A few weeks ago I attended the annual American Cheese Society Conference and Judging in Pittsburgh. As usual, it was a cheese-lover’s dream come true: there were over 2,000 entries in the competition, all of which were available to taste. As a result, I probably sampled my weight in cheese.
This year, all hats are off to the cheesemakers of The Cellars at Jasper Hill, who won Best of Show for their Harbison, a bloomy-rind cheese wrapped in spruce bark, and second place for their Alpine-style raw-milk Calderwood. Winning Best of Show is an incredible accomplishment, but to claim the top two spots is unprecedented in the history of the Conference. In addition to sampling these two winning cheeses, I was fortunate to taste the third-place cheese: Avonlea Clothbound Cheddar from the Canadian producer Cows Creamery. It was spectacular.
The competition included cheeses from five different countries and every state. As one might expect, Wisconsin, Vermont and California took home the most ribbons, but there were 154 different cheese companies that won awards. That’s a lot of dedicated people making great cheese.
One of the best parts of coming to the Conference is catching up with cheesemakers I don’t get to see often. I spent time with cheese icon Judy Schad of Capriole Goat Cheese, whose creations I’ve loved for decades. Her Wabash Cannonball is a favorite of my friend Rowan, who claims he can eat a whole 3-ounce sphere by himself in one sitting. I also had the opportunity to chat with the ever-charming Suzanne Wolcott, a Chicago-based beer and cheese expert and member of the inaugural class of ACS Certified Cheese Professionals™. Not only did we think up some exceptional cheese and beer pairings, but we had a long talk on lake boats, of which she has two. As a New Yorker, yes, I’m jealous.
Of all the innovative cheese varieties I tried, two were absolute standouts. I fell in love with Poco Blanca and Poco Rojo, two new Portuguese-style, thistle-renetted sheep’s milk forms crafted by Lark’s Meadow Farms in Rexburg, Idaho. Both are soft and lush, as well as the perfect small-format size to share with a friend. The other notable offering was an as-yet-unnamed sheep’s milk cheese which is blended with wild ramps and made in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee by Blackberry Farm. I have a weakness for ramps, and the creamy cheese/ramp pairing was inspired, resulting in an intensely herbal aroma with a slight hint of animal. Both of these dairies’ news creations may not be readily available yet, but look for them in your local cheese shop in the coming months.
Next year the ACS Judging and Competition will be held in Richmond, Virginia, so if you love cheese as much as I do, be sure to find your way there.