Written onSeptember 01 , 2007
In 1882, Emil Frey, a Swiss immigrant working at a deli-owner’s cheese factory in Monroe, N.Y., supplied his boss’s deli with a spreadable cheese called Bismarck schlossekase. Inspired by this cheese, Frey went on to create a bewitching cultural and food revolution with a processed cheese that would be called Velveeta. Along with Cheez Whiz, Philadelphia Cream Cheese and La Vache Qui Rit, Velveeta and its industrial counterparts have obscured the legacy of thousands of years of traditional cheesemaking. They have unknowingly created difficulties for producers of farmstead, small-batch, hand-made cheese, otherwise known as “artisanal cheese.” (“Artisanal” simply refers to something hand-made in small batches with traditional techniques.)
But times and tastes are changing, and proof that interest in artisinal cheese is growing came in August at the American Cheese Society (ACS) Conference in Burlington. The ACS held its 24th annual meeting and cheese competition at the Shelburne Farms Breeding Barn from August 1– 5. This gathering of 200 cheese companies from 30 states and Canada is the food equivalent of haute couture shows in Paris and Milan. Twenty-eight Vermont cheesemakers participated in the ACS competition this year, and 18 of them won prizes. Even though cheese from other states took most of the top awards, artisinal cheese is certainly vibrant in Vermont, with the state’s cheeses generating $700 million in yearly sales and the state being home to the highest number of cheesemakers per capita of any state.
Nearly twenty-five years ago, thanks largely to Allison Hooper of the Vermont Butter and Cheese Company, the ACS began organizing a small, yearly networking meeting to give small-batch cheesemakers the opportunity to think outside the Velveeta box together. This year, however, I witnessed a bigger-than-ever marketing convention atmosphere that stretched the limits of the usual down-home cheese salon. Unprecedented crowds and sharp media attention signaled the beginning of a new era. But what kind of era have we entered?
Dynamic cheesemakers love the chance to meet other cheesemakers, find out what’s going on in other places, and catch up on the latest rennet stories. But players in the cheese marketplace are now feeling corporate fingers reach for them (as we all are). According to Elizabeth MacAlister of Cato Corner Farm in Colchester, Connecticut, the ACS event is yet another confirmation that the cheese world has truly become big business and is a bit closer to embracing corporate culture. MacAlister, whose own prize-winning cheeses have received national acclaim, enjoyed the energy of the event, but given that over 1,200 cheeses were represented at the recent competition, she found the tasting and the crowds to be formidable.
Allison Hooper attributed the huge growth of the ACS annual conference to an increase in the number of U.S. cheesemakers and the fact that Vermont is now a brand – hence the high turnout for the Burlington conference. She also noted that more press packets were sent out this year than ever, which resulted in thick media coverage, and that cheese bloggers are playing an ever-more influential role. (Vermont Butter & Cheese Company plans to start up its own blog this fall.) In addition, it should be noted that actual cheesemakers only account for one-third of the ACS membership. Hooper referred to the growing number of cheese retailers, cheese educators, and foodies as a “new layer of membership” in the ACS. This year, Wegman’s supermarket chain and Whole Foods Market sent more of its staff than previously. The conference provided them the opportunity to taste and scout cheeses representative of the American market.
So cheese is truly big business now. In terms of sustainability, the challenge is to keep strong local economic roots, soften carbon footprints in the transport of cheese, and nurture warm, personal relations. Regarding the jazzed up scene at Shelburne, ACS board member Laura Werlin used the metaphor of an organization accelerating from zero to 60. “I look around and I don’t know anybody,” she told me.“ I used to know everyone.” ACS board member Carole Palmer said that state and regional cheese guilds could someday strengthen their role in organizing regional meetings and competitions.
All competitions require judges, and this year David Grotenstein of Brooklyn’s Union Market chaired the ACS judging and competition committee. He noted a 27% increase in the number of cheeses seeking a prize compared with last year. The “largest cheese competition in American history,” as Grotenstein calls it, is a fierce effort with 90 categories. But finding qualified palates is a concern for ACS organizers, given that ACS rules prevent cheesemakers from working as judges. Despite the growing number of cheeses, it’s a challenge to find enough people in the U.S. who can recognize a good cheese. This is another problem that leaders in the cheese industry need to solve. Already, the ACS Cheese Education and Certification Committee is developing a professional cheese certification course that would develop a cadre of experts akin to master sommeliers in the wine field.
This year the ACS’s “Best of Show,” which got a perfect score of 100, was a pasteurized aged Raclette from Michigan. The fact that it was pasteurized points to an interesting fact: the ACS competition includes a surprising number of processed and flavored cheeses. John Eggena, international marketing director of Québec’s Fromagerie Tournevent, suggests scrapping the flavored cheeses. I agree. But what would poor Emil Frey say?
So now, if you’re hungry for some local raw milk cheese, you should know about some of Vermont’s ACS prize winners: Vermont Shepherd in Putney won first place in the farmstead cheese category (farmstead cheese is made with milk that’s produced at the same farm where the cheese is made); Woodcock Farm in Weston snagged second place in the “open sheep’s milk and feta categories;” Shelburne Farms got a first place for its smoked farmhouse cheddar; Grafton Village Cheese got third place for its smoked cheddar; Twig Farm got a third place prize in the farmstead goat column; and Vermont Butter and Cheese Company received a first prize in the goat crotin area. Go to cheesesociety.org for a full list of Vermont winners.