Turophile Heaven: The Festival of Cheese

by Walshe Birney


The American Cheese Society’s 2014 conference in Sacramento was a whirlwind of fantastic panels, networking events, and, for some of us, the CCP exam, a difficult test of all that we’ve learned throughout our years in the cheese business. On the second to last day, these experiences culminated in the Awards Ceremony, where the best American cheesemakers were honored for their outstanding products. As exciting and emotional as the Ceremony was, the real fun occurred on the last day of the conference, the Festival of Cheese. Here, every entry to the Awards Ceremony was available to taste, not just those that won a ribbon.

Stretching as far as the eye can see, the conference hall was filled with towers of Alpine-style cheeses, smorgasbords of oozy bloomy-rinds and mountains of meaty, pungent washed rinds. Entire rows devoted just to flavored cheeses, smoked cheeses, hispanic-style cheeses; the Festival was truly a turophile’s heaven. As a buyer at Murray’s, I am lucky to have the opportunity everyday to try all manner of tremendous cheese from across the globe, but it’s staggering just how many fantastic new and established American cheeses were present, especially when seeing them all in one place. There is no doubt that our domestic industry is robust and healthy, and leading the way globally in innovation and quality.


After being presented with a plate and wine glass (everything one needs for a successful cheese tasting), our first stop took us to the Alpine-style table to taste the winner for best-in-show, Spring Brook Farm’s Tarentaise Reserve. Modelled after the Alpine cheeses of eastern France, such as Abondance and Beaufort, Tarentaise has long been a staple on Murray’s counter, and the 2-year extra-aged version is a thing of beauty: a pronounced and lingering sweetness, an underlying current of roasted hazelnuts and brown butter, and satisfying crystallization. Truly a world-class cheese, on par with the best extra-aged Comtes and Gruyeres. Look for a special Tarentaise aged in our caves to hit our counters at the end of August, with a profile between the reserve and the original, exclusive to Murray’s.

After refilling our glasses with some terrific dry cider from Oregon’s Aengus Ciderworks, we visited our own Murray’s award winners, Hudson Flower (our collaboration with Old Chatham Sheepherding Company) and Torus (our collaboration with Vermont Creamery). These cheeses mark our first ribbons at the festival, taking second place in their respective categories. While we’ve long been known for our cave-aging, this marks the first time that affinage-specific collaborations have been honored at the festival. These partnerships with some of our favorite creameries have been very successful, and we can’t wait to roll out more Cavemaster Reserve cheeses soon. And hopefully we’ll have wins for Greensward, our collaboration with Jasper Hill, and Barden Blue, our collaboration with Consider Bardwell, next year!

With the multitude of choices on offer, at this point we started bouncing around from table to table, trying whatever caught our eyes. Some of the best cheese new to me were the amazingly nuanced washed rind goat cheeses from Briar Rose Creamery, and Bleating Heart’s stunningly sheepy tommes and blues. We also had a chance to nibble on goodies from some of my favorite charcuterie purveyors, Olympic Provisions and Fra’mani, whose cured meats provided perfect counterpoints to mountains of dairy products filling the conference hall.

As our stomachs grew full and the conference wound down, I began to reflect on all the amazing experiences our team had at the conference this year. We had our wills and knowledge tested in the CCP exam, learned a tremendous amount from the stellar panels, and had a lot of fun relaxing and hanging out with our colleagues from around the country, but what will stick with me the most is the incredible talent, passion and love that American cheesemakers and retailers have for these amazing products, and the change they are affecting across the American culinary landscape. The Festival of Cheese was the perfect encapsulation of this, and a fitting end to an unbelievably successful American Cheese Society conference. I can’t wait for next year’s in Rhode Island!




American Cheese Society 2011: My Voyage for Fromage

Aaron Foster works in the Buying Department at Murray’s Cheese and is always on the hunt for the next delicious experience to share with our customers. This year Aaron attended the American Cheese Society conference to learn about what it takes to make the nation’s best cheese, and to taste a few dozen himself.

As a first-time American Cheese Society Conference attendee, I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’ve worked in cheese for over 9 years, but somehow I’d never actually made it to the main event. The conference is a moving target, one year in Louisville, another in Chicago, the next in Seattle, and so on. Having resolved to finally attend, as a representative of Murray’s Cheese, I lucked out with this year’s destination: Montreal. Now, I hear you say… isn’t it called the American Cheese Society? Indeed, it is. This is the first year that the conference was held outside of the continental US. I’m guessing Canada gets a pass because of a parenthetical “north”, as in (North) American Cheese Society.

Harbison aging in the Cellars at Jasper Hill

In any case, I was excited to travel to Montreal to meet some of the great minds of our industry, and to introduce myself to the cheese luminaries whose books I read and whose names have been synonymous with American dairy since before I was born. I arrived in Montreal late in the evening on my birthday, August 3rd, and joined the crew from the Cellars at Jasper Hill for dinner. Part of what is so amazing about the conference is that it pools together cheesemakers, retailers, distributors and enthusiasts, to share their views and insights with one another. Dining with the cheesemakers from the Cellars, I was able to explain how their cheeses are received by actual people, customers who buy Bayley Hazen Blue or Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from our cheese counter. It’s almost silly to imagine, but cheesemakers rarely interact with the people who are eating their cheese most of the time. On the flip side, we as retailers and cheese consumers often don’t fully understand the challenges and work that happens at the farm.

The American Cheese Society conference is made up primarily of lectures, seminars and panel discussions which happen throughout the day. Some are very technical, geared towards cheesemaking minutiae. Others are historical or cultural, say – the history of monastic cheese in the US. And still others concern themselves with issues of regulation and safety. As a retailer and a diehard cheese-lover, I made sure to attend as many different seminars as possible.

I started with a lecture on starter cultures… the beneficial microorganisms added early in the cheesemaking process to help acidify the milk and develop flavor in the cheese. Suffice it to say the bulk of this talk was way over my head, but I took away two points – that cheesemaking is usually more science than art, and that even small variations or inconsistencies can make for wild variations in the end product. Cheesemakers need to keep extraordinarily detailed records of their process, and need to replicate that process to the T; a make at 92 degrees F might yield a cheese with perfect texture and depth of flavor, whereas a make at 88 F could result in a cheese that’s barely recognizable. I don’t envy cheesemakers – that’s a pretty narrow margin for error.

I attended another talk on food safety from farm to fork. From a food safety perspective, cheese is a relatively safe, although perishable, product. But from cow to cheese vat to aging room to distributor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer, a given piece of cheese passes through many hands. We all have a duty to take every precaution to ensure the safety and preserve the quality of the cheese.

My next seminar was a tasting workshop, on identifying flavor in cheese. It’s not as easy as you think! We practiced by tasting candy while holding our nose. What tasted only sour and sweet with our noses pinched was actually a very strong mint once we could smell again. This exercise was meant to demonstrate how much taste is actually a function of smell. We also smelled covered containers of six different scents, and had to guess what they were. I got three out of six (butter cookies, black pepper, onion powder), but missed a gimme like sauteed mushrooms. The point is that we unwittingly depend on visual cues to help categorize what we’re smelling and tasting, and to be more conscious of this when evaluating flavor in cheese.

Aaron Foster with Sister Noella, “The Cheese Nun”

But the best talk I attended was on the microbiology of cheese rinds, called Growing Mold Gracefully. Led by cheese rockstar Sister Noella Marcellino of Connecticut’s Abbey of Regina Laudis and Harvard microbiologist Rachel Dutton, the panel treated the diversity and complexity of micro-biomes in cheese rinds. The rind of a cheese is an exceedingly complex conglomeration on molds and bacteria that exist in a delicate and unique symbiosis. Every cheese in every batch is different; and while cultures may be added to guide rind development, Rachel and Sister Noella agree that the influence of indigenous microrganisms is far more important. Rachel is using state of the art gene sequencing techniques to develop a taxonomy of organisms found in cheese rinds. She has already discovered that cheese rinds exhibit some species that have also been found in Arctic sea ice, Norwegian fjords, and Etruscan tombs!

The conference ends, as always, with a tense announcement of the winners of the cheese contest, punctuated by the Best in Show award. This year, there were 1,676 entries across 99 different cheese categories. I certainly don’t envy the judges for their tasting duties… the judge who tasted the least amount of cheese still tasted nearly 100 varieties. This year, Rogue River Blue from Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon took Best in Show. A lovely leaf-wrapped, raw milk blue, this seasonal beaut of a cheese will be available from Murray’s in a few short weeks. And finally, comes the Festival of Cheese – the attendees’ opportunity to taste the myriad entries, and to get a true lay of the land for the American cheese industry. I probably made it through 50 different cheeses before giving up… perhaps I’m not quite fit to be a judge yet.

All in all, the American Cheese Society conference was a fascinating and rewarding experience, enormously valuable to cheese professionals and enthusiasts alike. I won’t miss another one any time soon.



ACS 2010: Celebrating America’s Cheese

Photo Credit: Vermont Butter & Cheese CreameryPhoto Credit: Vermont Butter & Cheese

Michael Anderson


Many of you out there may have been gearing up for the Emmy awards this past weekend.  The red carpet, the glamour, the production numbers – sure, it’s flashy enough.  Around these parts, though, there was considerably more anticipation for a slightly more workaday awards ceremony: the 2010 American Cheese Society Conference & Competition.  Held this year in Seattle, Washington, this annual event is an unparalleled opportunity for cheese professionals (and more than a few enthusiastic amateurs) to congregate, celebrate, and consume all things cheese.  It lasts five days, and nearly every moment is stuffed with cheesy goodness.

A number of seminars and panels are available for attendees each year, and the most difficult part of going to the conference is probably selecting from all of the fantastic & fascinating choices in each time slot.  The list of panelists is full of names familiar to the cheese enthusiast – industry giants like Mateo Kehler (Cellars at Jasper Hill), Mary Keehn (Cypress Grove Chèvre), & Steve Jenkins (author, Cheese Primer); European liaisons such as Hervé Mons, Roland Barthélémy, & Raef Hodgson; and a host of others: cheesemakers, retailers, scientists, authors, even an entire panel devoted to artisan cured meats.  Endlessly fascinating, continually stimulating, and very nearly overwhelming.

Behind closed doors, however, is where the real monumental task is taking place: the tasting & judging.  This year, the judges had to contend with a record-setting number of entries: over 1,400 different cheeses were sent by their makers to be critiqued, and hopefully to be recognized as among the best.  From all over the United States (as well as a few Canadian and Mexican entries) cheeses in this competition run the gamut.  Sorted by style for the judging and awards, there are entrants from producers of every size in every conceivable style: classics like Cheddar, Gouda & Brie; American Originals like Brick, Dry Jack, & Liederkranz; as well as butters, yogurts, chèvres, and every other cheese style under the sun.

At the end of the day, though, there has to be a winner. The top three spots are chosen by the judges from the blue ribbon winners in each individual category.  This year, we were thrilled to see three world-class American cheesemakers (and good friends of ours) ascend to the stage to collect their accolades.  Jeremy Stephenson of Spring Brook Farm collected 2nd Runner-Up honors for his Tarentaise, a superlative alpine-style 100% Jersey cow’s milk cheese from a farm & education center in Reading, VT.  Fellow Vermonters Allison Hooper & Adeline Druart earned 1st Runner-Up for their Bonne Bouche, from the pioneering Vermont Butter & Cheese Creamery.  And the climax of the entire weekend – the coveted Best in Show ribbon – went to Wisconsin original Pleasant Ridge Reserve, from Uplands Cheese Company.  This is actually the third time this incredible cheese has won this award; no other cheese has won more than once.  It was a nearly poetic moment, as cheesemaker Mike Gingrich and his wife Carol are about to enter semi-retirement, passing the torch to heir apparent (and cheesemaker since 2007) Andy Hatch.  It’s downright heartwarming to see Pleasant Ridge (a cheese a lot of us would consider a national treasure) in such good hands for the next generation.

We’ve got the top three winners in the store, as well as a slew of other fantastic cheeses that were recognized in their individual categories.  We’ll taste my own personal favorites of these in a class I’m leading on September 14th, as well as a very special treat: Andy has sent us a couple of wheels of his blue-ribbon batch of extra-aged Pleasant Ridge, a batch that he’s been guiding to perfection for over a year.  Believe it or not, it’s in very high demand after taking home the gold, so get it while you can.  And look forward to next year’s winning cheeses – they might be in a cheese case near you right now.