of Show” award-winning cheeses first as they disappear quickly.
  2. Visit the farmstead cheeses second. These are cheeses made with milk from the farmer’s own herd or flock, made on site, ie: farm to table at its most complete. These cheeses highlight local terroir, and these varieties can be hard to source outside of the festival.
  3. Explore the “American Originals” category. These cheese are uniquely American in heritage and traditions.
  4. Find cheeses you love. It really does come down to your choices and preferences. Even the judges will tell you that. 
  5. Save the flavored cheeses for later in your sampling, as the flavors will affect your palate. 
  6. Save Smoked Cheeses for very last for the same reason as the flavored cheeses. 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

The Festival of Cheese “Best of Show” 

First Place:
Harbison
Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont, USA
Original Cheesemaker: Mateo Kehler
 
Second Place
Calderwood
Cellars at Jasper Hill, Vermont, USA
Original Cheesemaker: Mateo Kehler
 
Third Place
Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar
COWS CREAMERY, Prince Edward Island, Canada
Original Cheesemaker: COWS CREAMERY

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
The Best in Show cheese: Harbison from Jasper Hill Creamery

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
Judging sheets for the American Cheese Society Judging & Competition

Anytime you’re at Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center, you have to spend some time on the balconies and take in the view (and digest the cheese). 

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com
View from the Pittsburgh Convention Center, the host of the 2018 Festival of Cheese

Last Pro Tip: Eat Dinner

You’ll feel full from all the cheese, but the judges were adamant about this: eat dinner, albeit something light like a salad, and drink lots of water!

American Cheese Society's Festival of Cheese // www.WithTheGrains.com

Who’s ready to pour a glass of wine and make a giant cheeseboard now? (me, me, me!)

Cheers,

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