Madison, WI, seems like the natural place to hold the American Cheese Society Annual Conference and Competition, but it had been 15 years since the nation’s top cheesemakers, mongers, and enthusiasts gathered in America’s Dairyland for the group’s signature event. That all changed this past weekend when more than 900 attendees descended upon the Monona Terrace for four days of talking about cheese, judging cheese, and — oh yeah — eating cheese.
With topics ranging from “From Friendraising to Fundraising: Leveraging Social Media to Turn Customers into Investors” to “Oh Sweet Cheeses! Chocolate & Cheese,” educational sessions covered the pressing issues facing the American cheese industry and inspired the cheese elite with new ideas to advance their businesses. But the highlights of the conference were the awards ceremony Friday and the next day’s Festival of Cheese, during which conference participants and guests could sample most of the 1,794 cheeses and dairy products submitted for judging.
Though this year’s Best in Show prize was awarded to a cheese from Vermont — the washed-rind, bark-wrapped Winninmere from the Cellars at Jasper Hill — Minnesota and Wisconsin cheeses had a fine showing. Keith Adams from Mankato’s Alemar Cheese won a third-place ribbon for his Fromage Blanc, as did Shepherd’s Way Farms’ Jodi Ohlsen Read and Steven Read in Nerstand for their Big Woods Blue (pictured right), and the Caves of Faribault’s Jeff Jirik for his Amablu St. Pete’s Select.
For the first time, two cheeses from a single cheesemaker tied for third place in the overall competition: Big Sky Grana and Bandaged Cheddar (pictured at top) from Bleu Mont Dairy in Blue Mounds, WI. Bleu Mont cheesemaker Willi Lehner (pictured left) also won a first-place ribbon for his Alpine Renegade and third place for his Reserve Bandaged Cheddar in their respective categories. A Dane County Farmers Market regular, Lehner was back at the market the day after his win, selling out of his award-winning cheeses and leaving latecomers with just samples to savor (below). Uplands Cheese Company’s Andy Hatch, who won Best in Show in 2010 for the Alpine-style Pleasant Ridge Reserve, took home a third-place prize for the same cheese this year.
Wisconsin cheeses blew away the competition, with 90 awards staying in the state (excluding Best of Show). Of those 90, 13 went to Carr Valley Cheese Company alone — and two were awarded to Kraft. California was a very distant second with its 35 awards, followed by Vermont with 27. The complete list of winners is available on the American Cheese Society’s website.
Before the conference ended, talk already turned to the 2014 event, scheduled for July 29-August 1 in Sacramento. Let’s see how happy those California cows will be when the best of the Midwest invades their turf next summer.